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Mr Vikki's still hot to trot

It is eight years since Adam Marks put the heat into a cold December day when he sold his first jar of Mr Vikki’s Indian-inspired pickle at Penrith Christmas market

Mr Vikki's Award winning Banana Habanero
Mr Vikki's Award winning Banana Habanero

It was that heady period before the worst recession since the 1930s brought economic doom and gloom to the global markets. Scores of household names have sadly gone by the wayside since 2007 – and many other not so familiar but no less important businesses too.

Among those who have found it particularly difficult to weather the storm are the UK’s artisan food and drink producers. The victims of shrinking household budgets, bad debts, lack of business acumen and funding to innovate and improve, many have inevitably fallen by the wayside.

Yet against the odds, Mr Vikki’s has not only kept its head above water (quite literally on two occasions that Adam is loath to be reminded of) but continued to diversify and grow.

One of the reasons – aside from hard work and innovation – is that Mr Vikki’s must rank as one of the UK’s most decorated artisan producers. And we’re not talking about giving his business premises in an old car showroom by the side of the busy A6 at High Hesket near Carlisle an interiors makeover.

In the last seven years Adam and his range of unique Mr Vikki’s pickles, sauces, chutneys, mustards, jams and marmalades have picked up an astonishing 69 Great Taste Awards – 13 of them bestowed this year alone.

That’s not to mention the much sought-after Great Taste Golden Fork Award for Best Speciality in the North of England that was presented to Adam on Monday night for his “wonderfully aromatic” Banana Habanero described by the judges as “brilliant”.

The suitably delicious dinner in London attended by the cream of this year’s Great Taste winners to find out who really is the best of the best, also saw fellow Cumbrian producer, More? The Artisan Bakery, pick-up Speciality Producer of the Year.

While the esteemed awards run by the Guild of Fine Foods have been given a makeover of their own in the last few years (gold, silver and bronze winning medals have been replaced by star rankings), the kudos of winning one of the most trusted and recognised accolades, hasn’t diminished.

To be bestowed one star means your entry was virtually faultless; two is ranked as outstanding and three as exquisite. This year Mr Vikki’s came away with one three star for its Banana Habanero; three two stars for its Cranberry Chilli Jam, Tomato and Nigella and Chipotle Sauce and an impressive nine one stars with its Hot Brinjal, Lemon Harissa and Cumberland Relish among the successes.

The awards – in their 19th year – aren’t just a pat on the back. Winning even one star can add to the credibility of a business, open doors to new retailers and increase sales.

Adam, 49, is in no doubt about their importance to his own still fledgling venture (although it is hard to think of it in that way with so many honours, including a clutch of Great Chilli Awards, garnered in so short a time).

Mr Vikki’s products can now be found in London’s Fortnum and Mason’s food hall and Harrods and nationally in Harvey Nichols stores. They are available from specialist delicatessens from Aberdeen to Somerset (Mmm... in Newcastle’s Grainger Market and Corbridge Larder are among North East stockists), and perhaps the ultimate endorsement, scores of Indian restaurants too.

Adam, for whom Mr Vikki’s is very much a family concern with wife Mary, 43, daughter Claudia, 19, and sons Max, 13, and Harry 11 (another daughter, Jill, 22, is away studying architecture at university) all involved, says everyone “wants a Great Taste Award. There is no doubt it opens up new markets and once you have a product that you know is great it helps to grow your own confidence too.

“The judging is done on blind tastings and the marking is very rigorous so when you win you know you’ve done a good job.

“It’s good from the public’s perspective too. They know a Great Taste Award stands for quality. I think people have become more fussy about what they eat and I have noticed that one of the first things they do now is look at a jar to check it doesn’t contain things like monosodium glutamate, modified maize starch or lots of added salt.

“All our products are natural and it can take years to get them right.”

The three star Banana Habanero was six years in the making (proving that patience can indeed win the race, to quote the Carlisle born Quaker poet Bernard Barton), while Mr Vikki’s new wasabi paste made with proper Japanese horseradish, has been another slow burner.

Adam is surprisingly modest about Mr Vikki’s success, however. With his feet firmly planted on the ground, he recognises that victory is never a given. But with a lucky 13 Great Taste stars to his name this year he says with a laugh: “I suppose we must be doing something right!”

That’s not to deny that times are tough. Mr Vikki’s still does much of its trading via farmers’ markets and food festivals and it’s been a difficult period for small-scale producers. “It is hard at the moment; it’s not easy. You have to explore every avenue.

“But hopefully the economic downturn is coming to an end. My gut feeling is that it is bottoming out.”

He believes being a family business gives Mr Vikki’s the edge, though, over its competitors (of which there are scores more than when he started out. Chillies and bold hot flavours have become the latest food trend).

“Everybody works together and sticks together here,” he says.

“It gives us a bit of an edge. Thankfully I’m not in this to make millions. It is about doing something I love, being sustainable and hopefully being able to pass the business on to my children.”

For many years Adam – who originally hails from Stockport in Lancashire - was head chef at the acclaimed Leeming House hotel on Ullswater. It was here he got a taste for spicy, hot food. Adam, who specialised in what is euphemistically called modern British food, found himself cooking curries for the Indian staff working at the hotel.

One of the kitchen porters was nicknamed Vikki as no-one could pronounce his name. But Adam always called him Mr Vikki on the work rota.

In 2005 he went into a supermarket in Keswick and picked up a bottle of chilli and garlic sauce. “It was rubbish,” he states. “There was no heat in it. I decided I could do better and I made my own really good chilli sauce.”

Adam left his cheffing job and working from the family home in Eamont Bridge near Penrith began developing his own line of Indian fusion sauces and pickles made from fresh ingredients and using newly milled spices under the Mr Vikki label in honour of his former kitchen colleague. “I just liked it as a name as it sounded quirky,” Adam explains.

While the business filled a foodie void and took off almost immediately, the early years weren’t without their disasters thanks to Mother Nature.

The Marks’ home has twice been flooded. In 2007 12,000 bottles of stock were lost which the insurance company refused to pay out on.

It was following that crisis that Mr Vikki moved to its present home in High Hesket – a flood free zone.

In the last eight years Adam has developed about 100 different sauces but now only offers around 25 online and a key range of 15 in the shop.

Like any good chef he is constantly improving and developing new ideas. It is what keeps Mr Vikki’s fresh, the judges at the Great Taste Awards handing over the honours, and the customers (who include celebrities like the Hairy Bikers and TV chef Simon Rimmer) coming back for more.

Adam takes customer service and satisfaction extremely seriously. “It isn’t just about a customer buying a product once,” he says, “we want them to come back time and again.

“We rely on repeat sales.

“That is why we are always perfecting what we are doing and working on new lines.

“We have got a new chilli sauce we are testing at the moment.”

Oddly, Mr Vikki’s biggest market is the North East - whose inhabitants seem to have become real chilliheadz – followed by his adopted home county of Cumbria.

He has a theory as to why this is the case. “I think it’s because chillies drive out the cold.

“It’s a health thing. I have farmers who wouldn’t usually touch anything exotic or out of the ordinary who now come in to the shop and buy a jar or two.”

Pick up one of Mr Vikki’s distinctive hexagonal jars of Emperor Naga pickle or a bottle of Bhut Jolokia Powder (which helpfully comes with a label bearing a skull and crossbones), and you’ll find out for yourself just how hot a cold winter’s day can become.

For more information on Mr Vikki’s log on to the website www.mrvikkis.co.uk


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