At the table with... Alexia Robinson

14/03/2013 - 14:37
Alexia Robinson says that her rural roots are hugely important to her. When the foot and mouth outbreak struck in 2001, she founded the British Food Fortnight to get the public to understand the countryside. She tells David Foad what the organisation now involves

What was your dream job when you were at school?
I wanted to be a groom for the Olympic dual gold medal-winning equestrian rider Mark Todd. And then go on to be a champion horse rider myself and compete in three-day events like Badminton Horse Trials.

What did you end up doing?
Well, I did end up working for Mark but I quickly realised you need quite a bit of money to compete so I got a job as a management consultant for Andersen Consulting (now called Accenture) and worked for them in London and Hong Kong. I was on the Hong Kong show jumping team and on my return to England ended up living in Badminton, so a bit of my dream came true and I still ride horses today, but only for fun. I had my own consultancy business for a while advising the Ministry of Defence on strategic change management (which sounds completely bizarre now and another life). My rural roots are hugely important to me and when foot and mouth struck in 2001 I founded British Food Fortnight because I wanted to do my bit to get the public more supportive and understanding of the countryside. It has become my life’s mission for the last 10 years. 

How did you get in involved in hospitality and catering?
The whole aim of British Food Fortnight has been to make it easier for the public to seek out and enjoy British food when they are shopping or eating out. And, most importantly, to demonstrate to shops, pubs and restaurants that it was in their commercial interest to sell British food. I have always thought the message of asking them to do so to support farmers is a weak one; we need to demonstrate that selling British food helps them increase sales – that is the only way to build a sustainable, robust market.

In the early days, we were working with small independent restaurants. Then Punch Taverns came on board and asked 5,000 of their pubs to put five items of local produce on their menus during British Food Fortnight. Other pub groups followed. Then Aramark seized the mantle in the food service sector and signed up as our flagship sponsor and we haven’t looked back since. This year, all the major food service organisations are taking part and the event is high on the Hospital Caterers Association agenda. What is particularly satisfying is that, year on year, British Food Fortnight has been proven to increase sales across the sector. One hotel restaurant increased sales by 300% during the event.

How has your earlier consulting career helped you in your work promoting British Food Fortnight (BFF)?
Andersen Consulting was the biggest management consultancy in the world. It was your classic American corporate culture: incredibly output focused, everyone working there was unbelievably driven and hard-working and you were measured on results, results, results. Interestingly it also encouraged you to be entrepreneurial within a large corporate structure. Everyone is always amazed how British Food Fortnight is run by only two people but we are ruthlessly ‘can-do’ and only focus on things that we really feel are worthwhile. It is easy to fill the working day doing lots of things that seem nice and interesting (particularly in the food world), but if they are not going to help towards our overall objectives what is the point? We go to very few PR launches, conferences and pointless meetings – we are just at our desks beavering away. I also gave up ages ago bothering with politicians as I get too impatient with their inability to deliver. But the best training in the world was being bought up in a farming community in Dorset where you learnt the simple lesson that if a yard needs sweeping, grab the broom and sweep it – it won’t get clean just chatting.

Why are you so passionate about British food?
Because I love the British countryside, the beauty of which is in large part due to the way it has been farmed over centuries. ‘No sheep, no cows - no countryside’ is a simple mantra but it is true. And the best way to ensure the longevity of the countryside is to get the public excited about buying its produce. 

Is there evidence that awareness of British produce is growing?
Yes. Ten years ago, sourcing British did not seem to be high on the list of priorities in the food service sector. Now it is on everyone’s agenda. The fact that 10 of the major food service organisations regularly take part in British Food Fortnight is testament to this.

Which sectors of the foodservice industry have most enthusiastically embraced the principals behind BFF?
All sectors. Independent pubs and restaurants, large pub groups, major food service organisations and those involved in public procurement. Interestingly, the major foodservice organisations are probably the most enthusiastic participants. Aramark is now in its sixth year as flagship sponsor and this year is joined by 3663, Brakes, Compass Group, e-foods Purchasing Solutions, Enterprise Inns, Fullers, The Garden Centre Group restaurants, Hallmark Care Homes, Harrison Catering, Sodexo and Whiting and Hammond pubs – all of which are official partners this year.

What are the biggest obstacles to spreading the local produce gospel?
Pressure to reduce costs, particularly in the recession. People fear that sourcing British may be more expensive. But time and time again we see organisations sourcing British recouping these costs through increased sales because, if it is promoted properly, customers will pay more pence for dishes using British produce even though times are tough. Also the fact that public sector procurers are not allowed under the European Treaty to restrict purchases to specific countries. But this too is not insurmountable; if buyers specify food that is seasonably available, they should be able to achieve value for money by buying in-season British products at competitive prices without contravening EU rules.

Do you think the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics will help your cause?
The Diamond Jubilee has given a huge boost to our school activities encouraging children to learn about the delights of our national produce and learn how to cook. HRH the Duchess of Cornwall invited us to run a competition – Cook for The Queen – as part of our Love British Food 2012 activities this year. We invited all the schools in the UK to create a special menu for the Queen, featuring recipes that showcase the best of British. The top four winning schools have been invited to Buckingham Palace to help prepare and serve their winning dishes to the Queen at a special reception. A total of 208 schools entered and their imagination and enthusiasm augur well for future generations’ love of British food.

In terms of the Olympics, I believe we have an opportunity of a lifetime to show the world how wonderful British food is. Thousands of journalists are going to be descending on Britain; only a few will have accreditation to enter the Olympic park. The rest are going to be mooching around looking to write about anything and everything. Talk to any journalist who covered the Sydney Olympics and they will tell you that food is a core part of the way they experience the host country and good or bad, they will write about it. And for the home market, the huge wave of patriotism is a gift of a catalyst for encouraging the domestic consumer to eat British. Even in tough economic times, the public will rally behind British food if they are given a reason to. The whole year is huge for British food. Food was at the heart of everyone’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. And food and sport go hand in hand so the nation is going to be eating and drinking with family and friends like never before. Despite the recession, I expect to see bumper sales of British food for those caterers that pitch their promotions properly.

When did you start planning for British Food Fortnight 2012 and how easy was it to bring it forward to coincide with the Olympics?
In August 2008. The Olympic catering contracts had just been announced and editor of The Grocer magazine ran a leader piece saying: “I have a dream, that we use the Olympics to put not just Britain but British food in the best possible light.” It was a light bulb moment. British Food Fortnight had already proved so powerful in the retail, catering and education sectors and so I thought, let’s run it during the Olympics and make sure that British food is centre-stage when the eyes of the world are upon us.

We’ve given it a new name this year – Love British Food 2012 – with fun slogans: ‘support your home team’ and ‘be patriotic’. What we didn’t know in 2008 was how difficult the LOCOG and IOC branding restrictions would be, making it nigh on impossible for retailers and caterers to run Olympic-themed promotions. As a result, Love British Food 2012 has become the main show in town for food service operators wanting to run patriotic promotions during the Games. I really do believe it is the best opportunity for those wanting a share of the Olympic commercial cake.

How supportive of your aims is the Government?
Politicians are always ‘supportive of aims’ – that is easy for them, they just have to issue a press release. But do they actually do anything to help? No. David Cameron’s recent call to consumers asking them to buy British food was pure fluff – he is not actually doing anything to achieve this. He has let himself and his departments be handcuffed by infuriating EU regulations that prevent the promotion of Britishness. If politicians and civil servants were a bit braver in their interpretation of EU regulations rather than gold-plating them, the Government could give a much stronger ‘buy British’ message to the consumer. 

Have you got the backing of the farming industry?
EBLEX, BPEX and Quality British Turkey are all supportive and we do specific areas of work for them through our activities. On an individual basis, farmers and producers are hugely supportive but unfathomably and sadly the NFU is not. I think they see British Food Fortnight as a maverick organisation run by a dotty girl that doesn’t really fit into their ‘big organisation’ world!

Do other countries promote local produce with comparable events?
France has the Semaine du Goût that takes place every October. The French Government sends chefs into schools during this time to introduce children to the delights to their national cuisine. It was this initiative that gave us the idea of teaming chefs with schools during British Food Fortnight. The Slow Food movement organises events in Italy, Spain, Germany and various other countries. And lots of countries celebrate the harvest with religious ceremonies: the Malaysian Rice Festival, Koshugatsu to celebrate the rice harvest in Japan. But I am not aware of any country organising anything on the scale of British Food Fortnight.

If they do, what lessons can be learnt from the way they work?
Well, in the case of France, the fact that the Government is totally behind it – both the Ministère de l'Agriculture and the Ministère de l'Education nationale are heavily involved. In stark contrast to Defra and the Department of Education.

In an era of global trading and world foods, isn’t an idea like BFF a bit anachronistic?
Globalisation creates competition that prevents complacency and encourages producers to continue to innovate and aim for the highest quality. And it is absolutely right that consumers are free to choose what is best. But in the case of British food, it really is one of the best in the world so a ‘buy British’ push is totally justified. I’m not advocating British for patriotic reasons alone; I’m promoting it because it is top dog.

Who in the Government would you most like to speak to, and what would you say?
To be honest I’ve lost interest in the Government. But if I did find myself next to David Cameron on a train my three pleas would be: number one, stop gold-plating EU regulations; number two, consider a tax on imported foods that are not produced to the same standards that our farmers have to adhere to – this would give our farmers a level playing field and also may encourage higher standards in food production in those countries not so hot at adhering to them; and number three, do more to make supermarkets stock higher levels of British food, in particular British meat, and to label it more clearly and honestly. And finally, going a radical step further, if the government got out of the EU altogether, we wouldn’t be bound by the infuriating EU regulation that prevents the promotion of Britishness. The producer levy boards are constrained by this too. Unfettered by this, we could give a much stronger message to the consumer. But of course, this would have to be weighed up against the loss of EU subsidies so I could be getting myself in hot water. Perhaps it is time to appoint a British food tsar in the same way that Boris has appointed Rosie Boycott as London food tsar?

How do you judge the success of BFF?
By the number of retail and catering organisations taking part, the sales increases they achieve as a direct result of the event, the audience reach of our media activity and the number of schools that participate in our educational activities. Sales increases range from 12% to 80% in the food service sector; the audience reach of our media campaign has been over 300 million every year since 2006; and hundreds of schools have taken part in our education activities over the years.

What’s the biggest challenge facing British food producers?
The recession. There is a real danger that British food will drop off menus to be replaced by cheaper imports offering higher margins and price promotions will make British food less competitive on shop shelves. But more than anything customers want value for money and value is not just about price. Producers need to work harder than ever to demonstrate the ‘value’ of their products.

Are they doing enough to engage young people?
There are lots of excellent educational programmes giving schools opportunities to teach children about food and farming. It is so important. If we do not educate the next generation about the delights of our national produce – and how to cook it – we risk becoming a nation reliant on ready-made processed foods and, quite simply, there will not be a customer base for British produce in its purest form: raw meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. HRH the Duchess of Cornwall’s support for our educational work has helped enormously. Competitions like this year’s ‘Cook for the Queen’ do much to inspire young people to learn about British food.

Can ideas like ‘healthy eating’ and British food work together?
Yes, of course. A desire to eat healthily makes you more aware of the food you are eating and therefore more conscious of where it has come from and how it has been produced. Taste, freshness, quality, traceability and high standards of production are all hallmarks of British food.

Do you believe food is too cheap in Britain, which means we therefore undervalue it?
Yes the cost of food as a percentage of household spend has decreased enormously but I have never totally bought into the view that if food is cheap people don’t value it. I’m all for food being accessible. To me the reason people sometimes undervalue food is that not enough is done to extol its values. There is so much to value in British food – we just need to do more to shout about it.

Are you optimistic about the future? If so, why?
Yes. British food producers are robust and innovative and the production of quality food is ingrained in the fabric of Britain. Also, with the ever increasing demand on global resources, people are going to become more aware of the importance of food self-sufficiency and, I believe, will value and support our producers more.

On a personal level, what’s your dream three-course meal?
Seasonally this is impossible but taking my favourite starter, main and pudding it would be English asparagus, wild venison from a local gamekeeper with home-made Cumberland Sauce and a colourful kaleidoscope of roast root vegetables followed by apple crumble with a delicious local ice cream (Purbeck ice cream is a favourite). 

Anything to wash it down with?
A couple of glasses (or more!) of English sparkling wine would be heaven.

If you hadn’t had your career, what would you have liked to do?
Be a champion horse rider. The dream is still there but I’m getting a bit old and cranky (I broke my back in a riding accident some years ago) so I think I have got to face up to the fact it isn’t going to happen.

Got any tickets for the Olympics?
Yes to the equestrian events in Greenwich but nothing for anything in the Olympic park which I am gutted about. 

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