How losing 97% of his business in lockdown taught Beckleberry’s Peter Craig valuable business lessons

Lockdown has been devastating for many businesses, especially those in the travel, catering and events industries. And luxury ice cream and patisserie manufacturers Beckleberry’s was no different – overnight they lost 97% of their business.

Left with finished stock they couldn’t sell to their traditional clients, they explored a new customer base – and opened up an entirely new income stream. Find out how Beckleberry’s founder Peter Craig managed to ensure his business didn’t just survive lockdown, but actually thrive. And the invaluable business lessons we can all learn from his experience.

What’s your career background?

That’s an interesting question since Beckleberry’s is my past, present and hopefully future career. Beckleberry’s was born back in 1996 when I came to decision that university was not only not right for me, it might even curb by entrepreneurial inclinations.

Fortuitously my bold career decision coincided with my father, a recently made redundant ex-colliery engineer also wondering how best to reinvest his hard-earned redundancy monies? He said he needed a new challenge, although I think on reflection, he was simply determined to keep an eye on me.

The only problem was neither of us had any idea what our amazing business would be? We knew we wanted make something tangible, something that pandered to the North East’s proud manufacturing roots and something that was both indulgent and best-in-class. 

We decided we both liked ice cream which was as good a starting point as any, so we enrolled on a Summer ice cream course at Reading University and the rest as we say is history.

Where did the idea for Beckleberry’s come from?

We decided from the outset that we wanted to produce top-notch ice cream and sorbets made wherever possible with locally grown ingredients (milk and cream), no synthetic nasties and most importantly a high dairy count 14-16% (not the 4-8% pushed in many supermarkets). We also got into flans, patisserie, cakes and tarts to make sure cover all the ‘indulgent bases’ were covered.

Slowly we started making a name for ourselves in high end hotels and restaurants where unfortunately few people (outside those taking our goodies out of boxes and popping on plates to create the ‘illusion of homemade’) knew we were the faces behind the spatulas and scoops.

Our big breakthrough came with our blackcurrant and kirsch sorbet which won every imaginable pud award under the sun, followed by Sour Cherry Amaretto and Passion Fruit & Tarragon. That’s not to say we always got it right, there are still haunting memories of a Balsamic Vinegar, even worse a Curried Pineapple & Parsnip that thankfully only saw the light of day for the briefest of moments. 

In 2014 we were approached by the World’s Favourite airline to make ice creams, puds and pastries for their 1st Class and Business Class operations. Word spread and in no time we were also working alongside the likes of Virgin, SAS, American Airlines, Norwegian Airlines & LNER trains….

We were an award-winning business flying high, employing 65 staff who’d even taken the trouble to finance a state-of-the-art innovation facility on site and then out of the blue Lockdown struck!

How did lockdown impact your business?

Losing 97% of our business base overnight certainly felt like an unmitigated disaster, especially as we had to furlough a lion’s share of our staff as the rest of us wondered what to do next. Even in these ‘dark moments’ there were still a few positives we could lean upon.

We thankfully had a small war chest having enjoyed a number of successful years. We also owned our building and vans outright, had an enviable innovation facility and had even taken the trouble to lower our carbon footprint by investing in green tech (a photovoltaic solar power system). The problem was we were also sitting on a vast amount of finished goods and top end ingredients. 

We decided that there was an untapped opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our locals who had long since forgotten that we even existed. Our direct to consumer business was launched courtesy of a quickly cobbled together shopify site and against all expectations sales soared, especially our ‘Treat Box bundles, be they themed (Easter, Mother’s Day VE Day…) or everyday started to garner real traction, bring some much needed ‘food joy’ and ‘comfort food’ to countless trapped-at-home-families.

The word spread and The National Trust came knocking, looking for bespoke products to provide real WOW across their nationwide estate. This was also the same time when regional wholesalers, farm shops and garden centres started to take real notice of what we were doing especially as we expanded our gluten-free, savoury and vegan offers.

The world suddenly seemed like a better place especially with loyalist accounts (Booths, our regional Morrisons listing) standing firm. 

What has lockdown taught you about business?

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Our over-dependence on airlines, hotels and hospitality was almost our undoing albeit today our account base is genuinely diversified.
  • Don’t neglect your roots. We’re a business that’s especially proud of our heartland, after all our business strapline is ‘Gourmet with a Northern Soul,’ however it shouldn’t have taken Lockdown to kickstart a local/loyalist drive which has been one of the best things we’ve ever done.
  • Innovation is everything especially in a fast-moving sector like food & drink. Fortunately we’ve never skimped here and our Innovation Centre remains our best ever investment.
  • Never be afraid to be bold. Our Treat Box bundles have been a revelation opening doors into high street retail, delis/cafes and regional wholesalers. The idea’s so good we’re going to take it nationwide over the coming months.
  • Don’t forget your core customers! Airlines and trains never went away (OK volumes dropped to 5-10% of what they were) but we’ve kept talking and have pipelines of new ideas where restrictions finally draw to a close. 
  • Champion influential ‘food minorities’ – gluten-free, vegan…. 

What’s next for Beckleberry’s

Success! We might have had our wings singed however we’ll be coming back with two not one distinct yet inextricably linked businesses. Thanks to locals our business has survived to fight another day and our Northern Soul message resonates louder than ever!   

Find out more about Beckleberry’s.