John Sheaves – Taste Of The West
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
Let’s talk stats. The food and drink industries of the UK contribute more than £30 billion combined to our economy each year. They are the largest manufacturing industries in the UK (larger than automotive and aerospace combined) and they also employ over 450,000 people in the UK. Not too shabby…
As if those stats aren’t convincing enough, we need only to lift our heads and look around us to see the influence and impact of food and drink on our local and regional economy. From brewing and crab potting to farming and cheesemaking, food and drink runs through the core of our region like the name of your favourite childhood seaside town through a stick of rock. We are well known in the South West for many things, but few more nostalgic and powerful to the senses than our first-rate food and drink offering. You simply are never far away from some of the best food and drink in the UK and, in some cases, the world.
So, you can see how important it would be for an organisation to draw together the numerous producers, proprietors and suppliers of such excellent fare and help to celebrate their success, ensuring continued growth for them and the wider local economy. Enter John Sheaves, CEO of Whimple-based Taste of the West (TOTW) – just such an organisation and, in fact, the largest of its kind in the UK.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a working lunch with John to talk about his journey in business as well as the history and future of Taste of the West. And the location for this meeting of minds? Circa 1924 in Exeter, where we were treated to what, at the time, was their brand-new House Sharing Menu, an eight-course lunch experience packed full of seasonal and expertly-constructed dishes.
As we settled in for the experience, I found out that John was brought up on a dairy farm in Ottery St Mary where he still lives to this day with his wife Becky and the two youngest of their six children. John stated,
“Farming is in my blood. My father ran our farm but unfortunately passed away when I was sixteen years old and this thrust me into farm work. I was chucked in at the deep end so to speak but I absolutely loved it. Living and growing up on the farm means that I’ve done it ‘at the coal face’ and know exactly what it is like to produce food. This has been vitally important in my role at TOTW.”
John joined Taste of the West as their CEO in 2005, fourteen years after its establishment in 1991. The organisation was originally set up with grant funding from the government and was a prominent conduit for funding from central government to then flow out into the food and drink industries. However, in 2005, the board realised that this wasn’t going to last forever so they brought John in to find ways that TOTW could commercialise their revenue streams and become more financially independent. They knew that they had three years of grace before all funding was chopped in 2008 but, when that day did eventually come, it was a brutal shock to the system.
“I remember a board meeting when a motion was put forward to discuss closing the organisation altogether. I dropped my papers on the floor, and set about convincing the Board that they couldn’t let this special organisation die, for the good of the food and drink suppliers of the region. I assured the board and gave them my personal guarantee that I would stand by the cause and continue to work hard to make it a viable and successful organisation for the long term. That was over a decade ago and what a transformation we have been through in that time!”.
As a result of that meeting, Taste of the West turned themselves into a membership-based organisation and it has remained so ever since. Growing from what was 200 members in 2008 to a staggering 1100 members now, the member-owned cooperative is split almost half and half between food and drink suppliers and companies in the hospitality sector. They also have around 100 affiliate members who provide professional or supporting services like accounting or marketing to the other members. All in all, the organisation represents the very finest of the thriving food and drink scene of the West Country, from the tip of Cornwall, up through Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset and over into Dorset and Wiltshire.
With just eight staff including John, TOTW punches massively above its weight, communicating to and closing the gaps in the networks that they represent as well as running the biggest regional food and drink awards programme in the country. The Taste of the West Awards attracts over 1,000 product entries and nearly 400 hospitality and retail entries each year and, in recent years, the awards ceremony has been held at The Great Hall at The University of Exeter with over 400 guests. TOTW work closely with the chefs there, providing them with award-winning products from their pool of entrants. The chefs are then tasked with turning those stunning ingredients into impressive dishes – a daunting task for a room full of foodies and connoisseurs.
With so many entries judged each year, the awards are open to all within the industry regardless of whether they are members or not. The judging process is run with military precision, with all entries being delivered to one location at once and then judged in three stages. John explained,
“By the end of our judging process, approximately 750 out of the 1000 entries win awards – either gold, silver or commended, although it isn’t a set figure. It’s not particularly hard to narrow down to the final six or eight within each category, but getting down to the final three, let alone picking a winner, is sometimes close to impossible.”
“TOTW are so much more than an awards programme though. Because we see the full life-cycle of products, from conception, to market, to growth and expansion, we are able to advise businesses at all points of the journey on things to do (or not do) based on years of observation and experience. This also gives us the opportunity to offer certain services to businesses on behalf of our affiliate members, often with internal offers or discounts attached. Further to that, we have also started white-labelling a small number of services to our members, starting with insurance services and including Renewable Energy, Distribution and Legal services in the future.”
As work-talk ran its course, conversation turned to what we do outside of work. I was surprised and intrigued to hear about the fledgling glamping business based on John and Becky’s farm and his weekend alter-ego as the keyboardist of well-known 8-piece soul band One Foot In The Groove. Add on top of that the fact that he has become a grandad for the first time recently and, along with work commitments, it is easy to understand how busy a man he must be.
In terms of the ‘lunch’ part of our ‘working lunch’, at numerous points in our conversation, the series of dishes comprising our House Sharing Menu started to arrive one after the other. No sooner had we finished one stunning plate of food before the next one landed at our table and, without exaggeration, it was one of the best meals I have eaten at a restaurant in my life. It was a culinary masterclass in terms of flavour profile, ingredient choice, seasonality, locality and provenance. An absolute gastronomic-knockout.
Take a deep breath and feast your eyes on the House Sharing Menu that we were treated to at Circa 1924:
- Fresh Homemade Sourdough with black garlic butter and anchovy and olive tapenade
- Fried, Raw and Grilled Oysters with Seaweed Mayo, Red Wine, Shallot Vinegar and Tarragon Butter
- Venison Tartare, black garlic, Shitake a la Grecque, Celeriac and Chestnut Puree, Red Mustard Frills and a Sourdough Crumb
- Crispy Jerusalem Artichokes with Caramelised Artichoke Puree, Almond Cream and Toasted Hazelnuts
- Brixham Crab on a bed of Celeriac Remoulade, Bramley Apple, Seaweed Mayo, Chervil, Nori Seaweed and Croutons
- Pigeon, Braised Spelt, Celeriac Puree, Grilled Local Mushrooms with Celeriac Floss and Dashi
- Braised Ox Cheek with Roasted Bone Marrow, Potato Foam, Caramelised Shallots, Sweet Carrot and Fresh Horseradish
- Chocolate Ganache with Salted Caramel, Hazelnuts and Homemade Malt Ice Cream.
Throughout our tasting experience, John and I would periodically omit noises of appreciation, surprise and enjoyment, with the odd comment along the lines of, “This Chef really knows what he is doing doesn’t he!”, or “Hmmm…I wonder if they have a table free this Friday night?”. I had been meticulous about my choice of venue for this interview as I knew that John would be a tricky man to surprise or impress when it came to food and drink and was, therefore, over the moon when he exclaimed on our way out,
“Do you know Joff, I had never been here before, but this has to be one of the jewels in the crown of the foodie scene here in Exeter. It just goes to prove what a strong offering we have in this region – to have somewhere as impressive and top-quality as Circa 1924 but for me not to have visited before, even in my line of work.”
As one of the most recognised and revered badges of honour in the world of UK food and drink, Taste of the West continues to highlight the very best that the South West of England has to offer to the fridges, kitchen tables, picnic blankets and restaurant store rooms of the UK. And long may that continue!