Preserving the humble British apple: breathing life back into a dying industry

From farmers'
markets to the shelves of the UK's largest supermarkets: how one female
entrepreneur's business idea helped reinvigorate the ailing British apple
industry

“When people want to set up a business they look at which industries are thriving and where trends are going,” says, Michelle ‘Clippy’ Mckenna. “I was the exact opposite, I wanted to breathe life into a dying industry.”

It was this idea, and her aim to promote the humble British apple, which led Clippy - a nickname resulting from her love of hairclips - to launch Clippy’s Apples, a jam and preserves company, from the kitchen of her Sale home four years ago.

The 38-year-old became aware about the declining state of the British apple industry, while researching a PhD proposal on food networks and sustainability.

“Around two thirds of our orchards had disappeared which hugely alarmed me. I’d spent my childhood picking apples and making jam with my mother and was dismayed my daughter might not be able to do the same,” she says.

UK supermarkets are stocked of apple varieties such as Pink Lady and Golden Delicious, she explains, often at the expense of the Braeburn, Cox, Bramley or any of the other 2,000 or so types of apples that are native to this country. British apples, she believes, have a superior taste.

“I knew therefore that I wanted to do something about the decline and the growth of large scale food retailing and create a product that celebrated the British apple in its flavour and versatility.  Preserves were the solution - skirting the issue of the short shelf life of apples and refrigeration needs,” says Clippy.

She decided against the PhD and using apples picked from her own and her neighbour’s garden, she set about making her first product, an apple and fig-based jam and took it to a local farmers’ market. She sold out first time.

“I didn’t want to create a product that was faceless, I wanted something people could believe in, a product that had a story behind it,” she says. “So many similar products out there are owned by massive conglomerates that know nothing about food. I want people to trust my product; that’s why all the jars have my silhouette on the front and my story on the side.”

More products were added to the range and she started selling them in farmers’ markets and food fairs across the North West. Her partner Paul joined the firm, and drawing on his background supply chain manager, the couple converted their garage into a production line with capacity for 250 jars at a time.

“Although we were doing well, I wasn’t going to be happy until my products were sitting on a supermarket shelf and were a UK household brand,” she explains.

She didn’t have long to wait. The company’s first big order was for Harvey Nichols, followed by online grocery company Ocado before Asda, Booths and Tesco came onboard, stocking the products in 800 of their stores nationwide. Throughout this period Clippy also gave birth to her daughter Rosie, now three.

Today, production takes place in an industrial unit and the range has 11 products using seasonal produce, from apple, tomato and roasted garlic relish to the newest addition, Marmachilli, a blend of marmalade (branching out from apples) and chilli, that is being stocked by Morrisons - a product designed to attract the attention of a younger demographic.

“We want to be known for shaking up a sleepy and dying category, combining flavours you’d never think would work together,” she says.

It is this enthusiasm that won her the Entrepreneur Award at this year’s inspiring women awards in Manchester and a place on the ITV Business Club, a panel set up by the broadcaster to detail what is happening in the commercial world, direct from a range of business owners.  

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the entrepreneur. In February last year Clippy received a letter from trading standards bosses informing her there was not enough sugar in her range of products, to call them jam. She was told to qualify for such a label, her British Bramley apple jam would have to contain at least 60 per cent sugar. It contains around 52 per cent. 

“Well, we changed the name of the product to conserve but we were told we weren’t allowed that either and should use fruit spread instead. It turns out we can’t use this either, our products would have to be 100 per cent fruit,” she says. “We are in a no-man’s land - what are we supposed to call them?” The company is still fighting the legislation.

“It’s important for stimulating customer demand that out products contain more fresh fruit than other brands – that’s who we want to be.”

Luckily, it hasn’t affected sales. Clippy’s expects to produce 600,000 jars this year and make a turnover of £500,000. By 2013, the company estimates the turnover will increase to £1.2m.

Clippy’s is also looking to markets overseas, the US and China in particular, and off the back of a San Francisco trade show the company has secured a US distribution deal and once Clippy’s has changed its packaging to comply with US regulations, small chains and independent stores will be stocking their products later this year.

Despite the promising figures, Clippy says the family has had to live ‘frugally’ over the past five years, pumping any profits made back into developing the business.

She says: “It’s been pretty tough, you have to give up everything you take for granted from holidays to meals out and I’d advise anyone wishing to start their own business to prepare for this.

“Our aim is to be responsible for a growth of five per cent in the jam market in the next three years. If we can achieve that, I’ll be happy.”

 

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