Burnt Sugar’s high quality, hand-made fudge is popular. Consumers love it. Waitrose loves it. Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s love it. All three retail giants have asked founder Justine Cather to let them sell it in their shops. She said no.
Waitrose persevered; the buyer pleaded, even waiving the fees suppliers usually have to pay to get on the shelves. Reluctantly, Cather relented. Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s weren’t so successful for a long time, but now she has decided the time is right to be on their shelves too.
It’s a risky strategy – most new businesses would give their right arm to get a meeting with a supermarket buyer – let alone on the shelves. But playing hard to get obviously hasn’t harmed Burnt Sugar’s success at all.
The business was founded in 1999, when Justine and her husband relocated to East Yorkshire. This seemed a perfect time to realise a long-held ambition to start a business, and fudge provided the perfect opportunity.
“My mother was making fudge for her shop in Lyme Regis,” says Cather. “She was getting really positive feedback from her customers, who were saying this type of home-made, traditional fudge is really good but difficult to find. So I started thinking that there could be a demand across the country.” Using her mum’s modest production facilities to supply the fudge, Cather found a niche – high-end, premium confectionary - which was reflected in the intricate, attractive packaging. She started going to trade shows, and got a break at a large trade show, the International Food and Drink Exhibition. “I didn’t have a clue!” she laughs, “but it was the best thing I did.” Buyers were attracted to her tiny stand, chockablock with eye-catching confectionary.
The business’ visibility increased further when Cather decided to have a stall at the newly opened, and now ultra-trendy Borough market in London. Her presence there gave her real credibility. Waitrose was quick to make an approach. “Looking back on it now, I laugh. They’re our biggest and best customer. But I was nervous because my mum’s production unit was so small. I said no for a long time but in the end I said I’d try it.” It was a wise move - her products are now in every Waitrose store nationwide. Lakeland came on board as a customer too, and Cather moved her production facilities to cope with the increase in scale. It was a challenge, a ‘nerve-racking time’, but it paid off.
Burnt Sugar fudge will also be stocked in 109 Sainsbury’s from May 2007, and discussions with Tesco’s are on-going. Projected retail turnover this year is at £3m. Burnt Sugar has come a long way, and Cather has no regrets about the unconventional approach in playing the supermarkets at their own game. “Sometimes I think a little naivety is a good thing!” she laughs.