Jack Hamilton, director of Mash Direct, explained to Real Business how, with six generations of farming knowledge and expertise, the company is committed to achieving that “homemade taste” – and how being in one of the most innovative industries has meant the use of digital means is a must.
(1) Please give us a brief introduction to the business?
Mash Direct is an award-winning vegetable accompaniments brand based in Northern Ireland. Selling more than 40 different products across the UK and Ireland, we also export overseas, as far afield as the UAE and Bahrain. With six generations of farming knowledge and expertise, we’re committed to achieving that “homemade taste”. Our family business produces dishes from “Mashed Potato” to “Cauliflower Cheese Gratin” using heritage varieties of vegetables. The quality of these vegetables and their provenance is a key selling point for the brand.
The business began when my parents decided to take our farm to the next level by making our vegetables convenient to prepare. Now we’re stocked in more than 5,000 stores, including Fortnum & Mason, which will help expand our international potential given its global clientele. Since the surprising success in Dubai we’re now looking further overseas, including the US, where the retail landscape is fairly similar to the UK.
(2) What have the significant growth milestones been in the last few years?
Selling our produce overseas was a key milestone as it suddenly became clear that our products were desired outside our home-turf. Unexpected markets like Dubai and Bahrain have brought huge growth opportunities and has inspired us to expand into overseas markets. In addition, being listed in Partridges and Fortnum & Mason is testament to the quality of our ingredients and products across the range, and we are proud to be recognised alongside other quality producers.
(3) What inspires you as an entrepreneur, and how does that come across with your company?
At Mash Direct, we feel passionately about inspiring the next generation. Growing up in an age of technology means that millennials are able to gain instant access to a wealth of online resources and information, which in turn stimulates creativity and knowledge-sharing, opening up a world of opportunity for those shrewd enough to take advantage of it.
Our involvement in the Junior Entrepreneur Programme (JEP) in Ireland in particular has proved to be a great team building exercise for the business, which has been a nice bonus to an already worthwhile project. Devised in partnership with educational institutions and entrepreneurs, JEP provides a platform through which ten and 11 year olds come up with business ideas which are then presented to local business “Dragons”.
Listening to their business ideas and gaining insight into the minds of these young people inspires us to look further outside the box and continually develop the brand. The knowledge and ideas of these young people gives us great hope for the future. In turn, it’s a valuable opportunity for the next generation to learn about a variety of careers.
(4) What kind of obstacles are you encountering as you grow your enterprise?
People’s tastes change all the time, often in line with popular trends. As a business, ensuring we’re aware of these so we can diversify with new flavours is key to success. As people’s palates have evolved we created “Chilli Baby Bakes” which appeal to those with a spicier appetite.
(5) For a company that isn’t technology based, how has a digital approach helped you to carve out a bigger market and acquire new customers?
Social media is a powerful tool when it comes to reaching potential customers worldwide. People share content at an incredible rate and this enables us to look more closely at various new tastes and trends around the world. The data analysis that Twitter can offer provides us clear insight, country to country of what people are eating, what they want to be eating and if there’s appetite out there! From there we can conduct further, specific research and pursue the proven opportunity in these markets.
Facebook has also become a very important tool for us – we have 23,702 fans all based in a variety of overseas locations. When launching a product overseas it’s important to sell where it will be most revered. Looking at where our fans are, also helps us target new markets. When talking to potential distributors, being able to share this data and evidence is crucial.
(6) How is technology helping you to overcome hurdles, and what are the challenges of implementation?
The food industry is the most innovative but most traditional industry out there. The benefit of technology is that we can shout about what we are doing from the fields and everyone in the cities can hear us be it through Facebook, Twitter or any of our other platforms. This has helped to bridge the gap between the big marketing spend of the traditional giants of the industry and helped out the smaller players such as ourselves.
(7) Do you employ any kind of flexible working, and how does technology fit into this?
We aren’t as tied to our desks as we used to be meaning that we can be out checking on the fields while still up to date. Sales teams can be where they need to be on the shop floors and the farm team can be out in the fields while still in communication with customers. This allows for more flexible working for all of us.
(8) What kind of technology tools can you not work without?
Muddy Boots is a great piece of kit that helps us to map out and manage the farm. It gives an oversight of preparing the land the whole way through to harvesting.
(9) What kind of technology would help you better compete with larger rivals?
Technology has led to greater transparency in the food industry but we believe that it could go much further. Our ultimate goal is for a customer on a shop floor to be able to quickly scan one of our vegetable products and see the field it came from as well as the date that it was harvested. We aren’t quite there yet but the greater the transparency in the industry, the easier it will be for shoppers to understand one of the things that they crave most – provenance. With our farm to table business model, this would give us the edge over those who source their vegetables from across the world.
(10) Where do you want to take your business in the future?
With the success already achieved overseas, we’re looking to move more strategically into the US export market. We’re looking particularly at Chicago and Maine, which have similar food retail landscapes to the UK. With the international side of the business already accounting for 16 per cent of total sales, it’s a very exciting time for the business.