As I’m preparing for the last fair of 2017 for Brambleberry Jams I’m feeling a bit emotional, a bit sad, but relieved as well to get the kitchen back to normal again. It’s been a great 5th year for the business as the Artisan Food sector has gone from strength to strength across N.Ireland, I’ve won a Gold Irish Food Award but its also been a very challenging year for me physically. This year I’ve planned to only attend a very few fairs, carefully chosen, I’ve been to so many over the last 5 years that I’ve learnt a lot of lessons.
One is go to a fair where I’m really wanted, if the orangiser knows me and my Jams and Sauces I find they have been keener to promote that I’m there, give me a good table, rather than treating me as just another twenty quid raised for their choosen charity. I’ve learnt to understand that I can’t be going to everything I’m invited to over Facebook. When you just start out it’s tempting to sign up for every event you hear about, but you can end up putting out hundreds of pounds in table fees months in advance. You need a more targeted approach than that to find your perfect customers for your product.
I’ve discovered that it’s always worth finding out if the organiser is putting out actual real tables and chairs, there is nothing panics me more than turning up for a paid for TABLE to discover it doesn’t include a REAL life TABLE and your left standing there with an empty space! I only go to fairs that can confirm a real table and 2 chairs, the two are important because I’m serving food and I don’t like having to put the spare samples etc on the ground (and I need to sit down!).
Another key point, for me anyway, is a free supply of tea or coffee while the event is on, this might seem minor but if your attending a lot of events it can be really bad for you not drink enough, I admit I do feel resentful of having to pay for each cup of tea all day at an event when I’ve already paid to be there, sorry if that makes me sound mean, I’m not mean but I’m also not running a charity!
Recently I’ve been to an event at Hilden Brewery, Lisburn that was run by a PR company (Jeff Robinson PR), and it was terrific, the professional level of organisation made a massive difference to the smooth running and the right customers turning up.
Once I’ve choosen a few events, well spaced timewise, I’m then thinking about my stock levels and how to prepare for the fairs. On one side cooking for a fair seems easy, it’s what I do, but it always seems to coincide with getting a big order for retail on the same week, that’s just Murphys law! So it’s best to be prepared with extra of everything I might need for last minute orders.
This year I have changed the way I setup my stall from the year before, I think it’s important to keep it fresh, especially if you are likely to have repeat customers. New signs, fresh table cloth, seasonal decorations keep it fresh.
Throughout this year I’ve change the way I run my stock too, I used to put out everything I have with me, and bring about 12 flavours, now I will bring 8 max and keep all the spare jars below the table so it never looks too full or too empty. I’ve noticed that when I nearly run out of stock people stop buying! Why? I don’t know! But it’s true, as soon as there is only 1 left none wants it. Now I try to bring more stock than people could ever buy so the table always looks full enough.
I would like to think after 5 years I would be well organised, not leave any crucial points to the last minute, like change in the cash tin…! But no, here I am the night before my last Christmas fair of the year and not a penny of cash in the tin and it’s snowing heavily outside! How will I cope if I don’t get to the bank tomorrow? It’s very unprofessional to turn up without change for customers, and I’ve never invested in a card machine yet, I keep thinking I will eventually get a better iPhone and I will be able to do payments on that, but as yet I only take cash. My compromise is only selling things that end in a rounded price, like a 3 jars for £10 offer, so no small change needed, work out your pricing in advance, and if it ends in a 50p then have loads of 50ps with you.
I’m feeling very relieved in this snow now that I wasn’t tempted into any outdoor Christmas Fairs this year, all lovely and Christmassy for the shoppers, but as the seller I find an outdoor fair just too hard physically, I did a whole week last year at the Belfast Continental Market and sorry, but I need regular teas, nice toilets and a warm place to sit (that makes me sound very old). If your considering taking up working at fairs as your job give these working conditions serious consideration, it’s not all about lovely summer festivals! It’s a year round job.
Before every single fair day, no matter how experienced I am, I get really nervous, an anxiety comes over me that turns me into a bit of a horror but I’ve learnt to control it by getting ready alone really carefully. I have my check list of things to bring ticked off, I have certain clothes to wear and put makeup on (once the game-face is on I’m ready to leave!). My daughter Laura has been a tremendous help at events over the years and often sells more than I do, I’m so attached to my jars that I’m also a little overprotective of them. I wonder if other crafters/cooks/artists ever feel like that about their products? I’m sad to see the last of a favourite flavour, like my Chilli Sauce, get sold, daft I know!
Hopefully in another five years I will still be here, Aga still working (it will be about 45years old) celebrating my first ten years as Brambleberry Jams! I’ve no idea what the top selling flavours will be by then, but this year it has been all about the SeaSalted Caramel Sauce and Raspberry and Prosecco Jam.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead if your starting a new business in 2018.