Rebecca Smith was desperate to find a high protein, low carb snack she could easily take to the gym with her to eat once she finished teaching her spin classes. When she discovered biltong, a South African dried and cured beef snack, she became addicted to the taste. To feed her habit she was spending £15 a day, sending her husband Gavin across London Bridge to the South African store to fetch it for her while she worked.
Her obsession with the snack very quickly grew until her mother-in-law bought her a make-it-yourself kit — but it didn’t stop there. Having moved from London to Grantham, Rebecca and her husband have now opened the town’s first biltong store, selling a variety of flavours and have huge ambitions for the growth of the business.
After the birth of their son, now two years old, the couple realised that they needed a bigger home than their basement apartment in London. Despite wanting to stay near the capital, house prices were too high, so they made the decision to move to Grantham.
By this time, Rebecca’s job was able to be done remotely, however Gavin was still commuting for four hours a day to and from London.
Every day he would come home to announce a new business idea, whether that was buying and running a pub or opening a new gym, and everyday Rebecca would put the ideas to one side and carry on with their day jobs. Then one day, he hit the jackpot and when he got home he said to his wife, “I know, we could manufacture biltong!”
This was the point where Rebecca started to take him seriously. “I had a quiet afternoon and he brought me the cost of the dryers and the cost of the shipping and a number of other costs. I ran them and thought that I must have something wrong here because this could work,” Rebecca explained.
As the couple looked deeper into the idea, they realised they had a working business plan and started to get things in place. Shortly after, as though part of the grand design, Gavin was made redundant from his London based IT job, which left him open to working in the store full time whilst Rebecca continues to work full time for Jersey Oil and Gas, as well as teach her gym classes.
Finding the right footing
Wanting to create the best possible start for the company, Gavin and Rebecca wanted branding that would really catch people’s eye. But starting out on a new business venture for the very first time meant that the duo had to think and learn very quickly on their feet.
“Gav, he’s the one with all the nutty ideas. He decided to email Bullseye, because he thought that it would take away some of the unknown, because it’s a known brand,” said Rebecca.
“He emailed them and said, ‘Can we use Bully for our biltong?’ Little did we know about licensing deals or anything like that. We knew nothing.”
The couple worked out a licensing agreement with Bullseye to allow them to use the famous icon from the TV show as their product branding. This gave them the head-start they wanted.
Rebecca planned to get her biltong in pubs and bars as a healthy alternative to crisps and snacks and very quickly realised the potential it would also have in gyms.
She said, “You see these guys walking around with these huge protein shakers full of processed stuff, full of rubbish and yet you’ve got a lean, high protein, snack which in 100g contains as much protein as their protein shaker.”
On the off chance, Gavin contacted the England Rugby team and sent them a few samples. The team loved it and now Biltong Farm is able to use the England Rugby team’s logo on the bags that will be sold in gyms to help with the promotion and establish the product in the market.
Already biltong is well known in London with many sports clubs having stocked the dried cured meat for years — but for Lincolnshire, it is a very new thing. Both Rebecca and Gavin believe so much in the prospect of biltong that they have put everything they have into the new business.
“We’re putting everything in because we do see a brighter future with it. It’s a kind of short term pain, long term gain situation.”
The couple may have only just opened their first store on June 17th, 2016 but Gavin is already thinking ahead. Opening night took the couple by surprise with how popular the store was just for the fact that it was selling biltong.
Rebecca had the opening night all worked out in her head. “I had kilo bags in the fridge and I got all of these little packages and was ready to explain what biltong was with my little sample, but that didn’t happen.
“We had a good ten South Africans grabbing the kilo bags and walking up to the till. We weren’t anticipating selling anything, it was about ‘Hi, we’re here,’ sort of thing.
“We did £600 odd on opening night, leaving me with virtually no stock for the opening day, and that’s how it started. It never ceases to surprise us ongoing. You would never anticipate that.”
The store is already a success with good trade and companies contacting Biltong Farm to place orders rather than Rebecca or Gavin having to source clients, and not just from Lincolnshire. Bath Rugby are currently stocking the product in its 15 bars and a delicatessen in Bingham has also confirmed that it wants to stock Biltong Farm products as well as a large fitness brand which the couple are currently in discussions with.
“It’s just people contacting us, which is really bizarre. But again another guy contacted us and he wanted to do a franchise of us. We hadn’t even thought about it!” said Rebecca.
The couple are, however, looking at the possibility of opening a second store in either Peterborough or Sleaford where there is a high population of South Africans.
“The big side of our trade is South Africans. Whereas some people would come in and buy 100g for £4, South Africans come in and buy several kilos. Although saying that, when we first started some people came in to buy their 100g and the second time they came in and bought 200g. The next time they asked if it was cheaper to buy 500g, which it is. Now every week they buy a kilo,” Rebecca laughed.
“Generally South Africans walk out with a kilo or several.”
Already, the idea of the business has changed based on customer feedback and requests; besides the biltong many customers wanted some South African home comforts so the store now stocks imported South African crisps, snacks and cereals for its customers to enjoy. However, the store front was not part of the original plans.
“The shop front is an accident. It’s a good accident because we are selling everything that we produce. The bad news is that we don’t have capacity for the licensing stuff. So either we extend here or we keep this as our boutique Biltong and then have another manufacturing unit which will generate the licensing stuff,” Rebecca explained.
Already the two of them can produce around 150kg of biltong a week, all of which is selling out. Gavin plans to introduce a Beer and Biltong evening, along with the possibility of looking at two different biltong lines – a tuck shop which would include all of the sweet style flavours and a cocktail bar, which would include flavours like mojito and mulled wine.
The couple may has been putting in a lot of hard worked hours whilst Rebecca is still working a full time job and looking after their two-year-old son, but neither of them regrets a second of it — and of course now Rebecca can eat all of the biltong her heart desires.
“It’s the passion. That’s where the drive comes from. It’s why you don’t mind being in here on a Saturday afternoon because you’re making a product that you love.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 97 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.