Back in 2007, when the double act in question was still working at smoothie maker Innocent, the plan was just to do something new, says Stevens, a logistics graduate who has risen effortlessly up grocery’s greasy pole over the last decade, cutting his teeth at Wincanton and Manhattan Associates before heading up operations at Innocent when it was still in its ‘entrepreneurial’ stage.
Indeed, posh chewing gum was just one of several business ideas fermenting in the minds of Stevens (pictured left) and business graduate Shrimpton - Innocent’s marketing guru (pictured right) – who comes with an equally impressive resumé.
There wasn’t a Eureka moment – neither recalls leaping out of the bath shrieking, ‘There’s a gap in the market for an all-natural premium gum!’ – it was more of a nagging itch that wouldn’t go away, says Shrimpton, who had a spell of “being very into falafel” before finally settling on gum.
“We kept coming back to gum. And every time we did a bit more research, it just reaffirmed that we were on the right track. No one had really gone down the high-quality, all-natural ingredients route with gum, even though this trend has found its way into every other category in grocery over the last few years.”
By the time they hit the ISM sweets show in Cologne in January 2008, they were convinced they were onto something, he says. “There was a huge amount of activity in premium chocolates, and we met loads of people that were really passionate about every aspect of their product and where it came from.
“But in sugar confectionery, and gum in particular, we just didn’t get the same vibe. There was a clear gap in the market and we wanted to fill it before someone else did.”
But their timing wasn’t great, admits Stevens. “We were starting a business just as the global economy was going into freefall and a lot of people were looking at us like we were completely nuts.”
On the plus side, the Innocent connection opened some doors when they were first pitching their concept to potential financial backers and retail customers, admits Stevens.
But they were well aware that these doors would slam shut again if their gum didn’t deliver, he points out. “Having Innocent on the CV probably helped us get in front of a few people, but that’s all it did. After you’ve got your foot in the door, you’ve got to make your pitch.”
Gum for the connoisseur
Two years – and a lot of blood, sweat and tears – after the trip to ISM, they unveiled their first product: a premium gum containing black mitcham peppermint grown in Hampshire; and a suitably quirky brand: Peppersmith.
The gum – which retails at a pricy, though not extortionate, £1.40 per pack - is sweetened with xylitol (wood sugar) and uses chicle (sap from Sapodilla trees grown in Central America) as a base rather than the synthetic polymers used by the big guns in gum.
While chicle ticks all the right boxes on sustainability grounds (if the indigenous population can make a sustainable income from the trees, they won’t chop them down), it has created some technical headaches, admits Stevens.
"The biggest challenge has been how to replicate the performance of a synthetic product with something made from trees and plants.”
While chicle has a long history of use as a gum base, it is “actually pretty hard to work with in terms of consistency, as it’s harder to run through the machines”, points out Stevens, who identified a contract manufacturer outside the UK to make the gum last year.
“It also reacts in interesting ways with other ingredients. For example, we’re using high quality peppermint oil, and this can soften up the gum base quite a lot.”
The other challenge has been flavour release and longevity, which has also been affected by their choice of ingredients, he adds: “We’re happy with our product, but there is definitely more work we can do on extending the flavour. The products will evolve over time.”
The business plan
Crucially, the gum, which is now stocked in independent stores across the South East and is about to make its debut in supermarket chain Booths, is getting those all-important repeat purchases, claims Stevens.
“That was our biggest fear, that people would buy it once to try it out, and then not buy it again. But the feedback we actually get most from retailers is, this is great, what else have you got?”
It’s too early to give a detailed answer right now, he says, but the next step is to introduce new gum varieties such as cinnamon and spearmint, and then explore brand extensions in other categories.
“We‘re aiming to launch our first new products into the market by the end of this year. Gum is our heartland, but we're also looking at other areas of confectionery."
The fact that any new entrant to the gum market will always be a minnow swimming in a pond owned by two big sharks (Wrigley/Mars and Kraft/Cadbury) makes life challenging, but not impossible, says Shrimpton.
"We're not trying to compete for space on the gum fixture between Extra and Trident. We've been most successful in stores that don't stock gum at all. We're targeting the kinds of places that wouldn't stock mainstream gum."
'Quite ridiculously hands-on'
While they did manage to persuade one investor to part with some cash to help fund the business, the bulk of the money invested in Peppersmith is theirs, which is both exhilarating and scary, admits Stevens.
“Building a brand from scratch is hard work, but it’s also really exciting because you’ve got a completely clean slate. Once your business becomes a certain size, you can’t afford to take risks.
"When you're starting out, you don't have to worry about whether what you're doing will 'impact sales', as you don't have any!"
The best part about starting your own company, though, is that you get to do things your own way, adds Shrimpton.
"We worked with a fantastic design agency in Shoreditch to get the logo and pack design right, and we were quite ridiculously hands-on throughout the process, which must have been incredibly annoying.
"But if you are building your own business, you should always know who you are and what you want."
Armed with a large box of Peppersmith gum, FoodManufacture.co.uk conducted a quick vox pop amongst friends and colleagues to find out what they thought.
Read on for the results of our (statistically highly insignificant) survey:
"I thought including paper for used gum was a great idea. And it might help to keep Brighton's pavements cleaner, or is that the realms of fantasy?" LORRAINE, BRIGHTON
“I love the idea of a more natural gum, so I think this has great potential. But I don’t think it’s quite there yet – the flavour (which is excellent at the beginning) goes away too soon, and also the price is a little too high for this to become my daily gum of choice!” LORRAINE, MANCHESTER
“It tasted nice and looks good, but the taste went in about 10 chews! The paper element [each pack comes with a pack of papers to inspire punters to dispose of their gum responsibly] is innovative." CHRIS, WEST SUSSEX
“It tastes great and I love the idea behind the product and its ingredients. I also like the fact that it is endorsed by the British Dental Association.” BEN, CHELMSFORD
"Great mouthfeel and texture and initially refreshing burst of flavour, but this does not endure and the gum quickly becomes bland and uninteresting. I like the idea of the healthy component for teeth and gums, but I don't prefer it to existing mainstream brands because the minty taste is too short-lived. If the flavour lasted longer, however, I would definitely be tempted to buy it." ROD, HORSHAM