Claire’s Handmade keeps on growing.
The business, based at Fletchertown near Wigton, employs six people – more in the busy summer months – and has annual sales totalling £400,000.
Its chutneys, pickles and preserves have won a string of ‘Great Taste Awards’, the accolade ‘Best Overall Preserve in the North West’ and a ‘Lake District Life Food Heroes Award’.
That’s quite an achievement for a venture that began in Claire Kent’s kitchen in Mealsgate in 2003.
She said: “The first product was plum chutney, made from my grandmother’s recipe in my mother’s treasured Aga jam pan on our Rayburn. We sold our products at agricultural shows and farmers’ markets and people loved them.”
Claire and her husband Michael had a background in catering. Michael is a chef by trade and his parents ran a hotel where Claire worked as a teenager.
The couple cut their teeth in business at the New Inn at Blencogo, near Wigton, then took on a hotel at Polperro in Cornwall.
The birth of their two children prompted a lifestyle change.
Claire said: “The hotel was too much with a young family so we decided to sell and move back to Cumbria.
“When we had the pub and the hotel I always made our own preserves and chutneys to serve with the meals.
“We thought that was something we could turn into a business I could do from home. That’s how Claire’s Handmade started.
“Selling at farmers’ markets were ideal in the early days because customers paid there and then. There were no cash-flow issues.
“We started picking up retail outlets as we went along.”
After two years the business outgrew her kitchen and took a unit in Wigton, and then outgrew that and moved to its present site in Fletchertown.
One of Claire’s strengths is that she understands branding and the unique appeal of a distinctive, wholesome, natural product in a market dominated by mass-produced alternatives.
She said: “We use local ingredients where we can – it isn’t always possible – but we always buy the best we can and we don’t use artificial ingredients.
“We sell all over the country and a little abroad too. We were approached by a company in Italy and sell through them.
“About half our business is retail the other half is catering tubs for hotels and guest houses who we deal with through Pioneer in Carlisle.”
Retail outlets are mainly independent delicatessens and garden centres.
Claire’s Handmade does supply Booths but has made a conscious decision to avoid larger supermarkets.
She said: “It would upset all our independent retail customers if we supplied the likes of Tesco and there’s a danger that, if you land a big contract from a supermarket, you become reliant on it.
“We’d rather have our eggs in lots of different baskets.”
Claire has made full use of the services provided by Cumbria Chamber of Commerce and its business support arm, Cumbria Business Growth Hub.
She and her staff have attended courses on food safety, WordPress, social media for business, writing website content and Google AdWords.
And it was the Growth Hub she turned to when Claire’s Handmade needed to upgrade its website.
She said: “The website was aimed at retail customers but we wanted to have an area where wholesale customers can place their orders and see wholesale prices when they log on.”
The business has secured a £1,020 grant towards the £2,550 cost of the website upgrade through the Growth Hub’s Subsidy Scheme.
This enables ERDF-eligible businesses – that are looking to grow and create jobs – to access a 40% contribution, up to a maximum of £2,000, to buy-in consultancy to support their plans.
It requires businesses to go through a tendering process to evaluate at least three potential bids.
Claire found it useful to talk to three different website developers before opting for Colourmedia at Dalston, near Carlisle.
She said: “We felt more comfortable with Colourmedia and we were impressed with what they’d done for other food businesses such as Traybakes and Country Puddings. So far, so good – they have been very helpful.”
She is also full of praise for her Growth Hub adviser, Glyn Griffiths. “He went through everything and explained the grant application process,” she added.
A wide range of consultancy services are covered by the Subsidy Scheme.
For example, it can help businesses looking to buy-in advice on accountancy and finance, social media consultancy, legal advice and public relations – and that isn’t an exhaustive list.
Growth Hub advisers help businesses put together a brief to select and manage the best consultant for the task.
A separate Subsidy Scheme applies for business start-ups, offering grants covering 40% of consultancy fees up to a maximum of £1,000.
For more information on the Subsidy Scheme, click here.
The Subsidy Scheme is receiving up to £2,528,767 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Department for Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information click here.