Victoria Guthrie catches up with Dan Hull of Dan Hull Foods to find out what life is like running an artisan food business
With Mother’s Day, Easter and plentiful springtime gatherings on the way (and dare we say it yet – picnics), it’s time to make sure the fridge is well stocked with goodies from the deli. One of our favourite artisan deli food producers in the region is Dan Hull Foods. Based out of its Burnham-on-Crouch farm shop, the company is committed to using only quality locally sourced ingredients for its parfaits, terrines, meats and pies.
Dan Hull’s idea of great food is a simple recipe, made with the best quality local ingredients and has been selected as one of the six finalists for the East of England Co-op’s Producer of the Year Awards (winner announced in March). We caught up with owner, Dan Hull, to find out more about what it’s like running a successful food business from Essex.
What’s it like being an artisan food producer in Essex? Is there a sense of community?
There is an enormous sense of community – we have some fantastic local farmers and producers that I love to work with and use as much as possible. Dan Hull Foods is probably known best for our pâtés and I always source local chicken liver. I also use Marriage’s flour for my short crust pastry to top my pies. That’s really why I partnered with the East of England Co-op – a local, community retailer, which completely fits into my ethos with its Sourced Locally range.
How does it feel to have been one of just six businesses chosen from over 130 producers for the Producer of the Year award?
It feels amazing. We have been an East of England Co-op producer for two years now and have attended the Producer of the Year awards, but I don’t think we realised we would be so lucky to be shortlisted so quickly. It’s such a wonderful way of celebrating and recognising local producers who love what they do.
Working with the East of England Co-op has completely transformed our business. In the last 12 months our sales have grown 100% from the previous year, which I think has been largely due to our revitalised packaging, which is the brainchild of Louise Jones, our sales manager.
We have also doubled our staff numbers and employed a young apprentice who has now been with us for over six months, as well as investing in machinery and a new van. Overall, it’s been a really exciting year.
What’s your favourite product you make and why?
My favourite product is our chicken liver parfait, which is our biggest seller. It’s really smooth and velvety and my children, for one, absolutely love it and regularly eat it on toast for breakfast.
I am also really proud of our terrines. Everything is handmade so it’s a labour of love, but it’s such a great feeling when you slice it through and everything is exactly how it’s supposed to look.
We have two terrines that are selling really well at the moment. Our smoked chicken with pistachio is delicious, made with white wine, tarragon and Parma ham; it works perfectly as a snack or starter. The other is our chicken stuffed with chorizo and asparagus, where the asparagus is steamed then blanched so it stays beautifully green, and the flavours marry perfectly.
How do you come up with ideas and flavours for new products?
I love fresh herbs and marinades so what I make is down to passion and knowledge, with a tiny bit of experimentation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s trial and error, as I know what flavours and textures go together, but sometimes I spend a little more time on recipes to find that wow factor.
Our products are also available in the Selfridges Food Hall in London and both the team there and at the East of England Co-op are honest with feedback, which is really helpful. The Co-op is slightly different as no two shops are the same with regards to customer demographics and preferences, but it’s great to have those differences to help improve our products and keep them interesting to each store.
How did you start your business?
I have always been a foodie and studied catering at the Blackpool and the Fylde College, which is part of Lancaster University. I have worked as a chef all my life and trained at the Hilton Hotel in Bath before trying my hand at running a few restaurants. Going self-employed was by chance more than anything else.
My father owned the Wrekin Farm shop, near Burnham-on-Crouch, which started as a butchery more than 20 years ago. I started selling a few of my pies there and gradually built up a few successful products before taking over the business five years ago.
How involved are you in the day to day?
I’m in the kitchen everyday but I have a great team who I trust implicitly with the recipes and so I’m moving my focus into meeting other producers and getting inspiration for developing new products.
My aim is to personally be much more visible in 2016. I have bundles of ideas for new products to try and I just want to get out there, meet more people and encourage them to taste our delicious products.
I especially want to show people that pâtés are not seasonal. They’re great to have in the fridge all year round to spread on a cracker as a snack, or as canapés at a party. I go to lots of store tastings at the East of England Co-op because I know that pâté is not something people have on their weekly food shop, but I also know that when customers try it they enjoy it and buy it.
Are food miles something that’s important to you and your business?
The horse meat scandal in 2013 was a real drive for me to propel the business forward. I just couldn’t believe it was happening when we have such great farms and meat available not only in our local region, but across the UK.
My cousin has a local farm within two miles of our shop and I use his beef when I can to make my pies. We are able to trace each pie to the exact cow and it was this traceability that was attractive to the East of England Co-op. I hold this local focus to this day.
What does the future hold for Dan Hull?
We’re getting a bit big for our kitchen, so we’re looking for new premises near or on Wrekin Farm. We’re also hoping to launch new products, including a spring slaw with bright, herby flavours, definitely more terrines and I’m looking forward to adding a brand new range of freshly made single serve pies.
I am a meat-lover, but I’d like to supply more vegetarian options and it’s incredibly important to me that we keep getting the Dan Hull Foods name out there. I’m planning to attend more food shows, enter more awards such as the Great Taste Awards and gain more accolades. I’m also looking into working with the local school in its food technology department, and offering experiences where people have the opportunity to have dinner cooked at home by me. It’s definitely going to be a busy year, but I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings to the business.
To find out more about Dan Hull you can visit the website, www.danhullpreparedfoods.co.uk, or head to your local East of England Co-Op to pick up one of his delicious products.