A shore thing
Prefer to listen, rather than read? We've made this story into a podcast, available here.
Entrepreneurialism is in Fiona Houston’s blood. Her dad, Adair, took their family’s old blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green and turned it into a wedding venue and tourist attraction to which thousands of visitors flock each year. And now Houston has followed in her father’s entrepreneurial footsteps – although she’s heading in a completely different direction.
Back in 2011, Houston and her friend, Xa Milne, launched Mara Seaweed, an Edinburgh-based food business that is on a mission to extol the virtues of the plants that grow below Scotland’s tideline. Mara’s seaweed flakes are now available throughout the UK, with stockists ranging from department stores like Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Marks & Spencer through to restaurants such as The Three Chimneys on Skye and tiny farm shops and delicatessens.
Three years before they founded Mara, Houston and Milne had turned their shared fascination for food and its provenance into the ‘Forage Rangers’ column in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper and an accompanying book, Seaweed and Eat It: A Family Foraging and Cooking Adventure, with a foreword by Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill.
Then, while walking along a beach in Fife, a Chinese-American friend pointed to the forests of kelp and all the other seaweeds that were growing along the shoreline and asked why no-one was harvesting it to eat? “It got me really thinking about how we had this sustainable, natural resource that has extraordinary flavours and health benefits,” explains Houston. “Nobody was harnessing this resource.”
A lightbulb came on and Mara was born. Coming up with the name for the brand was the easy bit – “mara” is the name for “the sea” in Gaelic. “Having lived abroad, I knew that one thing we were very good at in Scotland was undervaluing our resources,” says Houston. “In order to build a business out of seaweed, we had to work out how to add value to a resource that up until that point had been undervalued.
“We also had to be able to scale-up – we had to take what essentially was an artisan product and bring it into the mainstream. In order to do that, we needed to spend an inordinate amount of time not only looking at the demand side and the marketing side but also the supply chain.”
While many business people would balk at such a challenge, Houston already had the entrepreneurial spirit that she needed, hot-wired into her DNA. Houston grew up in Gretna Green, where her family runs the famous blacksmith’s shop. The site had been a haven for runaway lovers from England since 1754 and her great-grandfather, Hugh Mackie, had bought the Gretna Estate and opened Gretna Green Limited in 1886. The family business is still going strong today. Hugh passed the business onto his son, George, who in turn passed it onto his daughter, Moira, Houston’s mother.
When Moira married Adair, he saw the potential for growing the site into not only a wedding venue but also a hotel and shopping destination, with Fiona’s brother, Alasdair, and her sister, Susan, now running the business. “Dad used to go around the working men’s clubs in the North of England, encouraging the bus drivers to stop at Gretna Green when they were taking their coach-loads of tourists up to Scotland,” Houston remembers.
“He created mock weddings so the visitors would have something fun to do. “So I grew up in that entrepreneurial environment – but I was also very much a farmer’s daughter and so I had that connection to the countryside and the land. It helped me to understand the importance of provenance.
“There’s a link to what I’m doing now – Dad was selling the story of a location and valuing that location, which is part of what we’re doing with Mara. The provenance of the seaweed growing in the clear cold waters is so important. Our whole mantra is ‘Nourishing the whole body and soul with goodness from the sea’ – that’s what it’s all about.”
After studying philosophy, politics, economics and management at the University of Oxford – and becoming an Oxford “Blue” after captaining the university’s lacrosse team – Houston worked for economic development agency Scottish Enterprise before shifting into journalism with broadcaster ITV. Her number came up in the green card lottery and so Houston and her now-husband, an American citizen, moved to the US.
Houston worked in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, which she remembers as being a “high-pressure environment but totally fascinating”. She shifted into freelance work, including a six-month stint as the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman newspaper, and then ghost-wrote a book about Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically-elected president.
In 2003, Houston moved back to Scotland with her husband and two babies, with a view to carrying on with her freelance journalism. “If you’re going to work in Scotland then you have to make your own luck,” she says. “It’s not London and it’s not Washington. You’re choosing to live here for a combination of reasons, including family, the environment and the culture.
“Xa and I met in the school playground, because we both had children of the same age. Xa also grew up being connected to nature and, through our shared interest in food and where it comes from, we decided to pitch the idea of a book and a column, which became the ‘Forage Rangers’ feature in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph.”
That interest in food and the recognition of the importance of provenance – where the food comes from – is still alive and well today in Mara, which has just received its Safe And Local Supplier Approval (Salsa) accreditation.
“We’re taking the essence and authenticity of a very traditional product and we’re putting it into the modern food safety management structure,” explains Houston. “We’re taking the artisan ethic and authenticity and then scaling it up by harvesting products from various coastal communities.”
Gaining Salsa accreditation has allowed Mara to win contracts from bigger customers and scale-up even further. The company has already signed a deal to supply Sodexo, the catering giant that serves meals in army bases, hospitals, offices, prisons and schools, with its big-name clients including the National Trust for Scotland, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show.
When Houston wrote the business plan for Mara, she expected that the company would have to quickly move from simply harvesting wild seaweed under licence from the Crown Estate – which manages the seabed out to 12 nautical miles from the coast, along with half of Scotland’s foreshore on behalf of the nation – to growing its own seaweed in farms. “What we’re doing is completely game-changing because basically there is no industry in Scotland for the types of seaweed we’re dealing with,” says Houston.
“We’re doing everything from scratch. We’re focusing on a variety of seasonal seaweeds – greens, reds and browns. They are at differing levels of sophistication in aquaculture terms. Dulse, which is our signature species, is 100% sustainably harvested from the seashore, but we also won a grant to look at how it could be farmed.”
Mara together with Otter Ferry Seafish and the Oban-based Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), part of the University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI), were awarded around £400,000 by Innovate UK, the UK Government agency previously known as the Technology Strategy Board, to look at ways of growing Dulse in tanks.
Academic partnerships have been an important part of the company’s research and development work, with Mara using Interface – the public body that runs a match-making service for businesses that want to access university expertise – to team up with scientists at Abertay University in Dundee and at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen.
“We’ve collaborated with the Scottish Salmon Company and Loch Fyne Oysters to look at brown seaweeds,” Houston adds. “We’re looking at growing brown seaweed on ropes, because the aquaculture technology for brown seaweed is much further along.
“A lot of European Union money has been pumped into growing brown seaweed as a bio-fuel, but that’s the reverse of what we’re trying to do. If you grow brown seaweed as a bio-fuel then you want to grow it as cheaply as possible because you’re going to burn it; but we’re looking at high-nutrient and high-flavour brown seaweeds that will have a higher value.
“In the future, you could get to a stage where you’re growing seaweed in special seaweed farms in coastal communities or mussel farms are growing seaweed. At that stage, we wouldn’t have to harvest everything ourselves – instead, our role would be further up the food chain, adding value to the products and making sure the food safety standards are in place.”
Switching to growing seaweed rather than relying on simply harvesting it is likely to take between three and five years, Houston estimates, but the company has already grown its revenues to around £250,000 last year, with that total forecasted to quadruple this year.
The company has eight full-time staff, along with an army of seasonal part-time contractors who help with the harvesting. The growth of Mara was recognised last year when Houston won the BQ Emerging Entrepreneur Award for Scotland, one of a number of accolades in her trophy cabinet.
“We’ve just closed another funding round, which has enabled us to finance our Salsa accreditation, build production capacity and employ more sales resource,” explains Houston. “With more investment on board, we now have to make sure we hit our sales targets in order to satisfy our investors. Our minimum target is to sell £750,000-worth of products during our next financial year.
“Within five years, our target is £5m to £7m. There will be a lot of investment in the brand – from how we harvest the seaweed through to how we communicate our story with customers. I think half of that growth will come from the UK and the other half from overseas. The UK is waking up to the health benefits of seaweed not only as an essential mineral boost – with sought-after nutrients such as iodine, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron – but as a natural flavour enhancer and a healthy an alternative to salt for seasoning.”
Chefs have been queueing up to use Mara’s seaweed flakes in their cooking, including Paul Hollywood, the heart-throb judge on BBC One’s Great British Bake-Off television programme, who featured Mara’s products on his Pies and Puds programme, describing them as “inexplicably delicious”. Other cooks joining the cause have included Cyrus Todiwala from Saturday Kitchen, Rose Prince, Sarah Raven, and several Michelin-starred chefs such as Michael Smith and Brett Graham.
One of the biggest challenges Houston has faced so far has been finding funding for the business. “You spend a lot of time meeting potential investors and explaining the concept to them,” she says. “If I were to do it all again then I might start looking for funding in America – they seem to get the idea much quicker there. They buy into the entrepreneur and back their idea.”
Mara raised £500,000 in “friends and family” funding in 2013, with Rabbie’s tour company founder and chief executive Robin Worsnop coming on board as chairman. “Robin was a friend and he knew I was tearing my hair out looking for funding so he offered to come and take a look at the business plan,” explains Houston. “So he approached it as a friend, but once he’d read the business plan he was impressed by the vision we had for the business and so he came on board as an investor.”
The company raised a further £300,000 from a group of eight private investors, which allowed it to bring in £220,000 through the CrowdCube website and the same amount again from other individuals. The cash has enabled Houston to build the platform through which she will be able to scale-up the size of the business.
One step along her business journey that Houston would prefer to forget was last year’s ill-fated appearance on BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den television programme, during which none of the dragons chose to back her plans for Mara.
“Dragons’ Den was a car crash and a very unpleasant experience,” laughs Houston. “Having said that, we got a massive surge in sales and increased the awareness of our brand. But it’s not an experience I’d like to repeat – never again,” she smiles. “In contrast to that, around the same time we made it through to the finals of the BBC Food & Farming Awards for Best Producer, which were judged by a peer-reviewed panel of experts and not in the confines of a stupid television show.”
Published: 21 March 2016