Thinking Business > Made for business – interview with Dan Featherstone, Founder at Made for Drink
Dan Featherstone

Made for business – interview with Dan Featherstone, Founder at Made for Drink

Made for Drink is a concept and creation by Dan Featherstone – an accumulation of knowledge gained in the wine and snack market over many years. Dan worked for PepsiCo for 7 years on innovation, brand management and sales in their snack market, specifically for Quaker and Walkers. This led him to a wine merchant – Concha y Toro – which in the position of Marketing Manager he helped to drive the brands and be named as The Grocer’s number one wine merchant. It was during his time at Concha y Toro that Dan had the lightbulb moment and made time to create Made For Drink (MFD) in 2016 at his local village hall in Waltham St Lawrence, Berkshire.  Each Friday Dan and his Father would clean the whole village hall to make ready for food preparation, and then prepare and package food for the whole weekend….returning to full time work on the Monday!

Starting in a fortunate location, with an excellent local pub, meant that MFD’s first customer of Duck Fritons was The Crown at Bray, part of The Fat Duck Group, in November 2016. This allowed Dan to test the products on his absolute target market. The business was incorporated in 2017 ahead of sourcing investment in 2018. Other five-star clients followed with Rick Stein and Fortnum & Mason.

By now Dan had left his full-time job to focus on MFD and the company moved premises to enable purpose-built food production to upscale volume and offerings. Additional investment meant that other lines were developed – Salami Chips and Chorizo Thins. Locally, sampling took place at Saracens Rugby Club and was well received, especially by their owner Nigel Ray who is now an investor in the business! Nigel is also Commercial Director for MFD.

Waitrose stocked Chorizo Thins in 28 of its stores by January 2018, but there was insufficient production capacity to go further into more stores at this point. In April 2019, MFD was accepted onto Sainsbury’s Future Brands Scheme which helps fledgling brands scale up and be positioned in some stores. Out of all brands chosen to take part in the scheme, MFD was only one of 3 that were selected. By November 2019, Salami Chips and Chorizo Thins were listed in 600 Sainsbury’s stores and a packing partner was assigned to help packing and delivery into store. In December 2019 the BBC showed a documentary on the Future Brands Scheme and the PR for MFD was huge!

The developed strategic plan aimed at also going mainstream in trade – pubs/restaurants/food service outlets – to enable the planned growth. As the plans were just starting, Covid-19 hit……This meant there wasn’t any sales data available to build on but when panic buying reduced, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s kept ordering and demand remained. As most other businesses did, MFD took steps for the survival of the company and it was all hands on deck!

By September 2020 MFD was almost back on track when the next unwelcome invasion of Covid-19 hit and delayed investment into the business. This is now back on track. Sainsbury’s now also stock the new lines of Chicken Salt Fries and Tapas Fries.

All products are still produced on site in Maidenhead.

Wow! What a rollercoaster. What’s been the biggest lesson over the last 5 years?
The most important thing for any business is to have a simple, clear vision of where you want your business to be. It can be hard to explain to people. You need that moment you can dream about and achieve to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

For me it’s going into a pub with family and friends and my products are there. Seeing someone eating Made For Drink products is amazing. That’s my vision and its very personal. It’s too hard to run a business to just make money, it needs to get your heart racing and for you to be passionate about it.

So, what’s keeping you busy right now?
Right now it’s been a rollercoaster with our packaging getting ready for Christmas. Back in April we became 100% plastic free and 100% compostable in our packaging. In the last 2 months one product has started to fail in the packaging so we have been investigating why. The demand for these packaging products is so high we think there has been a mistake in one of the production processes, which has decreased the quality of our products massively. We have caught this just in time to hopefully find a solution before Christmas. New packaging has started again, back in plastic which can be recycled alongside crisp packets in the appropriate bins. We needed to focus on the quality of the products until the alternative’s standard was high enough again.

We are committed to get back into the plastic free and compostable packaging as soon as possible – we want a sustainable solution that will be affected by the new legislation that is coming in January.

How did corporate life prepare you for creating your own company?
I never really thought about starting my own business, my Dad even advised me against it as he had run his own business! I love food and drink so thought I’d get into a food or drink company – I always want to do things I enjoy as I know I will be better at them and it will ensure I work harder and therefore get better at it.

I joined corporate life for family security. I was at PepsiCo for 7 years and worked across 4 different businesses for them. My first day on the Graduate Scheme I was given a van and told to go and sell crisps to corner shops across Slough. I’d just received a Masters from UCL and gave myself a talking to – I needed to get over myself and go and sell crisps……and I absolutely loved it!

Then I moved through different roles at PepsiCo but ultimately, I had a turning point when illnesses struck the family and it made me re-evaluate my life. I realised that most of my day was stuck at work and what I did for work was the one thing I could control. So, I focused on what made me happy and that what I was doing, didn’t! I knew I needed a job, as I had a family and mortgage, but ultimately if I wanted to be happy then I needed to start my own business, so I made a plan.

I wanted to get close to products and enjoyed providing food and drink for people so secured a role with a wine merchant. It was amazing as I went to visit the vineyards in Chile and Portugal! I really enjoyed it there and recognised it gave me the opportunity to start my own business on the side.

That was a turning point in my life and I went for it! I thought if I start it on the side it could go somewhere. So instead of sitting on the sofa watching TV in the evening I started making plans for the business, writing full briefs, identified opportunities in market place, wrote product briefs, developed the brand concept. At the start it was actually 2 hours in the evening and then 2 hours in the morning before work creating the products. Weekends were part of that.

My brothers and neighbours liked the products and someone told me to get the product into a local pub so I thought of the best local pub near to us and with The Fat Duck Group down the road, I decided if I was going to put it in a pub then I’d put it in the best. I decided that no-one needed to know if they said no so went for it.

Some may say that having Heston Blumenthal’s pub as your first stockist is a huge reputation builder.
Yes, The Fat Duck Group still sell Made For Drink products. It instantly sets the tone of where we are and our position in the market. Being endorsed by The Fat Duck Group is great. From that we got emails from different people and built lots of connections. I’d met Rick Stein briefly a few months before this and managed to get a bag in his hand but being in at The Fat Duck Group helped flip the conversation positively. Ashley Palmer-Watts, who at the time was Executive Head Chef at The Fat Duck Group, remains an advisor to our business to this day.

We have our first purchase order from The Fat Duck Group framed on the wall alongside Rick Stein’s handwritten letter ordering stock from me. A few weeks after that we were approached by Fortnum & Mason who wanted to order as our first retailer. This all happened in the space of a few months!

That’s now 5 years ago – on 26th November 2016 we sold our first pack into The Fat Duck Group, 23rd December 2016 to Rick Stein and 27th January 2017 into Fortnum’s.

Has the likes of F&M really helped you define your target audience?
I reckon I’ve sampled for 80,000 people now – either a full pack or a taste – over 5 years so I’ve been able to really define the audience just by meeting and talking to people.

In the pubs we could train the bar staff on the products, but when we stocked in Fortnum’s I went every weekend to sell to their customers from a pop up stand so met the purchasers face to face. Meeting so many people gives you a clear idea of who is buying the products.

As we grew we sampled in Waitrose too. It was great to meet people, they didn’t know I was the one behind the Made For Drink or making the products, so it was good to hear what they said and helped us tweak things off the back of that.

It’s not necessarily the opinion of one individual that makes you change, but if people say it over and over you know you need to make that change. Our name was one of these things – it was the Artisan Food Company Made for Drink…too long. Originally, I wanted to launch a brand that was not defined by its name and distinctive by being known only by the products. I then realised I needed people to be able to refer to the product so stuck with the full name.

I bought the website domain under this and was getting it ready to launch but someone told me it didn’t sound ‘premium’ enough so we stuck with The Artisan Food Company, which fitted 5 years ago. When I was sampling at Fortnum people only heard the end bit – Made For Drink – so we stuck with it as our USP.

We’ve just agreed a partnership with Laurent Perrier launching in January 2022. Any sommelier will tell you the best pairing is fish & chips and Champagne. We have created that – Chip Shop Scraps & Fries – something that is a great luxury and also an everyman’s food which creates tension between the two products and it works wonderfully.

How has the vision evolved from day 1?
The corporate answer would be we want to create a £22.5m business over the next 5 years. Famous for Food & Drink pairing. There’s a huge market in the UK for that – approx. £1.5bn for snacks – and all I want is 1% of those occasions.

We are basing ourselves on 3 USP’s:

  1. Food and drink pairing
  2. Plastic free and carbon neutral. We own our own forest in Exmoor National Park and we offset against that project.
  3. Our team

But the answer from my heart is whilst there’s opportunities in pubs, I feel the bigger opportunity sits within retail. In the pub environment the loyalty is to the pub, in the shop it’s to the brand. For a private gathering at home you buy your shopping based on certain drink brands that fit your guests, and this is an opportunity for a brand like ours as a snack or nibbles to go with those drinks. Thursday night drinks at home are a bit special and the snacks work well then as a treat and something different. There is huge opportunity in retail. I constantly visualise this and hope we will meet this growth ambition.

The idea that we have to create food products that do something for us, is not Made For Drink. We are almost going in the opposite direction and are all about enjoyment and eating in moderation. Our audience are intelligent and can make decisions on the products. They are comfortable with life and know what they want and how to eat well.

How did you move from cottage industry to supplying some of the UK’s biggest retailers?
We made the product in the village hall for the first year – we had a special ‘Village Hall Food Production’ License. We’d get there on Thursday evening and leave on a Friday after making 500 packs – this was our record. It was all hands on deck.

I thought it would be really easy to outsource production and scale up but we needed new premises for this. We wanted to have it based near home so focussed on Maidenhead but there wasn’t any food manufacturing plants there. So we got a warehouse, planning permission for change of use and all the licensing and literally flipped production on that same day from the village hall to the warehouse. Maidenhead Council were amazing in everything – there were many hurdles that we faced and many councils would be hesitant of food production start-ups, but they were very supportive.

You have a great product, but investors need to buy into the ‘business’. What have you learned about seeking external investment?
We’ve been very successful in raising money and are constantly doing this. Especially with seed investment because of Government incentives with SEIS and EIS. Our investors see that we buy into the team that gives us opportunity through their support. The snack market is huge and we have a fantastic team or people who deliver that and believe in the product.

Your strategic plans seem to have been progressing well until Covid hit, did you need to furlough any staff?
Yes eventually we did – a majority of the staff. Myself and Duncan, our head chef, stayed on, plus Pete our Sales Director who was part time at that stage, but everyone else was furloughed. We are still feeling the effects now of Covid, the business still hasn’t properly recovered mostly due to the impact on hospitality.

70% of our forecasted growth was hospitality so turnover literally disappeared overnight. We landed Sainsbury’s and Waitrose about 2 months before so sales continued with these two supermarkets, plus via our website.

Furlough was essential. We were in a fortunate position that we’d raised money the previous year, we are always very tight on our cash and we were saving up money for investment. Before furlough became a thing we’d calculated we had 8 months cash in the bank so that if we closed the doors we could continue running the business for 8 months, everyone would be looked after and meant we didn’t have to make any rash decisions. It took us 2 – 3 weeks to work out what furlough meant for us, but the cash we had meant that we really didn’t properly panic, we could make plans and this really helped us.

Premium bar snacks weren’t up there with pasta and toilet roll for panic buying during Covid-19. How did you keep front of mind and keep customers loyal?
There was a huge consumer shift in purchasing to reflect lives at that time. No-one was eating at school or grabbing a sandwich at lunch, eating at home instead – and this was shown in purchasing choices. People needed to behave around the rules that were put in place. The recent petrol situation shows this.

The supermarkets picked a list of 20 selling products during this time, such as pasta and toilet roll, but even biscuits didn’t make the top 20. So Chorizo Thins definitely weren’t going to be on the list! Sainsbury’s and Waitrose stopped ordering for 4 weeks from Made For Drink which was disappointing, we’d modelled for this happening but still a shame. We put lots of things in place that same week, splitting tasks amongst the team, and mine was to continue working with Waitrose and Sainsbury’s to use our personal connections to convey what was happening to our business, and hopefully that they would want to look after us and stock the products. After 3 weeks of hell for them, they picked up the phone and ordered from us. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose were brilliant and incredibly supportive.

You are breaking into the USA under a different brand, how have you found navigating this process?
We are producing an own label product of our Salami Chips in USA for Trader Joes which launched a week ago. The product is being manufactured over there under license.

Off the back of that we’ve started working with a brand called Union Snacks which has a similar audience to Trader Joes, but adding branding to their retail. We own 10% of that business and hope to buy a bit more up to 15.5% over the next few weeks. That brand is focussed on the keto lifestyle so works well. This gives us manufacturing capability to launch Made For Drink in the States in the future.

What are the next steps for growth – do you have any partnerships on the horizon?
Laurent Perrier is a big step into our future strategy, trying to grow to that £22.5m business. These brands help retail understand what we are designing and what it should be drunk with. Particular brands signal premium categories where we aim to sit. We are talking with Diageo, AB& Bev and Molsen Coors about some of their brands that we can utilise in the same way – using some of their brands’ equity – which is a big step for us next year.

People ask me a lot if the plan is to go for a trade sale, such as to PepsiCo, but I’ve not thought along those lines. The team is about the product and making this a success so not sure that’s the right route – it’ll make me wealthy but that’s not what Made For Drink is about! Our whole team are shareholders, or have options open to them, we combine our vision together and feel like we are going to change the world somehow whilst having fun and that will get us there! We can build the business and see where it goes. If we reach that exceptional point we can just sell the business but the business needs to be valuable and that’s why we are making the products the best they can be.

If you could share one piece of experience with any budding F&B entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Once you’ve set yourself a vision, take personal responsibility to make that happen.

Work life balance: are you good at it and what are your tips?
I love it until I think about it! When times are stressful, such as thinking about cash, compostable packaging etc you think so much that it becomes blurred…especially when it keeps you up at night! It’s part of my life. I run the business together with my Wife so we’ve had to try really hard to stop working the whole time. We have a young family and that is more important than the business.

Which other bar snacks do you like?
I love Walkers and Smiths products – Scampi Fries are the ultimate.

Quick fire
Beach or mountain? – Beach

Fine wine or cocktails? – Fine wine

Home working or office? – Office

Fast car or luxury car? – Luxury car

Movies or books? – Books

Favourite Book? The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. A life changing book. I’ve read it about 20 times!

Dan, with all the drive and charisma you’d expect from a F&B entrepreneur, but with a great philosophy around building a team, has left us feeling like this is very much just the beginning. We’re excited for the next instalment.

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