When Sarah West-Sadler was named double prize winner in both the savoury and product packaging categories at this year's Foodex Meatex Student Foodexcellence Awards someone else nearly had to pick up the trophies for her. And the £1,000 prize money that came with them. So sure was she that her entries would not win that she nearly didn't bother going to the awards. But, as it turned out, she's glad she did.
"I'm a real pessimist," she says. "I was whingeing so much about having to go to the NEC for the event and about how I was never going to win. But it was fantastic when I did."
Luckily for her, West-Sadler's poor judgement stops there. In the field of new product development (NPD) it is spot on. "This could easily be a new food favourite in 2004 -- clever cool and sexy," was the praise one judge heaped on her winning entry, a self-assembly tapas kit. She obviously has a knack for NPD.
"If you've got a feel for the product and a passion for food it's not that difficult," she says, adding that she doesn't mean to sound arrogant. And West-Sadler certainly has a feel for her market. In the case of her Tapas Mi Casa, she latched on to the growing trendiness of tapas, but actually got the idea from a self-assembly sushi box, she admits. "Inspiration comes from keeping an open mind," she says.
As a student of Brackenhurst Campus -- the foodie part of Nottingham Trent University -- West-Sadler hails from an establishment used to tasting victory in this event. Sarah Kind, the winner in this year's sweet category and a previous winner, is another Brackenhurst student. Another pupil from the campus also took home second place in the sweet category this year. There must be something in the Nottingham water.
But in other ways West-Sadler's situation is very different to most of her contemporaries. At 31, she's had a head start on many, having worked in NPD in the food industry for seven years. So the competition must have been plain sailing then?
Not really, as it turns out. Now in her final year of a full-time Human Nutrition and Advanced Product Development degree, West-Sadler has had to juggle her course and impending exams with being a mum to her two year-old son Jack. Not something that is easily done, she tells me. "It's been bloody hard. The final year has just been mad; it's gone to a completely different level. I've had to step up about three or four levels in my work."
Despite her acumen for NPD, West-Sadler began her career in food by chance, joining Hazlewood Foods' Kiverton Park factory as a way of earning a bit of cash. "My aunt worked in the factory, so it was a case of being in the right place at the right time," she says. "I can't take any credit for the thought process behind my career in food."
She was given the role of NPD assistant, a job which she stuck with for two years as it suited her personality. "If you put yourself out there in the food industry you will be snapped up," she says. "There are lots of opportunities in the industry for people like that."
She then moved to chilled food producer Thomas Food Partnership (TFP) in Sheffield as NPD manager. It was a move that finally stretched her abilities. "At Hazlewood I was an assistant, the responsibility lay with others," she says. "But when I came to TFP it was a small business and there was a sink or swim mentality."
Having proved her ability as a swimmer, four months into her job the opportunity to fill a vacant technical manager position came up. In order to accept it, she enrolled at Brackenhurst to do an HNC foundation course in applied food studies.
"The course was fantastic," she says. "Suddenly everything I knew was backed up by theoretical knowledge and it gave me bags of confidence. Before, I could sort a problem but I had no idea how, why or what caused it. At Brackenhurst somebody turned on the light."
West-Sadler left Brackenhurst with an HNC and became technical manager. After a number of years she received a further promotion, this time to business development manager.
Yet despite such success in her work,West-Sadler has had to face many obstacles in her personal life. Soon after her promotion she was forced to leave her job because of a back problem. Then, nine months later, her newborn son Jack was diagnosed with having Down's Syndrome and a heart condition.
Yet, even at such a difficult time, she was determined not to lose heart. As Jack began to recover from his heart problem she found herself wanting to restart her career and returned to Brackenhurst to convert her HNC into a degree. "I needed some mental stimulation to keep me going," she says.
Not that it was an easy task. While most students on her course were getting acquainted, she was still in hospital with Jack. Not the dream way to start a degree course, she admits.
However, returning to Brackenhurst has done wonders for West-Sadler. As well as reclaiming her independence, the course has helped with her home life, she insists. In particular, she points out that her thesis on Long chain fatty acids and their link with Down's Syndrome was a topic very close to her heart. "By studying I have gained a lot more confidence with Jack and how I can help him. It's been good for me," she says.
Now at the end of the course and with two newly acquired accolades under her belt, what does the future hold? She lets on that she is contemplating doing a PhD. She also still has her eyes on a career in NPD or as a nutritionist, educating children about healthy eating.
"I've tried not to look too far ahead. With all that has happened you start to look a bit more at the present," she says.
"I am desperate to go back to work. But, to be a success in the food industry you need to be so committed. You have to work long, unsociable hours and be very flexible. I'm a bit of a perfectionist and it doesn't fit in with my family life."
That may be true, but you can't help feeling it would be a shame for the food industry to lose such an rising star. FM