It may be surprising to discover that the real success story of UK manufacturing is food and drink.
Predicted to grow at three or four per cent annually, there are some 6,360 food and drink producers contributing to turnover of around £100bn, according to a London Stock Exchange Group report of 2016.
Much of the growth in the food and drink industry is taking place among smaller, specialist businesses and in artisan foods. It is into this booming sector that Heartier (recently re-branded – it was formerly Market Porter) has carved a niche. Pitching itself as a purveyor of “proper, tasty, local produce”, it connects small-scale food producers directly with consumers via its proprietary platform.
It is unique in offering local produce on a national scale – effectively like an online mega-market. Having begun in 2014 with ‘Meat Porter’, it now offers charcuterie, high-end chocolate, meat, and cheese from selected suppliers.
Founded by a couple of self-confessed foodies and university buddies, Stefan Porter (now CEO) and Nicholas Ford (CFO), Heartier’s proprietary algorithm matches customers with the most local supplier, while also managing availability, capacity and cost price. “We looked at models as varied as Deliveroo and Airbnb for inspiration,” says Porter, a former head buyer for Lidl supermarkets.
“We’re working with second or third-generation butchers and farmers who want to reach a broader consumer base,” says Ford. “They might not want to incur the cost of going online, which can be complicated. So we organise the logistics, and allow them to focus on the bit they love – food.”
Customers, perhaps jaded by supermarket stories of mislabelled meat or fake farms, get a direct line to a range of local suppliers – an approach hat has gained Heartier a 92 per cent Feefo customer satisfaction rating.
“The trust element is our USP,” says Porter. “I don’t believe supermarkets would do what we’re doing. We’re cutting out the middle-man. We’re offering domestic produce that is ever-changing and based on small suppliers. Supermarkets wouldn’t take this multiple-producer, fragmented approach. And the farms they are dealing with are often more like large manufacturers.”
Heartier also has the advantage of being the first of its kind nationwide: competitors exist, but they tend to be London-centric and costly to run, whereas Heartier’s technology allows it to scale up while keeping costs low. “Supermarkets might potentially be competitors for customers,” says Porter, “But because we cut the supply-chain fat, prices are comparable to [Sainsbury’s] Taste the Difference range or Waitrose, but no more expensive.” In that, Heartier is “determinedly mass market”, the co-founders add.
“We want to bring on more suppliers as we scale up, while keeping our reputation as trusted suppliers of independent, local produce. I believe we’re doing something completely game-changing in food marketing,” says Porter.
The founders have also stocked the board with advisers and directors with the strategic clout the business will need as it expands: Joanne Gunn of Majestic Warehouse, Stephen Evans of Tonkotsu and Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and lead investor/angel Robert Durkin.
Board composition has been a chief consideration for the founders. “We’ve been careful to pick shareholders with complementary skills, even if they aren’t on board. We’ve even turned down investment companies because we don’t want to give away board seats, says Ford.”
Finding the right fit has also been the priority as the business builds its team: “Our aim is to scale up but we want our values to stay the same,” says Ford, “It’s about finding the right fit. In a growing business, no-one can hide or get carried along. You need to have a shared passion and a sense of urgency. You get a sense of that from people early on.”
Sector experience is less important than attitude, he adds – in fact, specialists can be a hindrance in a start-up. “We all wear many hats. The main test is how comfortable you are doing something that is not strictly in your job description.”