Will Chase: Crisps and vodka: the proof is in the potato

Using the spuds he likes, Will Chase is trying to find another upmarket niche to build on the success of Tyrrells, as he explains to Lauren Mills
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The Independent Online

Will Chase loves potatoes, cows and vodka. The farmer behind Tyrrells gourmet crisps starts each day "talking to my cows". He is about to make his first batch of premium potato vodka, made from spuds grown on the farm that are too small to turn into crisps. "Vodka is my favourite tipple. I have bought boxes and boxes of it from around the world," he says. Though not purely for his own pleasure, he promises – more to test which tastes best as Tyrrells moves from snacks to the hard stuff.

Chase is everything you'd expect a farmer to be: ruddy faced, broad Herefordshire accent; drives a Land Rover during the week and a tractor at the weekend. And, like many UK farmers, he has a love-hate relationship with Tesco. He had a David-and-Goliath style skirmish with the supermarket in 2006 when he complained it was stocking his branded snack at a discount, without permission.

"I have nothing against Tesco because if we did not have bar-coded food, there'd be a lot of hungry people in this country. But I was a bit miffed when they sourced Tyrrells on the grey market and wanted to drop the price."

Amazingly, Tesco eventually agreed to back down and stopped selling the range.

Chase is proud of his heritage. He borrowed £200,000 in 1984 to buy his father's farm, which remains the centre of his crisp-making operation. "I grew up on a farm and I always wanted to be a farmer," he says. "It is one of those lifestyle things."

But as potato farmer turned entrepreneur turned paper-multi-millionaire, it is clear his lifestyle is very different to that of most of his peers.

Tyrrells is set to sell £15m worth of crisps this year – five times the amount he has made from farming in a good year – and Chase is already enjoying the trappings of success. He dresses in designer clothes – blue Armani jeans and matching Gant sweater – and he has an apartment in Chelsea. "I like to go to London but two days is enough for me. I would rather be around here – it's a countryside thing."

At first he seems the most unlikely of entrepreneurs. He is easily distracted, often fails to finish a sentence and is prone to fidgeting. Yet he is as canny as it comes, and he'll need to be to protect his premium-price products. To succeed in a world ruled by cut-price stores and consumers who want their food as cheap as possible will never be easy – especially given the repeated refusal of the competition authorities to rein in the power of Britain's big supermarkets.

"It's a joke," he rages. "The Competition Commission is paid for by the Government and the Government has to have cheap food because it's one thing that controls inflation."

In spite of this, though, Chase is certain that food prices are set to rise. "We are going to see some horrendously tough times in the industry because the price of all food commodities has shot up."

He believes mass-market suppliers will have to slash margins even further to keep sales. But he calculates that producers of premium brands will be able to get away with less onerous cuts.

So it is not surprising that Chase is constantly looking for new ways to extend the Tyrrells brand. Hence the vodka.

He is using a £5m interest-free loan he won from Bank of Scotland, after being crowned a regional winner in its Corporate Entrepreneur Challenge last November, to build a distillery at Rosemaund Farm, deep in the Herefordshire countryside. The vodka will be made in a copper still, using traditional artisan methods combined with the latest technology. Chase reckons he will be able to produce 3,500 bottles a week retailing for £31 each – in line with luxury labels such as Belvedere of Poland.

This seems a high price to pay for an as-yet unknown brand. But Chase is convinced that his vodka, made from traditional potato varieties such as St Claires, Golden Wonder and Rosettas, will taste at least as good as the best on the market.

"Making potato vodka is a very laborious process but it tastes of mashed potatoes rather than nail-varnish remover and it's really thick – like a liqueur"

Tyrrells vodka will be available in your local deli or gastro pub from April. Chase hopes his big-name customers, which include Waitrose, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, will also agree to stock it.

But not Tesco, though Chase admits that one day, when his potato-chip operation is big enough to go mass-market, he would like to do business with the grocer. "Tesco created Tyrrells in the first place," he explains. "If it was not for them, I would not have had the money or ingenuity to keep my farm alive."

This is because the supermarket group helped Chase get back on his feet after his first farming business went bankrupt in 1992.

"I started again in 1993. Tesco was looking for pretty potatoes, but this side of the country it was all farmers in smocks, with Hereford cattle or hops. We knew we could grow potatoes and we did – they had beautiful white skins and Tesco was prepared to pay high prices. We built up a great business on the back of this."

But it didn't last. Neighbouring farmers soon caught on and, as competition intensified, so local potato prices plunged. By 2002, Chase knew he had to find a new way to make money.

His eureka moment came when a manufacturer of chips rejected a batch of his potatoes because they were frying too dark. So Chase sent them to a maker of upmarket crisps and it was then he found a market for potatoes that were a bit dark and knobbly. But he was unimpressed with the end product and convinced he could do better.

So, with the help of an £800,000 bank loan, he launched Tyrrells hand-fried chips.

In the early days, he was in charge of everything from growing the potatoes to designing the packaging. But gradually he has been relaxing his grip. He hired a managing director, Les Sayers, last summer and he is even considering selling part of his 100 per cent holding.

"As Tyrrells grows, so I can enjoy life. My ultimate is to get the management more involved and maybe get some venture capitalists in to help grow the business," he says, adding that he may be prepared to sell as much as 70 per cent.

"I would like to be more of a serial entrepreneur," he adds. "I would love the challenge of seeing if I could do it again." He is already mulling new ideas.

"Nobody is making cosmetics out of potatoes at the moment. And I would like to do a really smart boutique-style hotel, a bit like Hotel du Vin. As long as we can hold on to our brand values..." In customary style, he never quite finishes the sentence.

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