Floortje Hoette, CEO of Produced in Kent, is passionate about supporting Kent’s independent food and drink sector and helping it thrive
In the past three years, the South East’s independent food and drink sector has been hugely impacted by the compounding challenges posed by the pandemic, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis. Businesses are dealing with crippling energy costs and overall rising production costs, as well as ongoing supply chain issues and staffing shortages while facing inflexible large multiples and weak customer demand.
Nevertheless, the sector has shown extraordinary resilience, and this has been witnessed first-hand by the team at Produced in Kent, a trade organisation dedicated to supporting and promoting all types of food, drink and craft businesses in Kent. “Within Produced in Kent’s membership of 250+ food and drink businesses, up to 2023, we have seen relatively few fail,” says CEO Floortje Hoette. “Many of our members pivoted – they moved from B2B to B2C; replaced foreign ingredients or packaging with local alternatives; started trading online; found more local routes to market; applied different opening times; changed their offering; and created new experiences to draw in new audiences. I think a lot of lessons were learnt in terms of running a more agile business but also in terms of expecting the unexpected.”
Since 2005, Produced in Kent has represented food and drink SMEs across the supply chain – from growers, secondary producers and manufacturers to wholesale retail and hospitality firms. Described as a mix between a marketing agency and a trade organisation, the enterprise provides marketing and promotional support through its website, newsletters, social media channels, campaigns and events such as the Taste of Kent Awards, whilst simultaneously offering a network of like-minded foodie entrepreneurs, representing the sector in regional and national bodies and platforms, and providing business advice, signposting services and support. Produced in Kent also increasingly acts as a think tank on developing a more sustainable food economy.
Produced in Kent’s vision is for Kent to be recognised for its expanding, vibrant, diverse and accessible local independent food and drink sector that sustainably grows, produces, sells and serves the finest food and drink in the UK. “It’s about maintaining Kent’s unique countryside and heritage, improving the quality of life for its residents, helping to protect the environment, and attracting more visitors to the area,” says Floortje. “We want to change consumer buying behaviour to ‘local’ and pave the way to a more diverse trading infrastructure and measurable year-on-year economic growth of the local independent food and drink sector in the county.”
Floortje took up the role of CEO of Produced in Kent in 2020. Prior to this, she was responsible for business relations, partnership building and event management at the University of Kent’s Kent Business School. “I have a mixed business background, with project management and general management experience in the humanitarian, educational and arts sector and as a business owner of a tree surgery company,” explains Floortje. “I usually describe myself as a jack of all trades – and certainly master of none. The years I spent working for the International Committee of the Red Cross were most formative, exposing me to complex and challenging work situations and teaching me to think on my feet, and show initiative and leadership. It also recalibrated my view of the world as a global community rather than separate nations or peoples. We humans need to work together to overcome the big challenges in life!”
As CEO, Floortje leads on advocacy, speaking up on behalf of Produced in Kent’s members and the wider Kent independent food and drink sector about the challenges the industry is facing, as well as new opportunities and the need to support them. Partnership building is another key aspect of her role. Floortje explains: “When meeting people through work, I am always thinking about how we could help each other out or work together. There is so much going on in Kent, but people are still working from their respective islands. We need to reach out to each other and find out where we can combine forces, saving time and money.”
Floortje describes her management style as informal. “I want everyone to feel at ease and able to say what is on their mind,” she says. “I’m happy to leave everyone to their respective jobs, but I do expect full commitment, results and accountability. We all make mistakes, but we need to admit when we do to create trust in the team.”
Floortje continues: “In a time management course I undertook recently with the brilliant Mary Eniolu, my leadership profile was described as The Persuader – a people and ideas person who is optimistic, a problem solver and persuasive, but also impulsive, not very good with detail or procedures and has difficulty with pacing themselves and taking on too much. We laughed about it and realised that we have a pretty good team at Produced in Kent because we all complement each other.”
2023 has been a busy year for Produced in Kent so far. Highlights include adapting the format of the Taste of Kent Awards to create a more accessible, affordable and informal event, and the launch of the Champions membership scheme, which for a mere £25 a year, gives people who sign up access to four seasonal packages of keenly discounted products and exclusive experiences from Produced in Kent’s members – offering an easy way to support local.
At the start of the year, Produced in Kent, in collaboration with Social Enterprise Kent, set up the Kent Food Partnership. The Kent Food Partnership brings stakeholders in Kent working in the area of food – the business community, local government, and public health, education and community initiatives – around the table to inspire collaboration where possible. “The ultimate aim is to create better access to good food for all in the county,” says Floortje. “We are currently working on a Kent Food Strategy which calls for better education on healthy and nutritious food; making local sustainable food widely available at affordable prices; developing foods that are less harmful to the planet and better for our health; supporting the independent food industry; and creating shorter supply chains. There is a lot of work to be done to create a better and fairer food system in Kent, but the participants in the partnership are super passionate and action-focused, and there is real momentum building.”
On a smaller scale, the organisation is running its gleaning project with the University of Kent. “In Kent, as in the rest of the UK, surplus fresh produce is left in the field post-harvest or not harvested due to staff, quality or price constraints,” observes Floortje. “We are now establishing a group of volunteer gleaners (university staff, students and other local volunteers) to help farmers in Canterbury glean fresh produce from their fields and redistribute it via a hub on campus to food charities and community initiatives in the area so there is more fresh surplus on a plate and less wasted. It is also a great way to show young people the realities of farming and food production, and as the project grows from strength to strength, we will be looking into organising corporate away days.”
Whilst Floortje has every confidence in the innovation and success of the Kent food and drink sector, she explains that failure is still a very real danger and for some, only just around the corner. She urges: “Consumers have to support local food and drink businesses where they can, or the sector will disappear. Local products may cost a little more, however, not always. Let’s focus on the value that local products bring in the longer term – a thriving local economy, greener environment and better health. For those not directly impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, there is no excuse not to buy local.”