Good taste

PUBLISHED: 13:31 14 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:11 20 February 2013

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456546

Partnerships, hubs, clusters… all business words used to describe the work of Heart of England Fine Foods. But what does it mean? Sarah Dutton talks to chief executive Karen Davies and discovers it is a genuine passion for food and promoting the r...

Foodies have long since recognised Shropshire as a gastronomic force to be reckoned with. Seldom, in those circles do you hear the name Ludlow uttered without reference to its Michelin star fame, but Shropshire is also home to a formidable force in the formal food business world- Heart of England Fine Foods.
Look it up on the internet and the danger is you will get bamboozled with words such as hubs and clusters - most of which will mean nothing to the outsider.
But look behind the jargon and Heart of England Fine Foods is a not for profit company designed to promote and support local food producers throughout the whole of the West Midlands, and it's chief executive Karen Davies is far from a stuffy jargon speaking business woman. She is passionate about her role and the importance of Heart of England Fine Foods to the regional food industry.
The organisation is entering its 10th anniversary, and Karen, a former restaurateur, has been at the helm since the beginning. "I had been running my own restaurant in Ironbridge, but was beginning to realise that I wanted to do something else," she explained.
"I remember being let down by a relief chef, and it meant I had to go and cater for a pre-booked party on the day of my daughter's birthday party. When I saw the role advertised I applied and was stunned and delighted when I discovered the job was mine."
The company was initially set up with funding from what was the then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Support is currently received from the Regional Development Agency - Advantage West Midlands, and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs via Food from Britain.
HEFF is a company limited by share, with a board of directors comprising producer representatives from each of the five counties, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire and the conurbations of Birmingham and the Black Country.
Although head office is based in Much Wenlock, each of the county representatives works from home and Karen is adamant that everyone keeps in touch and no-one is left isolated.
"Because the staff are largely home based communication is very important," she says.
"We have very strict selection processes and because we do all communicate properly I soon know if there is a problem arising. I always say if you have not spoken to at least three people from the company in the day something must be wrong. E-mails are always flying and ideas are constantly being bounced around.
"And the fact that our staff are on the ground in their home county makes it easier for them to keep tabs on what exactly is going on."
The purpose of HEFF is quite simply to be ambassadors for the West Midlands food producers and to act as a central point of contact regionally, nationally and internationally.
"Since 1998 we have been working on their behalf establishing contacts and building relationships with food retailers, wholesalers and food-service companies. With these links and our knowledge of the food industry we assist a growing base of food and drink producers in the West Midlands, introducing them to new markets and helping them develop their businesses along whichever route they choose, "said Karen.
"In doing this we are fulfilling our goals - making locally produced, quality food available to a wider public, raising consumer awareness of our regional strengths and providing sustainable business opportunities to our local food economy."
As the lead organisation for small and medium sized businesses it is able to promote and encourage new business and facilitate trade. Karen is excited about the launch of a new delivery system in the region.
"Very often local businesses such as shops and pubs and restaurants want to use local produce, but because they are then dealing with other small businesses the costs involved with small orders and transport mean it becomes counter productive.
"The buyer wants to place one order, with one drop off and one set of paperwork, and the producer is hampered by distribution costs and small orders. To this end we have used our expertise to set up a regional distribution service, HEFF Delivery Service. Utilising the skills and knowledge of leading wholesaler Blakemore Food Service we have met this requirement of one drop off and one invoice.
"Importantly, though, I am sure it has reduced the number of food miles too and will provide an effective saving environmentally as well as economically."
Karen is switched on to the latest "trends" in the industry. She fears that there will soon be a food skills shortage and has welcomed news that children are to go back to basics with elementary cooking lessons in school.
"There is a real danger that with so much focus being put on university education that there will be a skills shortage in the food industry. Skills like butchery and baking may be lost if we don't also pay attention to old fashioned on the job training and apprenticeships. They can be just as valuable as degrees," she says.
"As an organisation we are also turning our attention to schools and the supply of local and regional produce into schools, through school dinners and healthy vending machines and juice bars."
Appropriately enough, as we sit in the bar of the Raven Hotel, in Much Wenlock, the birth place of the modern Olympic Games, it is to that very event in London in 2012 that Karen is looking.
"The Olympics is going to provide a fantastic opportunity for the region as a whole, and I want our producers, suppliers and retailers to be at the fore of that opportunity.
"If members of the Olympic Committee were to make an official visit Much Wenlock, then they would find themselves supplied with local produce. It may seem like a long way from London and some time in the future but now is the time for us to be making plans and proposals.
"I have always said that if we could get a regional food market into Birmingham airport I will have achieved my goal and resign!," Karen joked.
"Every other airport has shops selling regional products, and why not us? It is the gateway to the region and where better to showcase our many and varied produce?"
While, a regional produce shop would undoubtedly be a boost for Heff, Karen's resignation would surely be too big a loss to bear, she has far too many imaginative ideas to see to fruition.

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