Problem Solver: Trying to patent food product isn't a recipe for success
Q: I produce a food product from a really unique recipe and am having good success with it. How do I go about patenting the recipe and formulation to prevent others copying it?
A: Intellectual property (IP) is the aim of every new food business. If you are producing a product that has some totally unique intellectual property, then you will probably make a lot of money if there is consumer demand for the product.
Sadly, in the majority of food products, you cannot patent a recipe although sometimes if there is a very scientific process or ingredient within it, you might just have a chance, but it is a very rare occurrence. I doubt if that is an option open to you from the information you have provided. What is certainly open to you and to every other business, is an opportunity to trademark your brand. This will allow you to work fast on building a brand within this new and exciting area and getting customers to see you as the 'leader' within this space.
In this instance, it is your brand-building that protects your product and regardless of others copying the recipe, they can't copy your brand.
You may also be familiar with the PGI process (protected geographical indication) which is a European designation given to products which can demonstrate that they are associated with a particular region. The Waterford Blaa is a good example. It received PGI Status in 2013. That meant that only bakeries within this area, producing bread in a particular way could call the product by this name. You will also see similar with cheeses, champagne, etc. That is another way to protect a product used by some food companies. Use the uniqueness of your recipe to quickly drive consumer interest first mover advantage while building a strong brand and this will go a long way to protecting your business.
Q: I produce an artisan food product and have supplied several speciality retailers for the last two years. I need to expand but a number of my existing clients have made it clear that if I appear on supermarket shelves, they will no longer stock my product. Can you advise me?
A: What you have described is a common hazard of supplying retailers in any sector, and not confined to the speciality retailers. Most store owners, and trade buyers like to support new startup businesses. In return for this, they like, for as long as possible, that the producer would stay working with that retailer.
The problem comes with the need for the business to grow. While you are very grateful for any listings at the beginning, there is also the realisation for you that to stay in business, you need to take on new customers. It is down to a commercial decision on your behalf. What are the numbers telling you? Will you sell far greater amounts of stock by expanding your route to market? It doesn't have to be a "guillotine" type of decision. You may for example be able to leave some of the range exclusive with some of your existing customers and develop new products for the wider markets. I even know some producers who have a brand for the speciality retail sector, and then a separate brand for mainstream supermarkets - though there are some challenges.
I would also encourage you to explore areas like the food service sector as another revenue opportunity which might defer the need to lose any customers in the short term.
In summary, it is probable that you will be dealing with most retailers in the market eventually. A lot is about timing, who you deal with and when you start forging new relationships.
It also requires a little bit of bravery and confidence when the needs of the business demand greater volume than existing trade customers can give you.