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Manufacturer Up Close: Otter Vale

Devon-based Otter Vale manufactures award-winning hand-made gluten-free chutneys, savoury jellies, pickles, and preserves, and the family company is planning for growth in the foodservice industry by investing in an extension to increase capacity.

We catch up with Ben Laxon, managing director, about the business’ origins, a conversation he had with the Prince of Wales, and why they have been so successful in a competitive market.

Ben, who represented England at the Over-40s Hockey World Cup in Australia, helping the team win a silver medal, also discusses Otter Vale’s goals going forward.

Otter Vale has a very interesting backstory. Tell us more.

We’ve been going for almost 40 years. Major Scott, who served in the Royal Marines, returned from the Second World War with a secret recipe for a chicken and liver pâté. The recipe was handed to him by the chef of his hotel in Strasbourg.

My grandfather, Seymour Laxon, joined the venture and the business evolved and started employing local people.

The recipe was very closely guarded. My grandfather used to kick everyone out of the house on a Sunday so he could weigh the ingredients with no prying eyes!

My grandfather sold the business in 1979 to Graham Worrall, who went on to start the chutney range. Graham then sold the pâté side to focus on chutneys and related preserves. My Mum and Dad, Christine and Jon, bought the business in 1995, bringing it back into the Laxon family, and adding to the range.

Our growth has been organic and very much local.

Why are you choosing to focus on foodservice?

Our current split is 80 per cent retail and 20 per cent foodservice. We have a very strong presence in retail, for example, we supply eight Waitrose stores in the region.

Foodservice has expanded the reach of our products, which are now used in Bristol, Gloucestershire, Wales, and beyond. We currently supply foodservice wholesalers such as MJ Baker Foodservice Ltd. and Caterfood (South West) Ltd, and hope to attract more.

What makes you different?

The biggest challenge we face is that the barrier to entry is low for chutney manufacturers. Fortunately, we have something that money can’t buy: history and the personal touch. We are a trusted brand and have won multiple Great Taste and Taste of the West awards.

Prince Charles visited our stall at a farmers’ market and he knew that our products were stocked in Waitrose. I hope that means he has tried it and liked it!

Something else that separates us is our desire to educate, inform, and inspire each other and our customers; and we have a strong emphasis on training and working to best practice. We communicate regularly with our customers on the phone, on deliveries, and more recently via our re-vamped blog and social media, benefitting from the experience of our family’s diverse background in food, dietetics, veterinary, and farming.

Our products can be used as part of a recipe or paired with other foods, and we work closely with our partners to help them maximise their use of the range, which is praised and welcomed by chefs. For example, a local chef who won a televised Marco Pierre-White competition approves, uses, and speaks positively about our products. We’re also extremely keenly priced!

Tell us more about your range

We manufacture tens of thousands jars and tubs each year: 15,000 2.25kg tubs, 40,000 500g jars, and 70,000 225g jars.

Our best-selling product is one that is 40 years old next year: onion and pineapple chutney.

It’s mainly my Mum who is responsible for new product development. Having said that, one of my suggestions is going through the approvals process, so watch out for a mint and coriander chutney coming soon. It’ll be my first foray into the product development market and I’m sure it will be a huge success!

What are your plans to assist the growth goals?

We are hoping to speak to more foodservice wholesalers to help more caterers find out about, and use, our products.

Two years ago we moved from our original prefab building in Budleigh to state-of-the-art premises in Cullompton. We’re now in the process of extending the kitchen to increase capacity.

Another tactic to help us achieve the growth that is working well is offering sample pots. These have gone down well extremely well as it’s an easy way for the chefs to try our range without committing to purchasing a big quantity.

How have you found using Erudus?

A big focus for Otter Vale is on customer service. Erudus supports this as it provides our clients with immediate access to product specification data. There are therefore no delays in receiving the information.

An added benefit for us is that we don’t handle the request, which frees our time up to focus on product development and business growth.