Purveyor of fine foods and beverages since 1707, the name Fortnum & Mason is synonymous with the highest quality products. Libbie Hammond spoke to Lucy Williams, Fortnum’s commercial director, to get some insight into its operations
When it comes to luxury food, one retailer immediately springs to mind. With two Royal Warrants and a legendary standing within the world of food retail, Fortnum & Mason is not just a must-visit destination for global gourmets but also a name that represents the very best. As Lucy Williams, Commercial Director began by confirming; the business has a long and illustrious history of providing exceptional service, delicious food and items that bestow joy. She continued with some further details about the company’s pedigree. “Legend has it that William Fortnum, footman at the Court of Queen Anne, began recycling candles taken from the palace and selling them to ladies of the Court. With his landlord, Hugh Mason, the business opened – in a small way – in Duke Street. Fortnum’s has maintained its close relationship with the royal household ever since, even naming some of its best-selling products after reigning monarchs. Prime examples are the Queen Anne Blend tea and the iconic Royal Blend, first created for King Edward VII in 1902.”
As Lucy mentioned tea, she also highlighted a fascinating fact about Fortnum’s, which perfectly illustrates why it is considered one of the finest retailers in the world. “The store stocks over 200 tea varieties,” she said. “In days gone by, if you weren’t sure which tea or coffee blend suited the drinking water in your area, Fortnum’s could supply a small flask for you to send some water to 8Piccadilly, where it was analysed and a blend either suggested by their experts or made up especially for you.”
Of course, once you have your tea, you need a biscuit and as Lucy noted, these two products are among the oldest sold at Fortnum’s. “Unsurprisingly, given our 312-years of trading, we’ve had a long time to get them just right – we have a biscuit that goes perfectly with each of our teas. Customers from all corners of the world come in asking for our famous Royal Blend tea, which goes perfectly with a Pistachio & Clotted Cream biscuit.”
Other firm favourites include the famous Chocolossus biscuit, and its near-namesake the expertly baked Toffolossus biscuit, which mixes salty-sweet flavours, chewy toffee and plump dates. This latter product can even boast a celebrity fan, as Rick Stein champions the Toffolossus as one of the greatest biscuits around.
Clearly no stranger to innovation, Fortnum’s even invented the ‘scotch’ egg, understood to have been available by 1756. “Walter McQueen Pope, a theatrical historian, wrote in his book Goodbye Piccadilly, that travellers could enjoy ‘hardboiled eggs in forcemeat (called Scottish eggs) from Fortnum & Mason’,” shared Lucy. Visit the Fortnum & Mason website today and the legendary Scotch Egg is still there, only now in four versions including Black Pudding and a vegetarian variety.
But finding and sourcing all of these products, which not only have to maintain the stringent levels of quality Fortum’s expect, but also keep up with trends and intrigue its sophisticated customer base, is an on-going challenge. “Suppliers often do approach us of course but our buyers also ferret out new suppliers or great new product in a variety of ways,” Lucy explained. “Sometimes the buyers and chefs may create a recipe and work with a producer to create it. Other times buyers will find ideas on their travels or read about new products online or through social media. Word of mouth also plays a part, with recommendations from current suppliers sometimes going a long way.”
She continued: “Long-standing supplier relationships are really important and do form a core part of our business, but then the smaller individual makers are an exciting and invaluable part of our growth too. Innovation has always been at the heart of what we do and working with dependable and creative suppliers has allowed us to market incredibly unique products that are exclusive to Fortnum’s. So for example, recently, in the tea category, we’ve worked with some really innovative makers to produce our own Sparkling Tea and a Cold Brew Tea Liqueur.”
The Sparkling Tea is actually a soft drink, created from eight of the company’s famous and rare brews. It is presented, as one might expect from Fortnum’s in a beautiful champagne style bottle, and as Lucy highlighted, is perfect to toast a special occasion, and is even suitable for children.
“Cold Brew on the other hand should not be enjoyed by children, no matter how tasty it is!” she added. “This liqueur is expertly cold brewed for 24 hours and distilled in traditional copper pot stills in Dorset. The abundance of flavour comes from Fortnum’s Countess Grey tea and New Forest Spring Water, making it delicious in a champagne cocktail, taken long with soda and a wedge of peach, or served over ice after dinner.”
The vast majority of wares sold by Fortnum’s come under its own label, however, Lucy did note that the company will always introduce or test new products if they are innovative or just totally delicious, regardless of brand. “The biggest consideration is how great something tastes and how well it is made,” she asserted. And these two criteria are paramount for any new product that is looking to be stocked on a shelf or served in a restaurant. “The most important factors are taste and quality,” she confirmed. “However, it’s definitely worth highlighting that a supplier’s approach to building a sustainable and responsible business has always been vital to us. Having a progressive approach to environmentally responsible/sustainable packaging and manufacture is critically important. We’re looking for brands and people who are working to change their industries and innovate through both products and processes.”
Close personal relationships with suppliers are important too, and the buyers from Fortnum’s will undertake site visits and familiarise themselves with the manufacturing processes that are underway. However, as Lucy pointed out, there are no strict set criteria that would potentially stop them working with anyone. “If we find a product or a business that we love, and who want to work with us, I’d like to think that we go out of our way to make it work,” she said, reassuringly.
Fortnum’s also likes to share the provenance of a product if it has an interesting story behind its creation, so that could be the way the product has come about – like Sir Nigel’s Marmalade, which was created for noted 1920s actor-manager, Sir Nigel Playfair, who missed the thick-cut marmalade of his youth. How a product is made can also be shared (like the Rose Petal Jelly whose label notes that it uses rose petals from one single garden in Oxfordshire) or even who the maker is (Wilde’s Cheese, for example). “It really depends on what makes that product special and what we believe our customers will want to know,” Lucy said.
It also taps into the modern customers’ desire to understand more about their food and where it comes from. “I think customers are sometimes looking to understand the origin of the product or have an interest in hearing its story,” Lucy agreed. “But this differs based on which product and category. What’s clear is that we have to always offer our customers wonderful products, the highest quality ingredients and, frankly, the very best taste – aside from the usual audits and quality control checks, the buyers and chefs regularly taste all our product to ensure consistency and excellence.”
While Fortnum’s clearly embraces modern ideas and doesn’t shy away from on-trend products, it also possesses a history and heritage that sets it apart from almost any other food and beverage store. One of the most beautiful and treasured gifts I have ever received was a hamper from Fortnum’s and the excitement of undoing that legendary wicker basket and delving into the treasures within stays with me today. “We fondly refer to them as ‘little parcels of joy’.” concluded Lucy. “Our hampers, which really gained popularity back in the 18th century, still remain the most excellent expression of all we do best.”