Ben McKechnie reveals how Epicurium has grown by going against the grain
When you think of where hipster brands like Soda Folk, Propercorn and Hippeas might be found, an industrial estate in Consett, a 20-minute drive from Durham, might not be the first place that springs to mind.
Epicurium is a relatively new healthier snacks and drinks wholesaler. It’s roots begin 10 years ago, when Ben McKechnie, managing director, was working as a freelance account manager for ready meal brand Look What We Found. He agreed to take over its website with a small team on a licence agreement, as well as the £30,000-a-year wholesale side of the business.
How the business developed
By making small tweaks, attending shows and offering tastings, the group was able to turn the website into a £130,000 business within the first year, receiving 50 orders a day. Eventually a controlling stake of Look What We Found’s parent company was bought by an investor and the website changed hands again, leaving more time for McKechnie’s team to grow the wholesale business, now trading under the name Epicurium, and add new lines.
Two years ago the business came to a crossroads. “We took a bit of leap of faith moving into this unit,” says McKechnie. “The previous one was a fifth of the size. We then found we had a massive rates bill to pay, a massive warehouse, which was half empty, and so we thought: ‘we better add some more products’.”
“I’m not interested in Coca-Cola and Walkers Crisps. There are plenty of people doing those and I don’t want to compete with the big boys. But similarly, they’re often more reluctant to take on these niche brands.”
The products they introduced were a range of ambient snacks and drinks. Not luxury farm shop and deli products, but interesting, niche products that could work in mainstream convenience retail.
Epicurium’s strong range
Epicurium carefully selects its range based on the strength of the brand and the calibre of the entrepreneurs behind them. “We don’t do ‘me too’ brands, we want category innovators. Generally the types of entrepreneurs behind these brands will be back very quickly with something else if the original idea doesn’t work,” McKechnie says.
The strength of Epicurium’s range and its growing reputation as a go-to for healthier snacks has won it more than 1,500 customers, including big names like Dobbies Foodhalls, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. “There are several places where we are given a set amount of shelf space and they ask us to recommend products and that works very well. We’ve got a very good eye for which products do well in different stores and I don’t want to lose that,” he says. The company has also seen a huge growth in the number of foodservice customers and offices it supplies.
By stocking fashionable brands, the company is well-placed to take advantage of important trends affecting the market: “Protein food is incredible at the moment,” McKechnie says. “Bounce is a good brand. But there’s a big switch towards healthier snacking in general. People are working harder and not eating at traditional times, so they’re snacking more.”
For McKechnie, transparency is far more important than health alone: “We have many products that are full fat but that’s because they’ve got raw cane sugar, honey, good ingredients,” he explains. “We don’t want products where you don’t know what the ingredients are.”
The value of social media
The names that Epicurium takes on tend to have one other major thing in common – they are very active on social media. “It’s one of our key drivers to work with suppliers. They tend to have great initiatives and images so if we work with them that makes our social media more interesting too,” he says.
In particular, Twitter is a valuable way that Epicurium connects its suppliers to its customers. “I don’t think there’s any secret to doing social media well, just make people aware of what’s going on,” McKechnie says.
Customers can order from Epicurium in any way that matches their lifestyle. Telephone is still the most popular, but orders come in from the website, email and even Twitter itself. “If we’ve got a customer’s account set up then all they have to do is send us a message saying what they need,” McKechnie says.
Working closely with smaller suppliers means that Epicurium can move quickly and in a focused way. “We do a lot of email marketing and suppliers are keen to have banners on the website. The brands will offer good promotions because they want to build their presence but the key advantage is being able to offer something different.”
The team is then able to send out products to retailers across the country, despite not owning a single van. “We found that by having a good relationship with a decent courier, our distribution margin remains stable. It also means the capital and the wages tied up in delivery is saved,” McKechnie explains. This means more money in-hand that Epicurium can invest to ensure that the 50% growth it has enjoyed for the past two years continues. There is no minimum order for Epicurium’s customers, but for free delivery, it costs £80.
For now, Epicurium’s plan is to continue marketing and building the brand and making its customers believe in the products it offers. “We fit in well with the likes of the bigger wholesalers because they don’t want things that aren’t going to sell loads every year, but to us these are great little brands. Good retailers understand their customers and they understand these products have potential.”