Heading in the right direction

Going from a castle to an industrial estate might seem like a move in the wrong direction but, for Braehead Foods, the shift in location has meant it has not looked back. Cathy Malcolm reports

Braehead Foods is Scotland's largest supplier of quality game, poultry and specialist foods. The company was initially set up in 1988 by Peter Craufurd on the Craufurdland Castle Estate to take advantage of game hunts. Craig Stevenson, managing director, explains: "It was set up because there were shoots for pheasants, partridge and duck on the estate and Peter didn't have a market for the dead game, so he started processing and selling it in local restaurants within a four- to five-mile radius of Kilmarnock.

"As chefs moved about, they took Braehead Foods along with them so that, by the time I got involved with the company, it covered an area from Stranraer to Fort William and Inverness and turned over £500,000

a year. At that time we had about

85 customers."

The company name comes from a house Craufurd owned in Edinburgh, called Braehead House. Craufurd initially sold the company in 1998 to Stevenson and to his son, Alexander Craufurd, but after two years, Stevenson bought out the younger Craufurd and became sole owner.

"It is still very much a family business," says Stevenson. "After the buyout, the company was split up into shares, with 60% going to myself, 10% to my wife, 10% to each of my two daughters and a further 10% to Wilson Smith, operations director.

"In spring, we have 36 full-time staff. At the height of the game season in August, that increases by another 15 people, and carries on through to February the following year.

"We always get good guys and bad guys. We keep the good temporary workers, because they are very hard to come by. So we build up the team through a natural process and business is growing year-on-year. We are always looking for good, enthusiastic employees and, this year, we turned three temporary workers into permanent staff."

Staffing does present difficulties for Stevenson, who says the area the company is based in - Kilmarnock, Ayreshire - makes it difficult to find good, willing workers. "All we get now is people wanting flexi-time. It's a case of the tail wagging the dog," he says.

Braehead Foods is a member of the Scottish Game Dealers and Processors Association and the Federation of Scottish Chefs. It is also involved with the local community through the Scottish Food Scholarship.

When Stevenson joined Braehead Foods, the company was based on one of the farms on the Craufurdland Castle Estate. "It was very much a cottage industry," he says. "It was a bit unhygienic and grubby - not the cleanest place in the world - but because it dealt in small game, that was considered OK. Four years ago, we moved from the estate into a factory four miles away, kitted it out with refrigerated panels, floors and walls and brought it up to EU standards."

The firm now operates from a 10,000 sq ft processing plant. "Braehead Foods is now a manufacturing facility that processes game. We still use the castle on our logo because that's where the business started. It's a good marketing tool for us because a lot of the items we produce, such as rabbits, pigeons and hares, are country-fresh and the logo fits them well.

"Our technical manager, Alastair MacLean, goes out and audits every estate that we deal with," Stevenson says. "He inspects their procedures, their refrigeration and how they handle the game because, once it's dead, it's not game any more; it's food. Products are all numbered so that, when we process them, we know where they are from and we refrigerate them overnight to make sure they are all below the required temperature."

Automation is also an increasing feature of the business, says Stevenson. "We de-feather birds with a machine which has offset discs that rotate and pluck the feathers without tearing the skin. It is based on the old-fashioned technique used by a farmer's wife to pluck a turkey; only it works better because a fan sucks the feathers into a container outside the factory. This keeps them off the factory floor. Even at the height of the season, when we are doing 7,000-8,000 birds a day, there are very few feathers inside."

The birds are eviscerated in a 'dirty area' then travel along a conveyor belt to a 'clean area'. Further along, some are wrapped as oven-ready birds and others are manufactured into value-added products. Bruised birds are simply rejected. Out of, say, 100 birds sourced from an estate, only 80 or so might be used. What makes us unique is that the label gives details of the estate where the product was shot - for example, Oven Ready Partridge from Harburn Estate - which provides traceability without having to work out the batch numbers."

The label is a good marketing tool for another reason too; Stevenson has found that chefs like to put details of the origin of the products on their menu. "It gets the estates involved. By putting their name on the label, the end product becomes their product, which makes them look after it better," he adds.

Provenance is important to the business, insists Stevenson. "All the products we handle here - game products or chicken - are Scottish," he says. "We buy in chickens from Mitchells of Letham in Angus, then process them to our customers' requirements. Customers might ask for a whole chicken, or breast of chicken, or they might want something manufactured - a value-added product such as our Chicken Supreme, for example. If the customer is looking for a manufactured or a value-added product, be it venison or small game birds, we can do that for them and it means we can charge more money for the product.

"We have the facilities that allow us to add value and we can produce a product using much faster and cleaner methods than the customers can. For instance, a pastry chef might not have the time or the space to add value to his meat, so we prepare it for him to his specifications."

Although only game products carry the estate's name on the label, Braehead supplies a wide range of products, about 2,000 all told, from venison and game sausages to duck, rabbit, veal, venison, Parma ham, foie gras, chicken, turkey, guinea fowl

and quail, all portioned or supplied

to different specifications. It also

prepares ready-to-eat smoked duck

and venison.

"We need to transform our business into a 12-month-a-year business, which is why we supply products other than game. In fact, we supply right down to the chef's hat! Chefs don't want to deal with lots of different suppliers; they want one supplier to give them all their speciality goods, so we buy in other products to sell to them on. We supply every Michelin-starred chef in Scotland and two or three others in London. Our customer base is around 600, 90% of which are restaurants. We also supply butchers and delis."

Looking ahead, Stevenson's motto for Braehead Foods is: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

"I see so many companies developing new products, then spending the next five years trying to persuade people to buy them," he says. "Expansion is driven by customers. It depends what they are looking for, so why not wait until someone asks you for a product? The manufacturing side of the business is an area where I see a natural progression over the next few years. I'm not going to go out and reinvent the wheel if it's not needed. I'll wait until someone asks me for a product before making it. If they have a need for it, we'll produce it.

"We have the facilities and the capability and equipment for more value-added products, but I see it as a buzzword. Yes, it gets rid of all your waste, but who wants to buy a waste product? Supermarkets are always trying to convince Joe Public to buy a 99p product. I'd rather supply quality.

"Sales are up year-on-year, so we must be doing something right," he continues. "I believe that as long as we are consistent with the product supply, the customers will carry on dealing with us. Our customers don't deal with us because of price; it's all to do with the quality and service that we offer and, every day, I am proud of the fact that, eight years down the road, I'm still in business."