Corkers co-founders Rod Garnham (drivers seat) and Ross Taylor (passenger)

Corkers co-founders Rod Garnham (driver's seat) and Ross Taylor (passenger)

Corkers Crisps is the latest brand to seek a wedge of the UK's premium snacks market and, judging by key accounts already captured, this family farm-based enterprise could be on to something. Co-founder Rod Garnham speaks to Chris Mercer at The Driver bar and restaurant in London.

What was sparked by a "rubbish" bag of crisps on a skiing trip several years ago has turned childhood friends Rod Garnham and Ross Taylor into budding entrepreneurs with big ideas. The co-founders of Corkers Crisps are using a mix of authenticity and marketing nous to expand their reach quickly in the UK, and they don't intend to stop at the English Channel.

On paper, perhaps it shouldn't have got this far. Taylor and Garnham developed the concept of Corkers, the "quintessential" British crisp, just as the jaws of global finance sank into the UK economy.

What's more, several brands have already trodden the path of 'posh' crisps, such as Tyrrells and Burts Chips, as well as the growing mass of private label crisp brands that have 'hand-fried' plastered all over the packets.

At the same time, it's hard to venture outside in the UK without being warned that your consumption of salt and fat is unlikely to be compatible with the longevity you desire.

Despite these challenges, though, Corkers is finding traction in a UK snacks market that research group Mintel still expects to expand by GBP1bn to GBP3.8bn by the end of 2016. Crisps remain a mainstay of this market and snacks appear to be another one of several consumer products sectors witnessing a rising number of artisanal, authentic brands.
"Sometimes I wish we'd have done it five years earlier, but I do think we entered the market at the right time," says Corkers' Garnham in an interview with just-food. "People are looking for a change," he says of consumers.

"We're a fun, young and innovative brand. There's plenty of room for all of the crisp brands," he says.

"Our point of difference is our raw product," he adds. "We are quite unique in what we do, in that we grow our product." He is hard-pressed to think of another brand that does so; pointing out that Tyrrells now buys in its potatoes.

The first motive for Garnham and Taylor was to find a better revenue stream for the family potato farm. Corkers' branded 'Naturalo' potatoes are "not pretty enough" for most supermarket shelves.

"For five generations, the family would put potatoes in bags and send them off," says Garnham. "We didn't know where they were going to. In that model, you have no control over price, and no knowledge of the end user. We wanted to do something different."

Garnham and Taylor have forged a marketing strategy out of their brands' Britishness, printing symbols of red telephone boxes, teapots and even Noel Gallagher's guitar on packets, as well as quirky PR, such as sending a bag of Corkers into space (see below).

When it comes to ingredients, the focus is high quality, natural flavours.

It's a case of so far, so good. Corkers is focused on independent retailers, particularly delis and village shops, but it has already secured local listings in Waitrose and shelf-space in Harvey Nichols stores, as well as signing a deal with British Airways and the East Coast rail operator.

Meanwhile, a deal with a historic hotel and tourist destination group could be about to follow and there is also interest from export markets. Garnham was recently in Ireland, for example, and he sees "a lot of opportunities" for export.

"We're just scratching the surface at the moment in terms of distribution," he says. Corkers is cautious about releasing sales figures at this stage, but Garnham adds: "We set a target of getting 100 new independents every month and we're exceeding that target currently. Hopefully that will continue."

Can the supply keep up if demand continues to spike? "We've got 500 acres, and if we use all that, then there is other family-owned farmland we could use. We grow enough to do our next few growth phases," says Garnham.

His and Taylor's early task is clearly to achieve and maintain scale. They will have to continue to do so in difficult economic conditions. On the plus side, the concept is gaining approval in the right places and the young entrepreneurs are more than up for the challenge.

Inter-galactic marketing: Corkers Crisps' space flight