In 1999, Debbie and Andrew Keeble set up what was not the most originally named premium sausage brand. Nonetheless, “debbie and andrew’s” was to prove a success.
Both Debbie and Andrew came from farming backgrounds. Debbie had studied at agricultural college before working on the family farm as the pig manager. Andrew was a hill farmer. They met through the industry, married and farmed together.
One day Debbie realised her family would need more than farming could provide.
“I was walking across the fields; it was a beautiful day but I suddenly thought, ‘God, we will never be able to go on holiday’. It was then that I said to Andrew, ‘We’re going to have to do something different.’ I bought a computer and made a business plan. Sometimes you have to say, what the heck. And once you say it, everything seems all right – you’re committed.”
Whilst hard work the brand grew and proved to be a success but when a buyer came knocking in 2005, they decided it was time to hand over their majority stake, as the buyers JJ Tranfield said they could help the brand grow much faster. Debbie and Andrew stayed on as managing directors.
Initially things went well but Tranfield was taken over by Dutch food giant Vion. This second set of new owners started to change things. “The quality changed, the packaging changed and they didn’t really know we existed,” Debbie recalls.
The relationship soured and the Keebles left. They offered to buy the brand back but Vion refused. (They later sold the brand to Irish company ABP Food Group)
“We thought, we’ve got this money, do we put it into a savings account, or do we gamble it all?” says Debbie.
“It was another what-the-heck moment when we realised we had to start again,” says Andrew. “It was hard to let go of the last brand but we saw a gap in the market. People want to know where their food comes from.”
The new brand, Heck, is named after the Keeble family motto, “What the heck!” and because it sums up their ‘no compromise’ approach to quality.
The brand is still very much in the premium sausage market but is aimed at a slightly younger target audience. It competes with brands like The Black Farmer but also their old brand – debbie & andrew’s. “We’re sharing the shelf in the supermarkets with the brand that we put so much effort into,” said Debbie.
Heck! did well, with turnover of £3.5m in their first full year of trading and today, Heck’s produce is stocked by Waitrose, Tesco and Morrisons.
This time round the four Keeble children all work for the company. “We wanted to build a sustainable family business; it was our kids that made us do it,” says Debbie “They never liked sitting in a classroom, so we’ve encouraged them to come on board. They were in it from the start and helped us to develop the packaging, the brand and the products.”
This time Debbie and Andrew will not be selling out. “The plan is to keep it in the family and to keep control,” insists Debbie.