Tyrrells founder on ‘the next massive trend’: Fermented foods

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Willy's ACV ferments interest in gut health ©Willy's ACV
Willy's ACV ferments interest in gut health ©Willy's ACV
William Chase is a farmer turned serial entrepreneur. Having built, grown and sold Tyrrells he turned his attention to vodka and – by way of a brief stint in popcorn – is now working to build what he believes will his next big brand: Willy’s Apple Cider Vinegar.

When he founded Tyrrells, Chase was a struggling Herefordshire potato farmer. The brand – the story it could tell through its ingredients and provenance – quickly struck a chord.

Initial distribution was grounded in the independent retail scene, where Chase was able to build strong relationships with his customers and a loyal consumer base. Word spread, soon the multiples were knocking at his door.

“We created this desire – and then Sainsbury’s came along,”​ Chase recalled. Speaking at founders’ festival Bread and Jam in London yesterday (5 October 2018) Chase reflected on a patchy relationship with the UK’s largest retailers.

“Tesco brought five or six trucks on the grey market and sold them at the same price as [PepsiCo’s] Sensations or Kettle. They called us in and said: ‘Here is £5m (€5.7m) in sales if you cut your prices and your margin’. I thought about it for a nanosecond… and said no.”

Chase insisted that securing listings with the large multiples was not worthwhile for Tyrrells because it would have diluted the brand value. “A lot of people are so desperate to get in with the big guys they’ll do anything,”​ he noted.

In spite of a ‘David and Goliath’ style standoff with the UK’s largest retailer, Tyrrells was struggling to keep pace with demand growth. “The business was growing so quickly… but there were many, many issues,”​ Chase recalled.

When he made the decision to sell the brand, Tyrrells was making a profit of £4.5m on sales of £16m. Chase struck a deal to sell Tyrrells to Langholm Capital in 2008 for around £40m.

“If you want to preserve the pedigree and soul of your business, stay away from venture capitalists,”​ Chase quipped.

He insisted that the business “needed someone else”​ to grow but lamented that this meant a significant change in the culture.

From vodka to popcorn

But Chase did not spend his time looking back: “If you could build a brand once, the challenge was to see if you could do it again.”

The next stop was investing in his own vodka brand: Chase Vodka.

chace vodka

“My knowledge of wine and spirits was almost non-existent,”​ Chase reflected. Then he met Sidney Frank who built Grey Goose. This inspired him to develop a vodka brand with – again – a strong story, a focus on quality and clear provenance. Something that would appeal to people “drinking less but drinking better”.

The regulatory environment was changing – and not in Chase’s favour. One year after investing in the necessary large-scale equipment the regulations governing the size of distilleries in the UK were changed and smaller micro-craft distilleries cropped up competing for same customer base as Chase Vodka was targeting.

Next on the agenda was popcorn. Chase invested in a factory and began working to develop a brand. But his heart wasn’t in it (“I can’t talk about popcorn for more than a few minutes without running out of things to say”​) and he struggled to find people with the “passion​” needed to drive the business forward.

Then can a chance occurrence that would change the direction of his business ventures. On his way to meeting a buyer, he heard one shopper excitedly talking up the benefits of apple cider vinegar to another. Just like that, the seed of Willy’s ACV was planted.

‘The next massive trend in food’

For Chase’s money – literally and figuratively – cider vinegar plays into an important developing trend in the food space: probiotic foods. Whereas in the past, gut health was something you "didn't talk about", ​interest in this space is at an all time high, Chase said. “That, for me, I see as the next massive trend in the food business,”​ he predicted.

Recently launched Willy’s has “taken off”​, Chase said. “It is quite sticky. We can tell the story about the ingredients, where they came from. It is on-trend.”

Willy’s apple cider vinegar is made using hand-pick organic apples from Chase’s Hereford orchards. These are pressed and allowed to naturally ferment making an unfiltered cider. This is then naturally fermented into vinegar. It is unpasteurised, raw and gluten-free.

The company has also developed what it calls a “natural energy drink​”: A combination of apple juice; kombucha – a fermented tea that boosts metabolism, destroys free radicals, supports a healthy liver function and lifts mood; ACV, which aids digestion, boosts energy and lowers glucose levels; and distilled water with bicarbonate of soda and ginger.

Chase sees great potential in combining cider vinegar and kombucha. “We want people to drink this every day. It is all about your daily dose.”

As with Tyrrells, Chase doesn’t have ambitions of securing big listings in retail multiples for Willy’s. Instead, he has focused his efforts online and wants to build on the idea of a daily health partnership by developing a direct-to-consumer model.

“I want to go direct to subscriptions… You can communicate directly,”​ he told FoodNavigator.

‘You have to get in early’

Chase is confident that this latest business foray hits some important emerging consumer trends. And he believes that Willy’s is well-placed as an early mover in the space.

“Trends are moving so quickly,”​ he observed. “Once something becomes on-trend everyone jumps on. It’s that old fashioned thing where you have to get in early.”

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