Normally, we let you know about all our Christmas events at this time of year. But this time we’re not. But, instead, we’re going to tell you our story of the last few months and why KFC is now indirectly responsible for our life choices.
This advert for KFC was at the end of my road for most of the summer. And I bloody loved it. It was confident, very bitchy and says so much about the relentless bullshit you have to put up with when you have a concept that other people want a piece of. Oh, and it was funny too. I really haven’t stopped thinking about it.
I wish I could be as funny as KFC. Or at least have the confidence to call out poor business practices. But I haven’t ever really. I just moan about it in private, let it keep me up at night and get irrationally overcome by ‘aarrrrggghhh’ when it happens. So what exactly is my problem?
Well, other companies taking your ideas, your concepts, your homework, and doing it badly. That’s my problem.
When I started The Marshmallowist my market research couldn’t have had a better training ground, being as it was, an actual market. I made and tested new flavours each week. And this was great because I used it to support but not to determine the outcome of recipes and brand. In many contexts my genuine market research- bringing 7 or 8 flavours of marshmallow to the public and seeing which sold best or making people told me they wanted would have resulted in ‘vanilla’ or ‘salted caramel’. My favourite marshmallow ‘passion fruit and ginger’ would be left to one side and disregarded. No children would choose strawberry and basil. But that’s not how you change tastes, push boundaries or innovate. I would not have piqued the interest of Harvey Nichols or Vogue magazine or even been given a book contract if I just made really delicious Vanilla marshmallows. ( even though I do ) I wanted to challenge, add value and set trends.
Now, when you set a trend you’ve got to be prepared for other people to want to have a go. But you certainly don’t want people to copy. Making marshmallows ‘different’ and ‘premium’ and using the best possible ingredients is expensive. I know that all too well. Sustaining a living wage company that invests in people is also expensive.
And that’s why things are going to be a bit different for us this year.
For the last 7 years this week would see us opening at outdoor events around some of the UK’s most popular attractions – with roaring fire pits beneath the stars and a seasonal selection of our gourmet marshmallows to toast over them. They were really hard work these events- hard work but also a huge and successful part of our business. It was similar to opening 10 shops in one week. Christmas for us meant not seeing much of our families and most of our friends gave up waiting for us to text back. You also needed to be pretty familiar with an electric drill. But we loved it. And we invested it. We invested time in staff- we employed 130 staff last year- all being paid the living wage and all trained to give a fabulous customer experience and wonderful product knowledge. They were the face of ‘us’ and they cared about our marshmallows as much as we did. We’ve had staff come back to work for us year after year. We invested in beautiful custom-built chalets - by the same team who produce them for Coca-Cola, Grey Goose and Waitrose- they’re pretty fancy with copper finishes and marble effect display counters. They weren’t cheap, obviously, but they gave a sense of what we were about. They were elegant, clean, and beautiful spaces for showcasing confectionery that was a little bit special. They were made by people who are good at their job and got paid well for doing it.
But if you’re going to Blenheim Palace or Edinburgh Botanical Gardens or any of the other sites you may know us from normally- you won’t find us there this year. And that’s because we just can’t compete. Because as a small company we did the hard work. We tested the market, disrupted, innovated and proved there is a demand for confectionery that is interesting and well made at events that would previously serve candy floss in bags or Pick n’ Mix. But we can’t produce it to lower standards to increase profit. And we can’t price match with cheaper brands. Well, we could. But that’s not the business we want to be in. I don’t ever want to reproduce something using cheaper ingredients and minimum wage staff- I’m not here for that inevitable race to the bottom.
It’s not just events that this happens at- just look at the amount of supermarkets now selling ‘gin flavoured’ ‘gourmet marshmallows’ that don’t contain gin…just food flavouring because they can sell them cheaper than I could ever produce them for. And it’s off the back of artisan makers who take risks and make sacrifices to create these products in the first place.
So we sat down with our pal and business coach- Liz from Slick Pivot- And she made us realise that this was the perfect time to take a deep breath, look at what works for us, makes us happy and pivot away from what we can’t control.
I don’t want to be shamed by people telling me that I’m ‘naïve’ or don’t understand ‘business’. I won’t accept that, as a manufacturer and an employer, making ethical choices about sourcing ingredients, materials or people is something I need to ‘get over’. I have spent the last 8 years trying to run a good faith business and to make things better. But I can’t work in a sector that sees no value in that. That shrugs it’s shoulders and says ‘that’s business’. Because, no.That’s bad business.
One of my most hated expressions is when I’m told ‘it’s not personal’ because when you work with a small and creative business then it’s always personal- that’s what makes us great. So thanks to Liz, and the KFC billboard- we’re stepping back from contracts and being a little more choosy over who we partner with in the future.
We certainly didn’t create the toasting marshmallow concept. But we did make it special, created an experience, and served up marshmallow flavours that were unique, unexpected and attention grabbing. Of course you can make money selling cheaper marshmallows for the same price. But… that’s not really the point.
And, really, it couldn’t have come at a better time because our retail and wholesale side of the business has had a really fantastic year. We’re stocked in more shops than ever before and our online site has gone bananas with more loyal and returning customers than we’ve ever had. Spending the last few months not focussed on events has allowed us to collaborate on our most innovative project to date- a series of limited edition boxes with Parisian artist Adelaide Aronio where each box is a one off print! And we’ve not only launched 2 new flavours (spiced gingerbread and, the scrumptious, dark cocoa) but we’ve finally cracked our vegan marshmallow recipe- one that has alluded us for years! And on top of that I was able to launch the vegan mallow by appearing on a new ITV Sunday morning baking show just last week! All of these things have made us so happy and proud but also allowed us to innovate and be the best at what we do. Also, you’ll still be able to buy our marshmallows at the wonderful Christmas at Kew and we’ll be at their sister site Wakehurst Place as well as the fabulous London Zoo too. And, if you fancy our mallows at any of your own winter gatherings - we will be popping free skewers into every order ( just select the option at checkout!)
We’re feeling positive about this Christmas- with both a brand new baby AND a puppy joining our family.
our lives are filling up with hot baby breath and silky soft puppy paws. Having more time to enjoy them, enjoy the season and enjoy the type of business we’re growing is a blessing.
So, look, perhaps using KFC as an analogy isn’t the best one. I don’t really know much of their business practices but what I do know is that our everyday lives are made up of services, production and consumption. Without all of us at least trying to contribute better to how this works and how this is managed then we will never have an economy or a society that is successful or even sustainable. So, when we see ‘gourmet’ marshmallows being sold at winter events this year we’re just going to take that deep breath and say ‘guys, we’re flattered.'
And that makes us happy.