Somerset Life discovers the origins of Somerset speciality food company, The Bay Tree

PUBLISHED: 19:46 17 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013

Some of The Bay Tree's delicious products

Some of The Bay Tree's delicious products

How an encounter over a jar of homemade cucumber relish led to the founding of The Bay Tree, one of Britain's most successful specialty food companies, right here in Somerset.

Somerset Life discovers the origins of Somerset speciality food company, The Bay Tree

As unlikely beginnings go, the story of The Bay Tree Food Company takes some beating. In 1994, a mutual friend thought that Lucie Lewis and Emma Macdonald might get on because they both shared a love of fine food. They met over a cup of tea and ended up having supper at Emmas parents home where homemade cucumber relish was served with cheese. Lucie, who had been working in fine food retailing in London, said she thought it was good enough to sell, and casually suggested that she take some up to London to show her ex-colleagues. She took the sample to buyers she knew at both Fortnum & Masons and Harvey Nichols, and came back to Somerset a couple of days later, triumphantly, with firm orders from both retailers.

They were, however, getting slightly ahead of themselves at this point, having no company, no packaging and no production unit. But, undeterred, they made up batches of the relish on the Aga in Emmas mothers kitchen, put it into kilner jars and drove it to London, where it sold like hot cakes. From these extraordinary beginnings a company has been developed which now employs 40 people and has an enviable turnover.

"Our philosophy has always been to produce the kind of food you would like to produce yourself if only you had the time, using only quality ingredients, and also to remain innovative in what we do," says Lucie.

Of course, looking back, the friend who introduced them was entirely right: Emma and Lucie were a perfect fit. Lucie had trained at Harrods, won the Lord Sainsbury's scholarship for retailing, which allowed her to complete her marketing qualification, then joined fine food supplier Leathams. Emma, who trained as a chef, was inspired to cook by her mother. She travelled around the world - particularly Hong Kong, where she worked with a Sri Lankan chef exchanging English pudding recipes for curries - and she learned how to use spices and combine ingredients to make new and interesting tastes, before returning to the UK in search of new challenges.

Both Emma and Lucie are passionate about high-quality food, both making and selling it. From her time in London, Lucie knew that there were very few products available of the same quality as Emma's, the key being her insistence on using only the best ingredients. So they decided there was a gap in the market.

The farm in Westcombe, where the business is now located, is perfect for the pair, the rural setting making it a gorgeous place to work, But isn't it difficult running a growing company from such an out-of-the-way setting? "The world is so small now that I don't think it matters where you run your business from," says Lucie. Working right in the middle of a farming community is obviously inspirational for us as food producers, and we love being surrounded by the fields and the breathtaking scenery.

So now Lucie travels around the country building contacts and selling their products, while Emma is busy overseeing the products and developing new lines. They are both now married - Lucie has three young daughters and Emma two small boys - and they both live close to the business, which became a limited company earlier this year. How do they manage to run the company, come up with new products and cope with young families?
"We have both learned to juggle well, and are fairly organised," laughs Emma. "We devoted all of our time to the business at the beginning and built up a great management team who support us day to day; now we are at a stage where our families need us too so we try to work only four days a week and make sure we are there for all the important parts of the children's day," adds Lucie.

But what about the future of the company? "We're currently growing steadily year-on-year," Lucie explains, "and we'd love that to continue. We also want everyone who is working for us to have a good working environment and be able to grow with the business. We would like to export more, develop new products and brands, and help promote more local food producers through our distribution network. We're one hundred per cent committed to Somerset.

And the worst thing about their jobs? "Having to eat too much and always having a fridge full of chutneys!" says Emma. And they both laugh, long and happily.

Latest from the Somerset Life