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Burgers with a conscience

12 January 2011

Roland and Miranda Ballard, the successful partnership behind Muddy Boots, will be delivering the presentation about how they make burgers with a conscience

Shrawley is one of those small, out-of-the-way places in Worcestershire which, if you can't read a map with military precision, could result in you ending up a long way from where you intended to be.

The intended target on this occasion was Church Farm, tucked away in the hills and valleys of this county, which looked beautiful on a clear, autumn day. Fortunately, my inability to read a map with military precision didn't make me late for my meeting with the people behind Muddy Boots Real Foods.

After arriving at the farm, I was shown into a cosy outhouse study where a cup of steaming tea warmed me up for the interview ahead. And what a meeting it turned out to be...

Roland and Miranda Ballard, a fresh-faced, likeable young couple from Worcestershire, took a gamble when they decided two years ago to abandon their successful careers in London and dive into the food industry.

Why the food industry? A passion for the sector was clearly inculcated into Roland by his father, John, who has farmed at Church Farm in Worcestershire for 40 years. His herd of award-winning pedigree Aberdeen Angus Beef is said to produce 'exquisite' quality beef.

After moving back to their home county, they set up Muddy Boots Real Foods in December 2008; their intention was to promote quality food and ethical farming and they took to the task like fish to water.

''We started by building a kitchen on Roland's father's farm and started selling at farmers' markets,'' Miranda explains. ''More than 350 market stalls, many lessons learned the hard way, a TV series, a proposal (and an acceptance and a wedding) and a rebrand later, we're so excited to offer Home Delivery, sell wholesale and have our burgers on the shelves in Waitrose.

Clearly, the couple is over-the-moon at their Waitrose achievement - as you'd expect, given the retailer's reputation as a promoter of ethical food.

So what is the Ballard's opinion on making a quality burger? ''What we're trying to do with the burger is as simple as what we're trying to say about farming - use all the really good cuts of the beef to make our burgers, not just the leftover trim,'' Miranda says on the website (www.muddybootsfoods.co.uk).

''Apart from the fillet, rump, sirloin and rib, the entire body goes into the burger, including roasting and steak joints like topside, silverside and brisket. We think a burger should contain these cuts - why not?''

Miranda and Roland are refreshingly honest about the challenges they face. On their website is a detailed catalogue of the trials-and-errors they faced in getting their packaging ready for sale. They wanted to use it to communicate the fact their gluten-free burgers are healthy; are made from prime cuts of Aberdeen Angus beef; are vacuum-packed so they ensure the mince remains fresh; and are available in six flavours.

But in pursuing the ideal packaging they realised they faced certain obstacles: their product looked different to the other burgers; the fact their burgers were vacuum-packed means they weren't as red as other burgers were; and they wanted to sell their burgers as a different type of meal.

There were solutions however, starting with displaying a 'great photo' of their burger cooked and ready to eat. They realised the vacuum packaging needed to be explained to customers; the need to cover the packaging with messages needed to be avoided; and the producer's passion needed to be communicated on the packaging.

''We didn't get it right though: our first packaging served its purpose and looked great on the market stall (it really increased sales) but it didn't allow us to expand beyond the farmers' markets as it didn't stack and so we couldn't sell them wholesale,'' Miranda explains. ''But what we did learn was customers liked the vacuum pack idea.''

Roland and Miranda, with the help of Brand Tonic, went back to the drawing board, taking a long look at why their competition was succeeding. They made an important change, placing two burgers in one box and increasing their messages about the product.

''The process of getting packaging ready is huge and daunting,'' says Miranda. ''My advice to anyone would be to find a good designer; one who is excited about your product and where you're going to be selling it; someone who brings almost the exact same samples of other similar products that inspire you the first time you meet; someone who really does read Mintel Reports and unglamourous buying patterns and teaches you something you didn't know about your demographic; and someone, most importantly, who's unafraid of starting at the beginning.''


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