Opinion

Why Richard Branson wants to sink his teeth into the UK's food and drink sector

7 min read

11 September 2015

Former deputy editor

Richard Branson is on the prowl for a new helping of entrepreneurs, having set his sights on the UK's flourishing food and drink sector with the Virgin Startup Foodrepreneur Festival, which will champion the best of British culinary creatives and get their products into the US.

Apparently there’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in the British food industry.

The sector has consistently grabbed headlines throughout 2015, although the past three months have been particularly fruitful for small companies and larger counterparts.

Indeed, the food and drink market is the largest of the entire manufacturing industry and accounts for 15.7 per cent of turnover, employing some 400,000 people in more than 6,000 firms.

Even alcohol, which gets a bad name from health campaigners, was proven to be a valuable commodity for the British economy, as a study from the Institute of Economic Affairs discovered that tax on booze is pumping £6.5bn into the country’s pocket.

Sounds like fair cause for celebration with a beverage or two over the weekend.

“It is time to stop pretending that drinkers are a burden on taxpayers. Drinkers are taxpayers and they pay billions of pounds more than they cost the NHS, police service and welfare system combined,” said Christopher Snowdon, report author. “40 per cent of the EU’s entire alcohol tax bill is paid by drinkers in Britain.”

Wales-based Chinese takeaway business Hokkei wants to disrupt the stereotype of a takeaway, thus considers health, presentation and tastiness when preparing meals. As a result, the startup beat its £275,000 crowdfunding target on Seedrs with a final sum of £318,000, which took the funding platform past the £1m milestone in Wales.

The achievement of the food venture benefitted businesses in the region on the whole, as Seedrs CEO Jeff Lynn revealed a partnership with the Welsh government growth project Impact Innovation to “fulfil growth ambitions” of local companies.

These are but a few of the developments to have taken place, and with so many zeroes floating around, Richard Branson is seemingly licking his lips at the prospect of sinking his teeth into the industry with the second Virgin Startup Foodrepreneur Festival.

The entrepreneur support and funding arm of Virgin is out to build on the 2014 edition of the event, by this time promising the chance for UK food and drink business leaders to export their companies into the US.

This decision arrives as the government backs the project via the Exporting arm of its Business is Great campaign, which hopes to encourage 100,000 new companies to export by 2020.

It would come as export value of food and soft drink sales fell 5.3 per cent year-on-year in H1 to £6bn, but including alcoholic drinks, this rose to £8.6bn and fell by 4.8 per cent.

Read more on the food industry:

With foodies now able to enter the scheme, which will culminate with a final in London on 2 October, Branson has wasted no time, having wrapped the three-month Pitch to Rich challenge in June.

The Virgin boss was on hand during the final, sitting alongside the likes of model David Gandy – a businessman and investor in his own right – Jo Malone and Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts.

Although food-based ventures made it to the grand finale, tech came out on top as the three winners, JustPark, Fourex and Kino-mo, supported the sharing economy, FX and holographic imagery respectively – sharing the experience with Real Business and describing how to pitch to a billionaire investor.

The Foodrepeneur Festival will include workshops, boasting “leading industry figures” at the helm, while a “panel of foodie giants” deciding the winners includes Branson and Paul Lindley, founder of organic baby food range Ella’s Kitchen.

“Britain is living through a golden age of entrepreneurship with over five million small businesses providing jobs and helping to boost the economy,” said Branson.

£85m Las Iguanas acquisition highlights hunger for the British restaurant industry

“At the heart of this are British foodie startups which have created a burgeoning industry of entrepreneurs. Last year’s event unearthed some fantastic talent and I can’t wait to meet the next wave of foodpreneurs driving this movement forward.”

Judges on the day will choose winners from two categories, Street Food and Retail, which have different prize packages, including:

Street Food – Judged in collaboration with Urban Food Fest and Appear Here

One winner will secure a pop-up, rent-free, for one week – Monday-Sunday – at Old Street Underground Station via Appear Here, and one winner will receive a rent-free stall for three months – Saturdays only – at Urban Food Fest in Shoreditch.

Retail – Judged in collaboration with Exporting is Great and Target Corporation

Four winners will have the chance to meet buyers at Target in the US, as the retailer looks to trial four new products in American stores. Distribution during the trial would be across 300 venues, with successful goods to be extended across all 2,000 of the firm’s stores after six months.

Lindley of Ella’s Kitchen, said: “The US market can be a holy grail to young British brands looking to expand internationally. I am excited to be working with Virgin StartUp on our joint mission to find pioneering entrepreneurs and help them gain the momentum needed to crack new markets.

“Drawing on my own experience and the excellent opportunities on offer through the collaboration with Target Corporation, I am confident that soon US consumers will soon be discovering some fantastic new British food brands!”

Foodrepreneurs can enter the competition on the Virgin Startup website, while workshop tickets can be secured at Eventbrite.