Cutting The Mustard: The Social Entrepreneur Saving His City's Manufacturing Heritage

Robert AshtonNorwich Mustard

When Colman’s Mustard, a British institution, announced they were pulling out of manufacturing in Norwich, Norfolk it signalled the end of an era for the iconic brand. By the end of 2019, the factory that has been making mustard on the site for nearly 160 years will close, according to its Anglo-Dutch parent company Unilever.

Enter Norfolk entrepreneur Robert Ashton, who decided to set up a social enterprise to fill the gap left by the corporate decision and led the charge to launch Norwich Mustard.

After a ten-year corporate sales and marketing career, redundancy had prompted him to set und run his own marketing agency. However over the ensuing quarter of a century the he became increasingly disillusioned with it.

“I was tired of promoting product A over product B, when actually either would be fine,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was use my commercial skills to deliver lasting, positive social change.”

He helped to set up Norfolk’s Community Foundation, learned a lot about philanthropy, and began advising charities as they took their first, tentative steps into social enterprise. “This was rewarding work, although rarely well paid,” says Ashton.

When the announcement came of the Colman’s Mustard factory closure public feeling was strong. At one time the company had employed more than 2,000 people.

Comedian Stephen Fry captured the mood when he tweeted: ‘Norwich without #Colmans? Take the Tower from London, the RSC from Stratford and the potteries from Stoke, but leave our mustard in the FineCity.’

Ashton went a step further and recorded a video, suggesting that rather than complain, local people should get together and replace Colman’s with a new, community-owned, brand of mustard. The video had 5,000 views over a weekend.

“People were fed up of large corporate’s trampling over local feeling,” says Ashton. “Many could remember how Nestle, after buying Rowntrees, closed the Norwich chocolate factory in 1994.”

A Crowdfunder campaign was launched, raising almost £8,000 from 184 people, who were promised nothing more than a pot of mustard. Crowdfunder then introduced the team to Power to Change, a Lottery-funded charity set up to support community-led businesses. They provided a £6,000 grant and invited Ashton to join their Community Business panel. “Our goal was to raise £6,000 and we ended up with close to £14,000,” he says.

But big challenges lay ahead for Norwich Mustard, not least the fact that whilst local people wanted mustard production to remain in Norwich; they didn’t want to eat tonnes of the product themselves. Mustard is not like chocolate; a little goes a long way, so the product needed a point of market difference that would appeal to customers outside Norfolk.

Another consideration was that Colman’s is a ground mustard powder. With only a handful of mustard mills in the world, competing head-on would be both expensive and unlikely to change consumer behaviour.

Ashton says: “We decided to work with our local prison, providing employment and training for men nearing the end of their sentence. By making our mustard inside a prison, it becomes a product with a story and a social impact. Working with us inside will make it easier to find a job when they’re released.”

To draw attention to this link a picture of Elizabeth Fry – best remembered as a prison reformer, and also a Norwich Quaker – was added to the label of the first wholegrain product.

“We are being realistic about producing mustard inside the prison,” says Ashton. “We can make enough here for our local market, but when our products make it to the supermarket shelves we will need to contract production out, investing some of the profits from this in supporting our prison workforce into jobs when they are released.”

Norwich Mustard now has a small Board, a part-time CEO, and is about to pack and distribute its second batch of mustard in time for the Christmas market. A community share issue is planned for January which will raise the capital to set up a mustard heritage centre in Norwich city centre.

Ashton says: “We have our eyes on one of many redundant churches there, where we hope to tell the story of mustard making in Norwich, including of course the story of Colman’s. We will also sell mustard, serve mustard in food and show people how we make mustard too.”

His five-year vision for the social enterprise is to establish a recognised, profitable national brand of condiments and sauces, owned by people who live in, or love Norwich, and potentially the only major food company owned by the community. Ashton also hopes to inspire others to follow their example.

He says: “When we eventually open a new factory in Norwich, we hope to be able to employ people with mustard-making experience, as well of course as ex-offenders. That way we can support them in prison with work experience, then offer them a job when they leave; a stepping-stone from their past to a better future.”

The experience has provided a valuable insight into the bigger picture of the changing enterprise landscape. He says: “I’m convinced we’ll see many more community owned businesses, as people become fed up with things being taken away. It’s an interesting time.”

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