The Big Interview: Bon Accord founder and director Karen Knowles

Karen Knowles reminisces about going to the Bon Accord factory in Arbroath as a child, and being allowed to select bottles of its soft drinks to put in the crates that would be sent off in branded vans to homes across Scotland.

Knowles is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the brand's original founders - it dates back to 1903. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
Knowles is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the brand's original founders - it dates back to 1903. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

While she is far from the only Scot who has fond memories of growing up with the brand, her connections run far deeper than for most – as she is the great-great-granddaughter of one its founders and in 2016 revived the name, harbouring effervescent ambitions for its expansion.

Edinburgh-based Bon Accord now boasts ten naturally sweetened soft drinks and mixers, including tonic, Bona-Cola and cream soda, which are stocked by a growing number of retailers and venues, including Drinkly, Valvona & Crolla and Bross Bagels.

And its offering – which also encompasses a rhubarb soda and a salted pink grapefruit variety – is also this month finding itself in the hands of prestigious guests at exclusive Edinburgh International Festival events after striking a sponsorship agreement for this year’s iteration. As a result, Bon Accord has a starring role at international lounges, private artist parties, selected festival venues and the closing party.

Knowles sees the firm and the festival as having common ground; both combining a rich history in Scotland stretching back many decades with a contemporary and forward-thinking approach.

And Bon Accord notes that 70 per cent of Edinburgh International Festival tickets are sold to Scotland residents and 60 per cent to Edinburgh locals. The tie-up also is highly compatible with fellow sponsor Edinburgh Gin – and marks a milestone in the progress of Bon Accord, which can trace its history back to 1903. The company was eventually wound down slowly and stopped manufacturing soft drinks in 2000.

Its revival came about after Knowles built up extensive experience behind the scenes in the food industry. She worked at Taypack Potatoes in Perthshire and later for Young’s Seafood in Livingston, where her commercial role saw her regularly deal with Waitrose and Ocado.

Having worked on both branded and own-label products, which she sees as providing a good foundation for starting a business, she also has a fascination with large-scale manufacturing – “understanding where things come from and how things are made”.

Her entrepreneurial light-bulb moment came while she was pregnant, clocking a gap in the market for modern, natural soft drinks with a sense of occasion – rather than old-fashioned options full of, say, artificial sweeteners and/or caffeine.

While her friends would be drinking gin and tonics served in a dedicated glass with a garnish, she couldn’t find anything “inspirational” for non-drinkers.

Knowles’ Bon Accord connection is on her mother’s side, while her father’s background is in farming. She grew up liking the idea of being your own boss.

Highly interested in entrepreneurship, she had always wanted to have her own business, “but I never really knew what, and it just seemed to be at the right time that I had this idea [for Bon Accord]”. She was also sure that her working life could complement raising a young family. And so she “just went for it”.

Working with Abertay University, Knowles obtained a grant through Interface – which brokers deals between small businesses and Scottish academic expertise – to help develop the recipes. The Edinburgh cocktail connoisseurs behind Lucky Liquor and Bramble have also contributed.

Looking to avoid refined sugar and artificial sweeteners, fruit juice emerged as the winning strategy, namely creating a base of apple and pear juice, with honey, and coconut nectar also brought into the mix.

The resulting drinks are very sweet, but Knowles stresses that they are geared towards more health-conscious adult consumers, intended to be a treat rather than something to guzzle litres of a day. “Everything in moderation… A little bit of natural sugar is OK,” she says, adding that the business is currently too small to be affected by the “sugar tax”, which came into effect last year.

Co-director and fellow investor in the firm is Nathan Burrough, whose remit includes production, manufacturing and warehousing.

Bon Accord now has a large facility in Sighthill, although the two business partners stored products in her porch and his garden shed in the venture’s earlier days.

Efforts are in hand to scale up the business, move into different formats and increase routes to market in tandem with improving recognition of the brand.

Originally Bon Accord was founded by Thomas and David Robb, and sold under the name Robb Brothers. It was then expanded by Thomas’s four sons, and boasted factories in Aberdeen and Arbroath, plus depots in Inverness and the Central Belt.

Nostalgia around the name piques people’s interest, says Knowles, who sees the “real emotional connection to the brand”, and people telling her how, say, they “used to go into Granny’s cupboard to get the Bon Accord”.

But she also believes that if its products didn’t stand up to scrutiny, its long-term viability would lack fizz. “I think we wouldn’t have had such a good first three years if the drinks didn’t taste good.”

The mix of its heritage and natural offering means Bon Accord is an attractive and unique proposition when seeking out new buyers, from distributors to cafés and bars, according to Knowles, who cites the trend of consumers seeking out more niche soft drinks.

Bon Accord’s re-emergence also taps into decreasing alcohol consumption. In the UK, this dropped from 16.6 litres per person in 1990 to 11.4 in 2017 – and is expected to drop to 11 by 2030, according to a study published in The Lancet – and one major study found that nearly a third of 16 to 24-year-olds are teetotal.

That said, the soft drinks market is not without its hurdles. Irn-Bru maker AG Barr last month warned that profits will collapse this year due to poor weather – particularly in ­Scotland – and customers turning away from its reduced-sugar drinks ranges. There has been controversy after it cut the sugar content of “Scotland’s other national drink” from 10.3g per 100ml to just 4.7g – while the firm earlier this year invested £1 million to secure a minority stake in start-up Elegantly Spirited that specialises in mock gin, vodka and rum.

But Knowles sees Bon Accord’s offering standing it in good stead in an increasingly busy market – other Scottish players include Paisley Drinks Co – with her business pursuing an innovative and scalable tack.

“We do have competitors, but we’ve always set out to be a more scalable business,” she says, highlighting the aim for its products to be widely available rather than super-premium.

Securing supermarket listings is an obvious logical step in this “inclusive” approach, with talks under way with such retailers, as well as with a major food service company that supplies hotels, restaurants and bars.

Bon Accord has been completely self-funded to date, although topping up the coffers with external cash is not off the table, particularly if the business was offered a large supermarket deal or if it was seeking bigger export contracts – it already generates a tenth of its business in Denmark and is eyeing the potential of North America, for example.

Additionally, Bon Accord, which has been working with Scottish Enterprise, has doubled turnover every year, with the figure on track to reach £400,000 in the 12 months to end-March 2020. External support will likely be needed to continue such momentum.

It is seeking to really establish strong foundations north of the Border, to boost its appeal – in terms of being a credible, well-known brand with a strong track history – to larger global customers.

Additionally, in June the firm was revealed as having been shortlisted in the emerging business category in the Food and Drink Federation Awards 2019 which take place next month in London. Nominees in other categories include Britvic, Coca-Cola, Häagen-Dazs and Kellogg’s.

When the shortlist was announced, Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright said: “Despite the political uncertainty we face, our industry will continue to produce the high quality and innovative goods for which we are known worldwide. Now more than ever it is vital that we celebrate our success together.”

Bon Accord is also a member of Scotland Food & Drink, which has a much-cited target of the sector being worth £30 billion by 2030, and Knowles welcomes “so many other innovative food and drink brands coming through into the market just now – we are all doing our own thing, but the community spirit and goodwill throughout the industry has really helped us.”