4 June 2021|Brand Story, Latest Posts, Meet the Successful Founder
TSF caught up with the inspirational founders of Buck & Birch – Tom Chisholm & Rupert Waite to discover more about their entrepreneurship journey and birth and growth of their brand.
Myself (Tom Chisholm) and Rupert Waites are the Buck & Birch founders, the wild explorers, the experimenters and wild flavour innovators.
Both Rupert and myself were lucky enough to grow up with fantastic access to the outdoors. I spent my formative years living in Norway and I treasure the memories of climbing trees, picking wild blueberries and chasing wild elk from my vegetable patch with duplo bricks. Rupert had a similar upbringing growing up in the north west of Scotland, many hours happily spent exploring (and tasting) the rugged coastlines of this beautiful country.
Our mission at the Buck & Birch is to re-connect people to the landscape we admire so much. We have spent the last decade archiving our discoveries in flavour form and want to share them through our unique range of products and events. Ultimately we want to distill our exploration of Scotland’s wild larder as honestly as possible allowing for the full character of each ingredient to shine through with minimal intervention. It’s our flavour first, seasoned with spirit approach
During lockdown the importance of nature and the outdoors has resonated so much more with the general public, and the concept of foraging is becoming more mainstream again which we see as a positive. It is heartening to see that more people are understanding the benefit of getting outside not just for mental and physical health, but also for the fantastic and varied ingredients on offer.
When the pandemic shut down bars and restaurants we decided to give people the chance to enjoy bar quality drinks in the comfort of their own homes without the usual bar paraphernalia and long list of ingredients normally required. We wanted to bring a bit of luxury to the home dining experience, so we launched our wild bottled cocktail range which has proved incredibly successful and helped grow our online sales by 630% year on year.
Whilst our traditional marketplaces disappeared overnight (hospitality, tourism, retail) we used the time to innovate new products and collaborate with other brands to create products in response to the pandemic. We worked with Napier’s the Herbalists to create a family food supplement harnessing the proven health benefits of elderberries as well as teaming up with the Botanist gin on a very exciting project due out later this year. We have also been fortunate enough to work with some of Scotland’s leading bartenders and bars on products as well as leading whisky distilleries and the emerging online gift/ hamper companies.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
In 2008 Rupert and I hosted the first ever Buck & Birch dining event. After years in the hospitality trade we wanted to explore something more connected to our love of the outdoors and so the concept of our wild crafted menu was born. Over the next decade we hosted thousands of guests, moved from a garden shed to a larger production facility, won numerous awards, worked with industry leaders, world renowned chefs and bartenders.
In terms of products Aelder Elixir was the first to market, making its first appearance at the founding dining event back in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it finally launched into the trade.
When we set out on the Buck & Birch adventure we did so without any real idea or plan of where it would take us. Had you said to us at that very first event that we would become an international drinks brand we would probably have laughed but through organic growth and listening to our customers this is where we have ended up. We still take the same approach today and cannot wait to see where this adventure will take us next.
How did you achieve awareness?
As mentioned earlier most of our growth has happened organically and on a budget. Without deep pockets we have relied on lots (and lots) of markets, events, in store tastings, collaborations and knocking on doors to get the word out on our brand and thankfully it has paid off so far. I always make a point of speaking to absolutely everyone who I encounter and it never ceases to amaze me where a lead can come from.
In a world dominated by the explosion of the gin category of recent years the challenge was always on how to be heard and relevant when producing something different. The fact that we are still here and growing proves there is an increasing demand for other styles of drinks like ours and are arguably now more relevant with the growth in the low/ no ABV drinks sector and the wild ingredient angle.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
We have been lucky to have a couple of successful rounds of investments over the last few years to help us to grow and develop our business. We are massively grateful to all those willing to financially back our ambition and also give us the confidence and belief to move forwards.
Very early on we did have the opportunity to explore a larger, more corporate investment route, but decided against it at the time for fear of losing creative control of the company. You could argue that growth has taken slightly longer as a consequence but we feel the strength and longevity of the brand has benefitted as a result.
The business was also granted a business development loan from East Lothian Investments to get us started and then a secondary loan to help with the renovations of new premises.
What are the key successes?
Rupert and I are constantly innovating our products and expanding the range. The pandemic has taught us a lot and it didn’t squash our ambition. We are confident that in spite of the last 14 turbulent months we are in a stronger position business wise than we were before the pandemic.
Success is a funny thing to measure and I think often when you have big ambitions it’s easier to focus on what you haven’t achieved yet than look at what you have accomplished so far. That being said I am incredibly proud of the brand and product range we have created and to have them represented on so many shelves and back bars around the country always gives me a boost.
More latterly we have also just been listed with a premium national distributor which is very exciting and will open up lots of new and exciting opportunities.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
Pre-pandemic our challenge was getting people to understand our products and how to enjoy them. When launching something new and “category busting” as Arthur Motley from Royal Mile Whiskies refers to our products, it is really important to focus on educating both consumers and the industry so they understand when and how to drink them.
Thankfully after 3 years we are seeing the hard work pay off and the beauty now is that our products stand alone in the category we have created rather than fighting to be seen amongst everyone else.
That being said there is still more to be done and more opportunities to be explored…
What are your plans now/for the future?
We have an exciting range of new products being developed that offer something very different our existing portfolio and we are also looking forward to hosting events once more.
We have also used lockdown to create our visitor centre and experience in East Lothian that will be opening as soon as restrictions allow, and our big vision of creating a workable, interactive forest farm are well underway.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
Don’t be persuaded by others’ views
Stick to your guns
Be ready for the ride… don’t get despondent when things don’t go to plan, and don’t get too excited when you win.
Can you share your top 5-10 tips for entrepreneurial success?
Believe in yourself
Don’t watch too closely to what others doing
Stay true to yourself and your values
Keep going – one foot in front of the other
Who are the people who inspire you the most?
Empirical Spirits in Denmark for exciting innovation
My mum who brought up 4 children solo, and had her own successful business alongside – inspirational!
John Muir – whose passion and foresight about how important and life affirming the natural world is for people to be part of.
My children for being them!
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
It’s a Marathon not a sprint.
What are your social handles and website links so our readers can connect with you?