Guild of Fine Food Awards

Judging at the Great Taste Food Awards

I often work at weekends, as my time is fairly flexible. So when my work email pinged on a Sunday afternoon I had to take a quick peek. It was from Jennie Cooper of Taste Buds Magazine (which I write for) after a favour. She was supposed to judge at the Great Taste Food Awards on the following Tuesday but had been taken ill and didn’t think she would recover in time. Could I possibly take her place?

Tuesday for me was a ‘bit of a day’, but I have never acted as a judge before, and the idea appealed. It was hotfoot off to Gillingham in Dorset (not Kent, thank goodness) for a morning of tasting and judging.

Arriving at the Guild of Fine Food HQ, the wonderful Jilly Sitch made me very comfortable and introduced me to a friendly bunch, including Mrs Simkins, cook, recipe researcher and writer, who I now tweet with. After a coffee, I was directed to my table where I met our fellow judges; co-ordinator Susan, Jeremy and fellow virgin judge Matthew, head of product development at Winterbotham Darby.

We eyed up our table of goodies, which ranged from chocolates to honey, chutney, snacks and oil. During the course of the morning, hot food, ice cream, meat and fish were brought to the table, along with soft drinks. Luckily this wasn’t a cider judging day, or I would never have made my afternoon meeting.

Food Award JudgeJudging food (and drink) on its own can be a difficult task. Sometimes a chutney cries out for cheese! However, in general, the four judges at my table were of one accord, most of the time. If one person disagreed, the food was sent to an arbitrator. We did debate, but our debates weren’t heated.

There are potentially three stars that can be awarded – although you can also award no stars. Three stars is an amazing achievement, and I was told that a hush would descend on the room if such a thing occurred. My panel, in fact, did award a three star, but we weren’t sure if this was agreed with by other panels – a minimum of 20 judges must agree to make it so. I’m sure I shall find out when the results are published. We also were given a three star dish, but we didn’t agree and only awarded two. Tough love!

  • One star: Simply Delicious
  • Two stars: Outstanding
  • Three stars: Exquisite! Wow! Taste that!

I only attended a morning session but it was extremely good fun and opened my eyes to the range of food producers. A big thank you to the Guild for welcoming me. Now I’m hooked on judging – in fact, I’m about to judge for our local awards, Taste of the West. So watch this space!

Great Taste Food Awards judging

The Family Law Company at the Exeter Living Awards

Exeter Living Awards 2017

Awards are part of business life – in Exeter we have a wonderful array of awards to enter clients for; WMN, Express & Echo, Devon Life Food & Drink, Love the Flavour, Taste of the West – the list goes on!

I was lucky enough to attend the Exeter Living Awards recently. This is the second year for the awards, which celebrate the ‘best of Exeter’ (and beyond). The event was held at Exeter Uni’s Great Hall which was packed; more tables than last year and a very lively crowd indeed. The Great Hall looked, well, great! Tony Hawkes (not the skateboarder) was the compere, and entertained us with his dry humour.

My partner on the night was Sharon Goble of If…Media, and we had the best table in the house, with Jim, Lucy and Nathalie from Exeter Cookery School, Bethan and colleagues from YMCA Exeter and two of my clients, Kirsten and Rachel from The Family Law Company. Everyone, apart from Sharon and me, was a finalist. (Next year, Sharon?).

Awards Winners

Exeter Cookery SchoWinners Family Law Donna, Kirsten and Rachel at Exeter Living Awardsol and YMCA were pipped at the post on this occasion, such a shame but the competition was red hot. However, as the awards on the presentation table dwindled, we came to the Legal & Financial category. The Family Law Company has won some great awards in the past nine months, and a fifth gong seemed too much to hope for.

So, when they were announced as winners, I emitted a rather loud and embarrassing ‘woop woop’. Kirsten, Rachel and Donna (who was there with another winner, Citizen’s Advice Bureau which she’s a Trustee of) went onstage to collect the award. They looked absolutely great, three talented, strong women in an all too often male-dominated sector.

I always say to clients that it is almost as good to be a finalist as it is to win. But then, when they do win, it feels amazing!

Next up

In May, Devondale Electrical Wholesalers will find out if they have won their category in the national Electrical Wholesaler Awards, which they’ve just been shortlisted for. Fingers crossed for a win, Devondale is a truly independent South West company with a great ethos.

Writing awards submissions is sometimes time-consuming, but they really do help the writer (in this case, me) to understand a company better. Of course, awards

Of course, awards wins are only part of a PR service, but they are great for kudos, confidence and chutzpah. And not just for clients, for me too.

New Otter Logo

A new look for Otter

One of my long-standing clients is a garden centre business I have known since I moved to Devon nearly twenty years’ ago. While planting up my garden, I paid many visits to Otter Nurseries in Ottery St Mary; the garden centre is just 10 minutes from my house. My garden has perennials, shrubs and trees that all came from Otter, and when  I’ve always loved spending time there and

I’ve always loved it there, with an amazing array of plants and much more. I loved visiting at Christmas, and both my children went to meet Santa there when they were younger. This is a family business, with three generations playing an active part. The company, which over the years has grown from one to five garden centres, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.

Marking 50 years brought with it the inspiration for a review of the Otter, and the company decided it was time to look at a fresh approach to its brand. So, over the past year or so, client Otter Nurseries has embarked on a rebrand with Exeter marketing specialist, Wall To Wall Sunshine. This has included visiting all the garden centres, creating customer profiles, producing new designs and new branding guidelines. The ‘Nurseries’ has gone, and the company is now known as Otter Garden Centres, to better reflect the company and its retail offer. There was some discussion about the otter and its part in the brand, but quite rightly it was decided that the animal was intrinsically linked to the business, so it remained.

My part within the overall project has, by comparison, been relatively minor but, even so, necessary; issuing PR to reassure the public that Otter has not been bought out, but is still a family business; updating social media platforms, updating the website, creating a post about the rebrand and linking to it on social media.

As an objective observer and a customer of Otter, I think this is a really positive change for the company. As the rebrand is rolled out across the branches over the coming year I’m sure customers will respond positively. Certainly on social media so far, the responses have all been ‘thumbs up’.

Agata Domarecka food & drink PR

A big cheer for Agy at Rusty Pig

Hurrah for the Rusty Pig

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Robin Rea for several years now as one of my food & drink PR clients. Robin owns Rusty Pig in Ottery St Mary, a restaurant, butchers shop, specialist charcuterie wholesaler and wedding caterer (if you want a wedding feast, he’s the man to talk to). PR has been good; awards shortlistings, contributing to Devon Life’s Christmas Hamper (three years in a row), brokering reviews plus a whole lot of press releases and feature articles.

Robin, it has to be said, has a unique personality. He goes his own way, not compromising on his beliefs and way of life to make greater profits or jump up a notch or two in the chef stakes. Robin is his own man.

Rusty Pig has been a fixture in Ottery since 2011 but over the past year there have been some really positive changes. The superb Mark Russell joined as resident chef, allowing Robin to develop other aspects of the business. And then, early in 2017, a small explosion occurred when new restaurant manager Agata Domarecka was appointed.

I’ve come across Agy a few times, notably when Devon Life Ed Andy Cooper sent me an email from her suggesting a feature on her partner, leathermaker Matthew Bailey (writing it at the moment, watch this space). I bumped into her at The Source trade show at Westpoint Exeter where we had both gone to support Robin who was exhibiting his charcuterie with business partner Paul Young.

Food & drink PR

Next up, I interviewed Agy for a press release about her appointment. She’s an amazing lady, full of energy, full of ideas. Originally from Poland, Agy has been working in the UK for 10 years, starting as a waitress then being promoted to restaurant manager at Combe House before it became a Pig (not a rusty one).

I distributed the press release last week and had some nice feedback, especially from Devon Life who had popped in for brekkie on her first day and saw exactly what I was talking about!

It’s always been a privilige to work with the Rusty Pig team – they are as friendly as anything and okay, sometimes a bit cheeky (you know who you are). I suspect Agy’s appointment will herald a new chapter in the fortunes of the business – she is taking a firm grip and shaking a few things up a bit. She’ll soon have customers eating out of her hand.

A good time to book dinner – and meet the whirlwind that is Agy!

Slowburn PR lights and sofa

Slowburn PR for longterm results

Ready, steady, launch!

Last week I attended the launch party for Amos Lighting‘s new showroom in Topsham. It was lovely to see the showroom in its finished state; last time I was there, the floor was still concrete and there weren’t any stairs – or lights.

Suffice to say the magic has now been worked and the showroom, Amos Lighting & Home, looked fantastic. I was tempted not only by the lights on display that included new designs I hadn’t seen before but by the extended furniture range. Will a Conran sofa be seen in my office sometime soon? Watch this space.

I was there not only to schmooze but to help with name-getting for the event photographer. This was a tough call as the showroom was packed with local business people, interior designers and architects, but all were happy to be snapped.

On one circuit I bumped into Tara from AB, an Exeter digital marketing specialist. We got talking about PR, and she said that she thought it must be a difficult service to offer from the perspective of always needing to find opportunities and openings for clients. We discussed how PR is often seen as a light, fluffy service, but is actually an important part of a business strategy.

There are no two ways about it as far as I’m concerned, effective ongoing PR is hard work but eminently achievable, if you’re prepared to put in the effort.

Slowburn PR

I always mention drip feed to clients when discussing the potential of slowburn PR. Keeping a business in the public eye in many small ways is often as effective as a big splash; both have their merits, of course.

There are many ways of achieving this and any PR secured needs to be in the right place (at the right time), whether this is print, online or on television or radio. The key is to be reactive and responsive, to actively seek out opportunities and keep your finger on the pulse – always. It is hard work, believe you me, to continually keep up with local and national news,  and stay abreast of social trends (here I find a teenager’s perspective comes in handy and luckily I have that on tap). You need to be talking to people, always talking, making connections and thinking of how to use them to everyone’s benefit.

When your PR consultant is keeping their eye on the ball for one client, this means they are keeping their eye on the ball for all clients, at least that’s the way I find it works.

Happy New Year

The year that was, the year that will be

2016 was a ‘cracking’ year in more ways than one. My small (but-perfectly-formed) agency worked with some superb businesses in Devon and London and enjoyed its best year yet not only in terms of coverage and client awards, but also collaboration and making connections.

I had great fun working with Amos Lighting through the year. Amos sponsored the very first Exeter Living Awards – they were also shortlisted and although they didn’t win, we all had a great time at the awards event at Exeter University’s Great Hall.

I was delighted wheWinners!n The Family Law Company picked up a number of prestigious awards, including Family Law Regional Firm of the Year, South in the Jordan Family Law Awards, and Team of the Year at the inaugural Devon & Somerset Law Society (DASLS) Awards.

I was later called in to manage PR for DASLS via Wall to Wall Sunshine with my associate Sharon Goble of If…Media. Sharon and I worked together to manage PR for Exeter Philharmonic Choir’s Lord Mayor’s Concert, too.

Another long-term associate, Alison Jobson of Straight Marketing asked me to collaborate on a PR contract with Trinity Fire & Security, which went well, achieving coverage for projects in Heathrow and Warwick. Trinity then became sponsors for an award category for this year’s green awards run by the Devon Environmental Business Initiative, which I am a Director of (wheels within wheels, you see).

I continue to work with Ottery businesses the Volunteer Inn and Rusty Pig and through their recommendation, I was taken on by entrepreneur Stuart Phillips to promote his new baby, Tickety-Boo – a coffee shop and play kingdom. This called for the creation of a website, setting up and managing social media, and helping to organise the launch event.

Social media management for another Ottery client, Otter Nurseries, became almost a full-time job in the run up to Christmas 2016. With over 6,700 likes, the Facebook page is extremely lively, with customers asking all sorts of questions – about plants, Santa’s Grotto, parking, etc. I said to the Otter Nurseries team that I need a ‘batphone’, I’ve called them so many times over the past two months. It’s great fun, luckily!

As well as retained clients, In The Right Order takes on short-term project work – not just PR but also copywriting. This year I have written website copy for several businesses, including Fresha Cafe and Escot House, and I am currently working on copy for Space’s new website.My first cover story

I have also been busy writing features for magazines including Devon Life, Exeter Life, Devon Home, Taste Buds and my first piece for Exeter Living. This year, subjects have included the Budleigh Salterton Male Voice Choir, Mears Boatyard, goats milk chocolate, white goods and wine storage as well as several restaurant reviews (can’t wait to make a return visit to the Phoenix at Chudleigh). I wrote about a cookery course, and I had my first cover story with a flooring magazine, as well.

The end of the year saw some contracts finish, but filling the gap, Escot House came on board as a retained client in November. I am delighted to be working with the Kennaway family (who I have known for some years) to increase awareness of their gorgeous venue for conferences and weddings.

Christmas meal with 373I have occasionally been so busy that I haven’t stopped for lunch (or, sometimes, dinner), and my networking over the year slowed down considerably – a situation I’m going to correct in 2017. However, I managed to attend the 373 Group‘s Christmas lunch at Deer Park Hotel just before Christmas, and out of that came some work, a lovely bonus.

Just writing this has reminded me what an amazing year it has been – I haven’t even mentioned the half of it – Chilcotts Auctioneers, Life is Good and Devondale Electrical Wholesalers, for example. So, to everyone who has been involved in my best year in business, many thanks, and Happy New Year – here’s to an equally wonderful 2017!

Discovering Hawkerland Brake Barn

One thing I love about my work is coming into contact with many amazing projects and concepts.

Site visit

Last week I visited a stunning log cabin in East Devon. My clients Devondale Electrical were involved with the building of the cabin, supplying the electrical kit after winning a competitive tender. I went to meet Devondale’s Kevin Coles and RSPB East Devon Nature Reserve Warden, Toby Taylor to help me write a press release and case study about the project.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to find, but the cabin is an extraordinary building; made from trees felled on a nearby reserve. The trees were peeled, cleaned and assembled in Woodways yard, before being brought to the site and pieced together, like a jigsaw I imagine. The trunks are huge – this is a very solid-feeling cabin.RSPB log cabin case study accommodation

What’s more, the site is committed to using renewables. A biomass boiler provides the heating (fed by logs from the reserve), solar panels give much of the electricity needed (especially in the summer of course), and they are also using rainwater harvesting. The lighting is LED low energy lighting – provided by Devondale, of course.

The cabin provides accommodation for self-funded volunteers as well as a training room and meeting area on a mezzanine. It’s all beautifully hand-crafted and made me think that if I ever wanted to move away from PR, I might go and work for the RSPB – as long as I could stay in the cabin!

It’s a small world

WhileRSPB Log cabin for case study I was there, site manager Richard Bowmer kindly gave me the lowdown while he was finishing off a fireplace. Once again I was reminded that Devon is a small world. When I asked Richard if he was anything to do with Bowmers Restaurant in Budleigh, lo and behold he told me he’s married to the owner, Claire who I met a few months ago when I popped in to talk about their social media.

My visit was on the day that Devon battled with flooding once again (you can see the rain in the main photo), and my return from the cabin was a nightmare of impassable roads with abandoned cars floating in flood water. Being local, I knew of a back way to try, and snuck up through Gittisham before battling my way back uphill into Buckerell. A dramatic end to the morning, but I still had enough time to start work on the case study when I finally got back to the office.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town (again)

For the third year in a row I’ve had the pleasure of attending the launch of Otter Nurseries Christmas Grotto to take photos of the latest intake of Santa’s Little Helpers to use on social media.

The good old days

For me, long gone are the days of creeping around to deposit Christmas stockings on the beds of sleeping babes, and waking up early to help build Lego or Hot Wheel sets. Now Christmas is a time to pop open the Prosecco and try not to forget a crucial part of Christmas dinner (one year the stuffing, another the pigs in blankets, but sadly, never the sprouts). However, working with Otter Nurseries means I still get to have some real Christmas fun.

Christmas at Otter Nurseries

For the garden centre, Christmas starts early in the year, with buyers visiting Christmas shows in the UK and abroad. The Grotto arrives on my PR to-do list in July or August, as sales for tickets start in early SepChristmas decs as Santa Claus comes to towntember. There’s always a lot of excitement on social media when we announce ticket sales with lots of sharing going on. There are also always one or two grumps about it being way too early… you can’t please all the people all the time. My fave  grump this time round was someone who tweeted a photo of the ‘Suffragete’ movie which bore the legend ‘Perfect for Mother’s Day’ (left over from March, of course). The tweeter asked (with good humour) if we could get Christmas out of the way first, please.

The Christmas department opens at half term, and even I uttered a few ‘Oohs’ this year as the Christmas team had done such a superb job.

The GrottSanta Claus Magical Kingdomo launches in mid November. Once upon a time this meant Father Christmas arriving in a helicopter, but health and safety rules and regulations put the kybosh on that, and now it’s a far more subtle affair. It’s quite a thrill to watch it coming together, as the external shell is put up and the magical interior scenes are added.

On launch day, the bright, cheerful gang of Santa’s Helpers arrive – many are handpicked from Ottery St Mary’s secondary school, The Kings School. Some come year after year, and there are often youngsters from the same family on the team. And then of course there is Santa himself. I can’t say too much, obviously, but he’s very clever and knows a great deal about the children when they visit him. Santa Claus - his Little Helpers

This year the Grotto was visited by a blogger for the first time, which I arranged after an approach on Twitter. Stephanie Darkes of Exploring Exeter came on the launch day and wrote a lovely blog about her visit.

So there it is, Christmas has come to Otter Nurseries and Santa is on his way!

PR at the Cathedral, some of the choir

It’s PR at the Cathedral

Earlier in the year I was recommended to Exeter Philharmonic Choir to manage the PR for their May concert, Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony at Exeter Cathedral.

The PR campaign – a mellow mixture of press releases and social media support – went really well. I managed to negotiate a double page with Devon Life on the choir’s history, which included some great photos by Matt Austin. The concert was well attended, and, subsequently, the choir asked if I would help to promote another event, their very first ‘Lord Mayor’s Concert’ in October. The performance of Handel’s Messiah would herald the start of the choir’s 170th season.Neal Gardner, Devon Freewheelers

This was a far bigger task, as the job this time included finding concert sponsors. I drafted in Sharon Goble of If…Media to help. We spent several months chasing potential sponsors, while I simultaneously sent out press releases and photos, and persuaded Devon Life to give me another page to talk about the concert. As well as being a celebration for the choir, the retiring collection would be donated to The Lord Mayor of Exeter’s Charity, Devon Freewheelers. I provided pro bono PR services to the Freewheelers a while back (synchronicity?) so I was keen to get the word out.

Sharon and me serving canapesBetween us, Sharon and I negotiated sponsorship with Gilbert Stephens Solicitors, Amos Lighting (I had a head start there!), Investec and the lovely Exeter Cookery School; owners Jim and Lucy offered to provide the canapes for the reception, held at the Guildhall in Exeter. As it turned out, they needed help on the evening, so I ‘generously’ offered myself and Sharon as waitresses for the evening (sorry Sharon). The canapes were delicious, of course, and The Lord Mayor gave a lovely speech.

I had run two Facebook campaigns, one early on and one in the week running up to the event, and pre-concert ticket sales went well. But when Sharon and I finally took off our aprons and hotfooted it across to the Cathedral, the place was packed, with lots of tickets being bought on the door. What a result, I was absolutely thrilled.

And even better, what a privilige to hear Messiah sung in the Cathedral (and yes, of course we all stood for the Hallelujah Chorus). I always say I love to experience new things, and this was certainly one of those occasions.

The choir’s next performance is Carols in the Cathedral – which needs absolutely zero PR as it is always extremely popular, and usually a sell out!

PR at the Cathedral? TS Eliot would have been proud.

Exeter Cookery School where I was feature writing

Get baking – Devon style!

I’m fortunate enough to work as a feature writer for a number of regional magazines. I say fortunate because feature writing has brought me into contact with an array of fascinating people over the years.

This year for the first time I have been reviewing restaurants in Devon, the White Hart at Dartington, Dukes in Sidmouth and the Phoenix in Chudleigh (I just can’t say Chudleigh without slipping into a northern accent, don’t ask me why). The experience has been rather enjoyable!

So when I attended the launch of Exeter Cookery School it struck me that here was another, if different, foodie establishment that I could review. I’ve met the founders, Jim and Lucy Fisher, many times over the past year or so while they’ve been setting the business up, a long process which has resulted in a stunning location on Exeter Quay and a beautiful environment in which to learn to cook.

Taste Buds Magazine duly commissioned the review and I found myself signed up for a breadmaking course. Now, I can’t go into too much detail as that would pre-empt the review, due out later in the year. However I will say that as someone who hasn’t baked ‘proper’ bread for some decades, the experience gave me lots of confidence. During the course I and three fellow students (teacher Jo, Nicola from Amos Lighting and Mr Devon Hour himself) made focaccia, brioche Chelsea buns and brioche rolls, as well as a beautiful Couronne au Fines Herbes.

We left the course laden with goodies, not only the breads we had cooked, but a lovely stash of brioche dough to play with at home. The next day I proudly presented my children with a freshly baked chocolate brioche loaf, which stunned them more or less into silence, mainly because their mouths were full of the delicious bread.

Like everyone who has met Jim and Lucy, who are warm, friendly and generous, I wish them every success with the schoool – maybe I can write a feature on another course next year, something with chocolate this time?

In the meantime, feature writing is very much on the agenda for the coming months; next up are two features for Devon Life, one on hand made, Devon-made leather goods, and the other a male voice choir!

Rearching feature writing at Exeter Cookery School on Exeter Quay