Romilla Arber began thinking seriously about a bread making business without any experience in food production. Arber began The Honesty Group in 2014 with the aim of producing fresh food ethically and, here’s the thing, while remaining a profitable business. With multiple coffee shops, a farm shop, two country pubs (one with rooms), a bakery and a cookery school, it is certainly a success story. In an unsettled world, does she still hold to her founding principles and what goals has Arber set for 2022?
Food brands are scrabbling to present their sustainability credentials. Traceability of ingredients, food additives, labour practices, waste management and more, are coming under scrutiny and especially so since the global health scare began almost two years ago. Greenwashing, branding something as eco-friendly, green or sustainable when this is clearly not the case, is misleading at the very least.
Is it even possible to produce food commercially in an ethical and sustainable manner? I asked Arber what lessons she has learned, and what advice would she would give to her younger self, starting out? And if you’re considering a career in the handmade food business read on to pick up some tips on the pitfalls to avoid and which areas to prioritise.
“A New Years Resolution that makes sense to me would be to try and support my local economy in a much more committed way.”Romilla Arber, founder The Honesty Group.
When it comes to good health, over Christmas I am a bit of a bore and tend not to overdo it too much on the food and drink and I like to keep fit so not much changes over the festive period. One word I dread hearing or seeing after Christmas is the word “diet”. A New Year’s Resolution would be to tell everyone who I meet who is on one – not to bother as they don’t work! Eat food made from good quality ingredients and not too much of it and you won’t need to diet.”
There are so many good farmers and producers in Hampshire and Berkshire who make a tremendous effort with their businesses and really contribute to the local economy and if I can help by directing my food pounds their way then I see this as a sensible thing to do.
“As a food producer I want to make greater strides in the New Year to ensure that Honesty becomes an environmentally sustainable business, having as little negative impact on the environment as possible.”Tweet
What did you learn about food and food production in the first few years of starting out in the industry?
Probably the singularly important thing I learnt in the first few years was that it was harder than I thought it would be. To produce one cake is quite simple but once you start to produce in larger quantities, then recipes need to be altered to take this into consideration. We don’t use stabilisers and emulsifiers in any of our products so getting a consistently good product is harder to achieve. It took us nearly three years to get our croissant recipe right, for example!
It is tempting to assume that you always need to add more people to the production team rather than just limit the amount of products you are making – people are the most expensive part of handmade production.
One thing that did surprise me was that if you set yourself strict ethical parameters in respect of your production values it actually makes life easier – once you breach those parameters the edges become blurred and you lose focus on what you were trying to achieve in the first place.Romilla Arber, founder The Honesty Group.
What’s the absolute root value of your business in one sentence?
Being honest about what is in our food and how it is made.
What would you tell your younger self starting out and what would you perhaps do differently?
At the beginning we said yes to everything, instead of concentrating on a few things and doing them really well. I think starting out again, I would have had a growth and development plan much earlier on – wrong paths are costly – but having said that I do think that the mistakes I have made, have added an awful lot to the knowledge and the expertise I now possess. So it is good to keep this perspective.
It was British novelist and journalist, Shirley Conran who said “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom” (Superwoman, 1975). In terms of personal responsibility, have we moved too far in the opposite direction, become too complacent or too lazy, to care about the food we eat, where it comes from and what the industry is doing to the planet?
This is a massive subject and your question touches on so many aspects of our food system – not just ours but all nations. To answer you specifically, I do believe that we have the wrong attitude to the time it takes to produce good food. It is one of the most fundamentally important things we do every day and we do not prioritise it – at the expense of our health, our children’s health and the health of the planet.
Statements like Conran’s are probably true in the literal sense but the mushroom does not need to be stuffed to be enjoyed. Conran was feeding into the narrative propagated by the commercial food industry that women needed to get out of the kitchen to be liberated. They were, as a result, able to successfully sell their mass produced, ultra processed ready-meals and other products, which we now know have had detrimental effects on our health. Food is a priority and it doesn’t have to take an age to produce a good meal. It was never a binary choice of women’s liberation or eating well but it was disingenuously sold to us as that.
We now have to work hard to rebuild our food culture and knowledge in the UK so that we can improve the nation’s health and well-being, and we all need to campaign for a more secure, inclusive food system.
There’s a lot written about counterfeited foods and misleading labelling. Additives in found in both packaged food products as well as fresh foods, such as the recent addition of folic acid to bread products. On top of all that there’s the issue of poor labour practices. The food industry is often quick to pass the blame onto consumers and their ‘demand’ for, say, strawberries in December.
If you were Prime Minister for a day, what first step would you take to begin cleaning up the industry?
I would start a public health campaign to educate people about the importance of cooking from scratch versus ultra processed foods thereby starting to foster an improvement in our food culture.
Next, I would change the law on food labelling so that ‘processing aids’ need all be declared and detailed on food labels. I would subsidise fresh food so that it is cheaper than ultra processed food which I would then tax, using that tax to give all children between nine and 14 cookery classes in school.
The Honesty Group honestygroup.co.uk.
Back to school…
Find out about how we messed up the parmigiana di melanzane (it still tasted amazing) and pick up some good tips in Bring The Amalfi Coast To Your Table At The Honesty Cookery School in Berkshire.