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Telegraph (UK): My best deal: building a taste for allergy-free food

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By Nutternomore on Sat, 07-07-07, 10:24

My best deal: building a taste for allergy-free food

Last Updated: 1:26am BST 06/07/2007

Ex-engineer saw getting his products into supermarkets was key to success, reports Andrew Cave

For Martin Hopkins, supplying his girlfriend with food that would comply with her peanut allergy could literally be a matter of life or death.

But after forming a company to market allergen-free sauces and soups, he found that to survive and prosper he had to get the products into one of Britain's leading supermarket chains - and that turned out to be one of life's challenges as well.

Hopkins, 43, is a chemical engineer by training and has run engineering companies in Germany, the US and Italy. He has also worked as sales and marketing director for a Manchester-based consultancy.

He set up Safetoeat in 2005 after five years at waste management company Cleanaway UK, where he was managing director.

The catalyst was the peanut allergy afflicting Lucy Cross, his girlfriend of the past eight years, but Hopkins could see that this was also a business opportunity.

"I also trained as a chef and I love food and cooking," he says, "so this business is a combination of that with my knowledge of process engineering, food technology and business management.

"Lucy has a severe peanut allergy. A few years ago, I looked at the possibility of setting up a small business to make food she could eat because it was very difficult to find it.

"I looked at the market at the time but it was not ready. The market had not developed enough. There was not enough awareness."

Four years later, however, Hopkins looked at the allergen-free food sector again and decided to pursue the idea.

He found that while peanut-free foods, gluten-free foods and wheat-free foods were available, the UK market was not well-served by prepared foods free of all 12 major allergens identified by the European Union.

He decided to make soups and cook-in sauces that were not only free of all nuts but also wheat, gluten, eggs, dairy products, sesame seeds, milk and fish, as well as free of more minor allergens such as celery and mustard seeds.

The first problem he encountered was finding a manufacturer with the dedicated facilities to be able to guarantee no contamination from any of these allergens.

After no luck with 13 different contracting companies, he set up his own factory near Buxton in the Peak District.

An even bigger challenge, however, was securing national distribution through one of Britain's big supermarkets.

"We were selling through wholefoods shops and delicatessens," says Hopkins, "but 70pc of all Britain's food retailing goes through the major supermarkets.

"We did a lot of public relations and marketing and went to trade shows to promote our products but knew we had to get into a supermarket."

Getting a new product on the shelves of such a retailer can be a tricky business, however, and Safetoeat targeted Tesco, Britain's biggest.

"To get into Tesco, we really had to understand how they worked," says Hopkins. "Most people don't understand the workings of the supermarkets.

"They buy new products only at certain times, when they have product reviews. We found out they were having one in our sector last summer so we approached them but we spent a lot of time trying to find out who was the buyer for our products, because they have hundreds.

"We eventually found the right person and undertook a trade show just so we could show our products to him. It was a big risk and it cost us a couple of thousand pounds but big chains are used to dealing with large companies.

"We had a very small budget but we had to try to make ourselves look as big as we could. The buyer came to the show and we showed him our products' benefits.

"From their point of view, we could offer efficiencies because they had a range of products that were free of particular allergens. We were able to offer something suitable for people with all the major food allergies.

"We were lucky in that the buyer turned out to have a minor nut allergy himself. He loves the product."

Negotiations ensued and the end result was that Safetoeat's products went into 150 Tesco stores in August last year.

"We're now in 264 Tesco stores and it helped us get into Sainsbury's too, where we are now in 210 stores. We're now in discussions with Waitrose and Asda.

"Our turnover in April last year was

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