What is excellence when it comes to food and drink? In Scotland we now have a number of ways to find out. On Thursday in Aberdeen I hosted the new look North East Scotland Food and Drink Awards, recognising innovation and success from across that area. Created by Aberdeenshire Council and Opportunity North East, the awards attracted 76 entries and focussed on 64 new products. So what makes Aberdeenshire a hot bed of food and drink talent?
The area starts with natural advantages. As well as being home to our fishing industry, nearby Speyside is also home to some of the finest whisky in the world. Add in natural farming country and you have the makings of somewhere special in the food and drink landscape. But it takes more than that to create excellence - it takes human talent.
From giants like Mackies, Baxters and Walkers to minnows like Fierce Beer who picked up the Best Young Business Award on Thursday night, the north east seems to have more than it’s fair share of ambitious food and drink entrepreneurs. These people take what the area has to offer but add a vision and passion that turns it into commercial success.
From Calum Richardson at The Bay Fish and Chips in Stonehaven to farmer Andrew Booth at The Store farm shop, from trawlerman Jimmy Buchan with his Amity fish and seafood brand to Jim and John Ewen at Dark Matter Rum, the north east has no shortage of committed and talented food and drink heroes. So is it something in the water or is it something more strategic?
The drop in the price of oil has hit the local economy hard but the north east of Scotland is still a relatively prosperous place to live and work and that sustains demand for products and services as well as encouraging business investment.
A supportive local authority also helps create an environment where business creation is encouraged and then there is the final piece in the jigsaw. Entrepreneurs encourage more entrepreneurs. Good networking arrangements and active leadership organisations create an environment where successful individuals can inspire and support others on the journey.
Alongside the north east, the Highlands and Islands are another prominent area on the excellence map. Supporting more than 30,000 jobs, food and drink is a key employer as well as a means of celebrating the region’s natural resources. Last year’s Highlands and Islands Food & Drink Awards saw 42 local businesses shortlisted. The 2017 competition is now open with even more entries expected this year.
Next month, up to a thousand guests will gather in Edinburgh for the biggest ceremony of them all. The Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards celebrate achievement across the country with this newspaper as media partner.
While there is much for these awards to celebrate there are parts of Scotland where the flame of food and drink entrepreneurship does not burn so brightly. Without encouragement from a supportive local authority or an active local economy with consumer demand, some places show no sign of the dynamism or drive for food and drink business development that is evident elsewhere.
These areas are missing out but thankfully, their numbers are diminishing. Active food networks are now supporting a new breed of entrepreneurs who see food and drink as a first rather than last choice profession.
Moving forward, the economic emphasis is likely to be on the new trail blazers as much as the traditional brands so we need to ensure, from education through hot-housing to investment in growth, Scotland has the support systems in place to maintain a strong flow of entrepreneurs delivering food and drink excellence.