Serious Pig shows what’s possible in the craft meat snack trade, even if you have limited resources or experience. But we’ll tell you up front, if you want to replicate their success, you will need drive in over-abundance. MPJ reports
For those who dream about entering the craft meat market there are rules which are written in stone. You need to have a chef’s background; you need to know how to make the product; you need the equipment to do it right; and you need to be close to your suppliers.
Psss…please don’t mention any of these rules to George Rice – Boss Hog – and his small team at London’s Serious Pig because they’re not following any of them. And the scary thing is, they’re making some seriously good products. But, will they grow a seriously successful business? That’s the question only time will tell.
The craft meat snack industry is continuing to expand like a wild fire and attracting new producers from Portland to London to Melbourne. Like craft beer makers who follow the route of a home hobbyist, to home producer, to commercial producer, many jerky and craft meat makers follow the exact same path, gaining production experience at every step. But not all take that route.
Rice is the first to admit that he did not come from a food background, but he and co-founder Johnny Bradshaw saw a need in the market. While drinking real ale and Bordeaux at a pub in 2009, they both wanted a snack to go with what they were drinking, but they also wanted it to be quality. After devouring the snacks the pub offered – nuts, crisps, and scratchings (potato chips, pork rind) – they decided what they really wanted was a pepperoni stick but one created for adults – definitely not a Slim Jim. This would be something satisfying; something made with only quality ingredients; something on the line of a ‘posh’ pepperoni stick. The next day Serious Pig was born.
It was a good thing both had day jobs, it would be a while before their first meat stick made it out the door.
Rice and Bradshaw realized their own limitations so saw no need to reinvent the wheel in trying to create a recipe and a way of making the product. Instead, they decided to search the Continent, trying salami after salami until they found one with exactly the flavor they wanted, and then they’d duplicate it with a co-producer. All easier said than done and this was despite fact that the taste they were ultimately after was simple – white/black pepper and salt with high quality pork.
The search for the taste took about two years until they finally found one in France which hit their taste buds just right. But the search for a co-producer? Let’s just say the search for the perfect salami was more pleasant.
Co-producers not created equally
“We looked at a firm in Wales. They said, ‘Yeah, we can do it.’ No, they couldn’t,” says Rice. Unfortunately, that experience was the norm with co-producers promising much more than they could deliver. One of the problems was while it was easy to find a co-producer who had grinders, stuffers, etc, it was how the salamis would ferment/dry which was the sticking point. Some used a system of racks that the salamis would hang from, and then the racks constantly being moved around as the aging process go on limiting production. Many co-producers they found, actually had no idea how salamis were made, but still said they could do it. In the end, Rice and Bradshaw had a bespoke drying unit made, 5×3 meters, which would handle 11,000 mini-salamis at a time, allowing them to ferment for three days and then dry. Whoever became their co-producer would have to agree to use the dryer.
It was about this time that they had the extremely good fortune to get involved with charcutier and chef Vincent Castellano. Born in Sicily, Castellano trained as an apprentice charcutier at the age of 14 in the French Alps, he then continued his training at the prestigious Ecole Supérieure des Metiers de la Viande, in Paris. This is a man who knows his salami from his salumi.
Working with Castellano, Rice and Bradshaw developed their recipe and it’s at his production unit in Bristol where their craft meats are produced.
“While I guess technically Vincent is our co-producer, he’s much more than that, he’s our partner,” says Rice. “We’ve learned a huge amount from him.”
Having a co-producer sorted, now the search began for a co-packer. It was not pleasant. “This was one of our major bottlenecks. It’s the most critical part in the process, if the package fails, you no longer have a product, plain and simple,” says Rice. “We were really let down by co-packers; pretty much everything that could go wrong, did. To put it simply: relying on someone else to pack has always hit us on the ass.”
Needless to say, it’s now all done manually in house. “When it comes to the point when our product line gets bigger, then we’ll start looking for equipment,” says Rice.
Serious Pig is producing two different salami sticks; classic and chili & paprika. Both are excellent, from bite to flavor, and easily the best MPJ has had in the UK. Snackingham is their product made from British pork that is infused with herbs and spices, cured and air-dried before being sliced. When you take it out of the pack it looks and tastes like fine charcuterie ham.
The company’s latest venture is ‘Snackling’ which is oven roast pork crackling; a heathier option for pork rind fans. If MPJ has one criticism with Snackling it is the pieces’ lack of consistency in their hardness. Some feel like when you take a bite, your teeth are going to shatter, and others are just the perfect crunch. However, in talking with other people who enjoy Snackling, no one else seems to experience this same problem. One version of Snackling has dried apple slices added which gives each bite a sweet/savory experience and looks stunning in the package with the red peel still on the apples.
Serious Pig has had a special edition salami, Caraway & Juniper, and is working on a salami with fennel, giving it more of an Italian flavor.
Marketing blues & brews
The end challenge for any craft meat snack maker isn’t in the production, but in the selling; how you position yourself in the market.
“Your product will only take you so far,” says Rice, “you need to do the marketing, you need to contact the stores; you have to push yourself and push yourself some more.”
With Whole Foods Rice says he started calling them, and calling them, and calling them some more, before he finally got someone willing to talk to him. “We’d send sample packs, call to see if they received them, what they thought about our product, and we’d hear nothing.
“That was only the beginning. Once they agreed in principal to take our product, then we had miles of forms to fill out and address traceability concerns,” he says. “But, it’s paid off, we’ve been selling to them for five-years now.”
One of the on-going challenges Rice experiences with all stores is finding the right person to contact. “Once you do, it never lasts. Stores have a habit of shifting around buyers every year so they don’t get too comfortable with sellers. This means that every year you’re faced with once again trying to figure out who this ‘right’ person is.”
Rice says that key that he’s found is doing as much as possible for the stores. “You even have to think for them.”
Serious Pig provides stores and pubs with product already placed on clip packs. If at all possible, prices too are already put onto the pack. “I won’t mention the chain except to say they’re big, but if we didn’t put the price on for them, they’d get it wrong.
“At the end of the day timing is everything. You happen to call a store’s buyer just when they’re looking for something new. If you had called a day earlier or later you might have missed the opportunity.”
Serious Pig is working very closely with craft beer manufacturers and getting itself associated as the perfect snack to go with a perfect beer, with each complimenting the other. The Pig team were partners at the recent London Craft Beer Festival in August and according to Rice, Serious Pig “hammered it!”
“Better beer has naturally produced more beer connoisseurs (aka beer geeks) and with that comes an exciting new world that didn’t exist in the pub before – proper beer and food pairing,” says Rice. “More sophisticated pallets demand better flavor experiences and matching beers with snacks to layer on more taste now is a real thing.”
If there is one thing MPJ sees Serious Pig failing at is its website. It’s great for telling the story if you’re looking at it on a PC or iMac; it’s poor on a Smart Phone. In addition, after reading the story once, customers would only want to go to the website to see if there are any new products and where to find them. Serious Pig does not sell on its website (which seems slightly bonkers), telling you on page 31-31 where you can find products. None of the listings are links; they’re just pubs, along with Whole Foods. A Google search reveals some third-party online stores such as Amazon.co.uk, Meatsnacker, and BoroughBox, which sell Serious Pig craft meats but they lack customer flexibility in picking exactly what you want.
What Rice and team are doing at Serious Pig would be described as controlled growth as they slowly expand out from London. While some might see their growth as being too slow and controlled, it makes sense with their philosophy of quality.
They’re establishing a firm market with pubs and aligning themselves with the craft beer movement in the UK. A couple of years ago Rice put out that eating Serious Pig salami sticks while drinking would prevent hangovers. Despite this being done tongue-in-cheek, the UK press jumped on this, making that connection between Serious Pig and a night out, as well as giving Serious Pig some great publicity.
However, in considering that there must be a large number of people who would enjoy Serious Pig craft meat snacks, but who don’t go to pubs, there doesn’t seem to be much being doing to attract this potential customer base.
Like many small producers, they’re in a real Catch 22 situation. They need to up their sales to supermarkets to get the cash inflow to grow; they can only up their sales to supermarkets if they already have the capacity in hand to expand.
“Right now we need a cash cow – some market that will guarantee us £30,000 [$39K] a month,” says Rice. With that, production could be increased, new products could be developed, some equipment bought to assist in packing, and more marketing.
While Rice did not mention this at all, what they could really use would be a big company buying them out, but allowing them to keep staff, attitude, and quality – much like Epic, Krave, and what will soon be Duke’s in the States. Serious Pig is making some amazing products; MPJ has to believe if the cash flow issue was solved, Serious Pig could very easily be the next big thing.