Allotments that turned from a pastime to a business

Claire Oxley, 49, launched Allotment Drinks – a range of sparkling drinks, naturally flavoured by the British veg plot, hedgerow and garden – in February 2020. She lives in York with her partner and their three children.

THE IDEA

Following a career as a teacher and latterly working in a museum’s educational team, I wanted to do something for myself. In 2015, I started an events business with a friend, delivering gin-tasting experiences at hotels and venues. Every week for three years, we paired a range of gins with mixers and sodas. It struck me how the trend was to feature exotic flavours and garnishes, such as pomegranate, grapefruit and kiwi. While these are delicious, I started to question why we weren’t celebrating home-grown produce. I’ve always dabbled with growing my own fruit, vegetables and herbs. I realised I could use those flavours to create an innovative drink. There was nothing in the sodas and mixers market that was about showcasing British flavours. It was my light-bulb moment.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

I talked and talked about it and finally decided to ‘put up or shut up’.

I embarked on kitchen-worktop experimentation with ingredients and flavours, tasting and tweaking. I then moved into sourcing natural botanical extracts and working with food technologists to formulate recipes for larger-scale production, ever mindful of only using British suppliers, manufacturers and services.

I settled on the name because ‘allotment’ epitomised our values of using home-grown flavours, being

British, sustainable, and connecting with nature and our local environment.

I sought advice from my local Business Growth Hub. I also secured a funded place to complete a course on product and process innovation at York University. We launched in early 2020 with two low-sugar drinks, Barbarilla Soda (rhubarb and anise) and Hipstar Soda (rosehip, meadowsweet and borage), both flavoured with botanical extracts.

BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT

Gaining recognition from The Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste awards when our Hipstar Soda was awarded a star. The blind tastings by experienced judges from the industry are all about taste, not just brand, so it was a huge compliment (and reassuring) that they appreciated our slightly quirky flavour combinations.

STEEPEST LEARNING CURVE

Our business plan didn’t have ‘global pandemic’ listed. However, it was humbling to reconnect with what we most valued in life – family, friends, home, garden, community. We were all forced to slow down and it became exciting to see where we could take the business next.

WHERE I AM NOW

Following a rebrand from glass bottles to cans, our online shop is live and sales are growing. We have some lovely local, independent stockists. Trade shows and events are going ahead after two years of postponements, while new flavours and a gift box are in the planning. It’s great to get back out there, quench thirsts and introduce people to our drinks. >>

‘I wanted to showcase British flavours’

Retired NHS consultant radiographer Rosalind Waugh, 74, set up Rosalind’s Larder in 2015, producing handcrafted preserves using produce from her allotment. She lives in Middlesbrough with her partner.

THE IDEA

Having an allotment has been a saviour. I loved my job and often worked over my normal hours, so being at the allotment allowed me to clear my head. Growing up, all our food was home-cooked – something my Italian mother instilled in me. I began using the surplus produce to make jams, starting with courgette and ginger jam, then experimented with chutneys, giving jars to work colleagues. The feedback was positive, which is when the germ of an idea grew.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

It wasn’t until I retired in early 2015 that I was able to progress the idea into a business. It provided an opportunity for me to retain my belief in my self-worth and still feel useful.

I began to study pairings – mixing and matching flavours using herbs and spices – and looked for a company to supply jars. My passion was for making the best preserves using our own or locally sourced produce, having unique flavours and producing small, seasonal batches.

In September 2015, I completed a food hygiene certificate and kitchen inspection. I found a designer to help with my branding and completed a business course with Enterprise Made Simple (enterprisemadesimple.co.uk), which gave me the tools to think about my target market. I began selling at fairs and local markets at the end of 2015.

BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT

The breakthrough moment was when, in 2018, three of my products won

Great Taste awards. The joy that brought me was indescribable, to have that recognition. They have continued to win awards each year since then.

STEEPEST LEARNING CURVE

The pandemic brought great difficulties, with markets being cancelled. So I began baking Italian cakes, biscuits and desserts. That period gave me more time to assess what people like. I’ve also learnt that customers like to see the face behind the business, so getting to grips with social media was a must.

WHERE I AM NOW

I sell my products via my Facebook page as well as in local shops and farmers’ markets. Building a website is on my to-do list, but the past couple of years have been tough, losing my two brothers to cancer, as well as being diagnosed with breast cancer in February. Last year, I spent £750 on a photo shoot of products to put onto my website when it’s ready.

My partner has been the biggest support, often doing the bulk of the work on the allotment. Without him, the business wouldn’t be here. Getting better is a priority, but in the future I would like to set up preserve-making and baking classes.

‘My passion was for making the best preserves in seasonal batches’

In 2021, Louise Davidson, 38, started The Little Allotment Company, supplying organic kits to grow your own fruits, vegetables and flowers.

She lives in West Sussex with her partner and their young daughter.

THE IDEA

As a child, I loved fruit picking and gardening with my grandmother. When my daughter was born in 2017, I knew I wanted to share those same experiences with her. I put our name down on a waiting list at a local allotment and, within a year, a plot became available. In that first year, we grew so much – French beans, peas, sweetcorn, tomatoes and lettuce, and peppers in the greenhouse. It was a new lifestyle, learning about food and what’s good for you, as well as sustainability. I was inspired to share our experiences, the benefits of wellbeing and nutrition that growing your own brings. I decided to create a beginners’ kit to encourage others to grow their own.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

I had been working as a high-profile nanny for 12 years, often having to stay away overnight. I was finding it increasingly tough and was desperate to make a change.

I have a degree in fashion business, so used that knowledge and started researching – looking at competitors, brainstorming ideas and learning the rules for remarketing seeds.

I found a supplier for boxes and I used my gardening knowledge to think about what seeds to include in the kit. Luckily, I already had a trusted seed supplier that I used for my own allotment.

I put together a Spring Beginner Kit, which contained everything someone would need to start their own little allotment, including seed packets, natural-fibre plant pots, a hand trowel and instructions.

I launched on Etsy and quickly had a lot of interest from small businesses as well as wholesalers.

BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT

The biggest breakthrough moment so far was when we rebranded and introduced new packaging last autumn. I outsourced it to an amazing designer who also built my website. At first,

I was printing the labels myself, but I knew the kits needed to move on from looking home-made.

STEEPEST LEARNING CURVE

Managing the admin has been a huge learning curve. I’m required to have a seed licence and undergo annual inspections by DEFRA [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], so there are lots of spreadsheets to fill in for regulated seeds.

WHERE I AM NOW

The Little Allotment Company is growing rapidly across various online platforms and has gained a lot of interest in the gifting market. The product range now includes 13 different kits. We’re available in various independent stores across the UK and have received a huge interest in international markets, so this will be a new focus for building the brand. Currently, we’re working on collaborative projects and new collections, as well as planning for shows in 2023.

‘I was inspired to share the benefits that growing your own brings’