Profiting from classic English recipes

Eldon Robson's plans to enter the family soft drinks business were scuppered when it folded while he was in his teens. But times change, and now Fentiman's classic brews are back in fashion.

From felling trees and clearing quarries to running a launderette, Eldon Robson has had an eclectic career. It's partly because the 57-year-old Northumberland native's original plan to enter his family's business was scuppered when it folded while he was in his teens.

Fentimans "was quite a substantial soft drinks business in the North East of England", he says, with five factories in its heyday, making everything from lemonade and ginger beer to vinegar. But by the 1960s, plastic bottles and artificial flavourings were all the rage and Fentimans, with its old stone jars and home-brewed herbal botanical beers, was seen as old-fashioned and fell out of favour.

Robson, who'd spent his childhood climbing over hundredweight bags of sugar, then "selling pop door to door", had to find something else to do hence the varied CV. But the smells and tastes of childhood never faded, and by 1990 he was thirsty for another go, which, with approval from his grandmother, he set about doing.

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"When I restarted the company, I said there was no point just making lemonade. I had to reinvent these brewed botanical minerals, with a clear selling point." So his 80-year old uncle in Leeds was the next port of call. "He had an old piece of paper stuck in his drawer with a couple of these old recipes written in pencil on it. They were about 50 years old." Everything was in pounds and ounces, with ingredients ranging from burnt sugar to molasses. "I just thought, what on earth is this?"

Luckily, a consultant chemist in Hereford agreed to have a go at deciphering the recipes. "I thought he was going to tell us to get on our bikes, to be quite honest." But the chemist was optimistic. Robson sunk £25,000 into a small factory with a 4,000-litre fermentation plant, but although they got the flavours working, sales didn't follow and he had to sack the four staff he had hired. It was back to the drawing board. Opening a facility with bottling, labelling and brewing technology would require £20m upfront, so he employed a contract packer in Stockport to make the stuff. The initial contract was for £4,000.

"We started off at the top end," he says, selling into speciality stores where he thought more discerning customers would shop. "It's the Christmas-tree effect. Start at the top end and eventually you branch out." The branching out began well, with Tesco rapidly snapping up the product, but getting into other supermarkets was tougher. To win them over, he had to get more aggressive. With sales growing at 20%-30% a year, Robson collected figures from the "Tesco club card people", poring over the data to prove to other buyers that the product was a success. It was a scientific approach to marketing, he says, and it worked. Waitrose soon bought his goods, as did the licensed trade.

Last year turnover hit £3.3m and a big move into North America is planned this year. A Vancouver company has agreed to brew the ginger beer, as well as the lemonade, cola and "a lovely brewed shandy", which Fentimans has developed over the years. The "classics never go away", he says. "These are English classics that have longevity. People will always go back to cola and lemonade."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.