Grate expectations

One of the UK’s most exciting independent food manufacturers, The Abergavenny Fine Foods Co. believes in creating innovative foods that delight customers

When Pam and Tony Craske retired in Wales on a hill farm in 1981 with visions of ‘The Good Life’ in their minds, little did they know that Tony’s decision to buy seven goats instead of one cow at the local village market would be the catalyst in the establishment of The Abergavenny Fine Foods Co. (Abergavenny Fine Foods). “Because we had a glut of goats milk and were unable to sell it, my mum went to the library, borrowed a book on cheese making, and the rest, as they say, is history,” says Melanie Bowman, Managing Director of The Abergavenny Fine Foods Co.

“We started by making goats cheese for family before taking it to the local Abergavenny WI market, and, once we gained a loyal following in Wales, we decided to try and sell our product in London. This led to an appointment with Harrods, who liked our goats cheese but didn’t buy directly, so we then got an appointment with its wholesaler that same afternoon; Harvey & Brockless agreed to take on our product and began buying our goats cheese.

“It was during this meeting that we were told about a cheese event in Cheshire, which we decided to go to. This was a major event with tent after tent of cheese and we took first prize in all competitions we entered; we also happened to catch the attention of a gentleman who worked with Sainsbury’s and was looking for regional cheeses. This led to our first step into retail, which began with half a dozen cheeses delivered each week into a local Sainsbury’s in Wales; 28 years on we are still working with Sainsbury’s and are now supplying up to 15,000 cheeses to its stores weekly,” she adds.

Following a move to purpose built food factory unit in Abergavenny in 1987, the company was officially established the same year under the name Abergavenny Fine Foods Ltd. As goats cheese became increasingly more mainstream over the years, Abergavenny Fine Foods also benefited from opportunities to further diversify its product portfolio, which led to continued growth for the company and a foothold in the party foods market. Eventually the firm outgrew its Abergavenny site, which remaines a raw milk processing plant, and it expanded into larger facilities in Blaenavon in 2007; it was during this same year that the company rebranded itself to Abergavenny Fine Foods Co. “We grew too big for Abergavenny and moved into the Blaenavon site; we made a number of modifications and expanded the site while continuing to produce products such as goats cheese, the blended cheeses and a huge range of party foods such as mozzarella fingers and breaded jalapenos,” confirms Melanie.

Further major investments took place in recent years, with the company investing £1.2 million in new facilities to increase capacity in its goat milk processing plant, which resulted in the launch of Abergavenny Creamery in 2014; for this side of the business, the company works with 15 local and regional farmers.

It was during this peak in product innovation, investment in facilities and market demand that a devastating fire hit the company’s Blaenavon manufacturing plant, reducing the site to ashes and putting all future production at risk. Despite the immense challenges that the fire put Abergavenny Fine Foods under, the family-run company refused to give in, and within one week of the fire it had relocated its 105 employees to its Abergavenny plant to continue production.

Looking back at this difficult time in the company’s history, Melanie comments: “After the fire we worked in partnership with retailers in the UK and we managed to convert a disused area down in the creamery to continue producing goats cheese and thus not lose supply. We were off sale for approximately six weeks, which isn’t too bad going. We also worked with the retailers to cover our party lines during 2015 by contracting work out to third party manufacturers; this was a huge amount of work for all involved and really shows that our relationships with our customers have stood the test of time.”

She continues: “I would never like to relive an experience like the fire, however, out of the ashes we have developed a fantastic new facility that incorporates efficiencies such as energy and green environmental regulations. It was a blank canvas, which in itself is a challenge, but also gave us the opportunity to eradicate niggling issues from previous experience of operating in the existing building. When you start from scratch you can ensure long lines of production, build in efficiencies, ample storage and so on. It is a bittersweet positive outcome to an experience we never expected to happen.” Rebuilt on the grounds of the old site, the new £10 million manufacturing plant was officially opened by HRH Prince Charles in July 2016.

As a supplier to companies such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer’s, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and Waitrose, Co-Op, Costco (UK, the US and Canada) and Whole Foods, the company continues to maintain a strong presence in both the UK and abroad despite the challenges it has faced. Looking ahead, the company will continue to rebuild the business and sees a bright future ahead, complete with new product innovations that are certain to delight its ever-growing customer base.

“As a company that is continuously developing new products, we typically launch between 25 and 30 new products in any given year, with the Blaenavon site focused on party foods and Abergavenny focused on liquid milk conversion & blended cheeses for our export market. This year were are going to launch a new range of extended life goats cheese, which has new branding of Little White Goat and benefits from sustainable long life packaging that we have been working on. It is a very exciting time in our history and we look forward to an interesting and bright future,” concludes Melanie.