WHILE pregnant and on a night out, Karen Knowles became frustrated by the lack of quality soft drinks on offer while her friends enjoyed cocktails made with skill, care and precision.
It gave her an idea.
Back in 1909 her great great grandfather founded a soft drinks business called Inchcape Minerals, which was later renamed Bon Accord. Based in Arbroath, its delivery vans were a familiar sight as it became famous across Scotland before eventually closing in 2000.
With a decade’s experience in the food industry, Ms Knowles realised she had the knowledge required to bring back the brand, but with a twist – it would be naturally sweetened and therefore better for consumers.
With the growth of craft beer and more recently craft spirits, it seemed only natural for Scotland to have a craft soft drinks sector.
“I noticed there was a gap in the market for this type of product,” she says. “After I gave birth I returned to the idea. That was when it really began. I started planning, looking at how possible it was, asking if there was a market.”
Ms Knowles grew up in the business, and her grandmother still lives in Arbroath. “One brother went to Inverness, one to Aberdeen, one to Edinburgh and they all set up distribution,” she says. “Geographically it was north-east all down that east coast, probably as far west as Falkirk, but then Glaswegians had the Alpine man.”
In October 2014 Ms Knowles began working with food technologists at Abertay University in Dundee, having been awarded a Scottish Funding Council grant through its Interface programme, which matches start-up businesses with academics.
“The brief was to make a premium, naturally flavoured, naturally sweetened drink,” says Ms Knowles. “They’d never done anything like that before.”
In the end, the team settled on a combination of honey, coconut nectar and apple juice concentrate.
With samples of rhubarb and cloudy lemonade variants, Ms Knowles was ready for the market, but a second baby pushed back the launch until May last year.
By this time there was branding which paid homage to the familiar smiley-face of the original Bon Accord packaging, and a business partner, Nathan Burrough.
Ms Knowles met Mr Burrough when they both worked at Young’s Seafood – she on the commercial team and he as a development chef.
“I told him what I was planning and he was interested,” says Ms Knowles. “He’d wanted to run his own business, but it’s daunting on your own. I confided in him and he was really into the idea.”
Between them, Ms Knowles, who works on sales and marketing, and Mr Burrough, who looks after recipe development and operations, invested £60,000 to get the business up and running, with Ms Knowles holding most of the shares. “Nathan made samples that we took to distributors and we got listings based on the kitchen samples we’d made,” says Ms Knowles.
Green City Wholefoods in Glasgow was the first listing, followed by Vino Wines in Edinburgh.
Coming from Cambridge originally, Mr Burrough was not aware of just how deeply the affection for Bon Accord ran.
“It’s been a good hook to get people in, especially at trade shows,” says Ms Knowles “Everyone has a story about Bon Accord, whether their granny got it delivered, or that they liked limeade best. It’s a good hook, but we want to stand on our own two feet.”
Distribution is growing, a tonic water was recently launched after Bon Accord teamed up with some of Scotland’s top gin bars, and that is followed this month with a ginger beer. When that run comes off the contract production line 90,000 bottles will have been produced.
These two new products allow the business to branch out into the on-trade, and while the range is well-suited for mixers, Ms Knowles stresses that Bon Accord is a soft drinks business.
“We’ve had a lot of inquiries about the ginger beer. Having another product in the range will help when taking it to distributors, it will make it an easier decision to take the range,” she says.
In addition, the packaging has recently been updated with a neck label and text highlighting the natural ingredients.
From a standing start, and juggling motherhood with launching a business, Ms Knowles said the biggest challenge has been getting the name back out there.
“Brand awareness has been the biggest challenge, just getting that growth, building loyalty, telling people ‘we’re back’.”
The export market is another target for the business, with HJ Hansen in Denmark taking product, but supermarket distribution is further down the line. Also in the future, Ms Knowles says she would consider selling equity in the business.
“If something was to come along and we needed a big cash injection we’d look at our options, but at the moment we are in the position where we can keep the equity. We are quite comfortable about where we are and where we want to be,” she says.
The immediate focus is increasing distribution and ensuring the product remains faithful to the family history, and with Ms Knowles’ granny having given the range the thumbs up, that is pretty-much assured.
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