INTERVIEW: Josh Lee, Director, Northern Bloc

In March 2015 a small, remodelled 1970’s VW van popped up in Leeds’ Trinity Kitchen serving handcrafted ice cream with incredible flavour. 18 months have passed since then and Northern Bloc (@northern_bloc) is about to hit high-end retailers across the UK.

We spoke to Director Josh Lee to see just how far the SME has come and where their impressive growth trajectory will take them next:

What was the inspiration for Northern Bloc?

“We wanted to create a natural product, low in sugar and fat with high quality taste, texture and ingredients. The flavours we enjoyed and wanted to eat were quite modern and they just weren’t being made elsewhere: Raspberry and Sorrel, Black Treacle, that sort of thing and we felt that there was a definitely a gap for that sort of product in the ice cream market.”

What was your first major turning point?

“We started finding that the ice cream wasn’t storing well enough. When you’re using fresh ingredients you lack standardisation; different fruits have different levels of sugar and fat which can have mean widely differing results on the quality and taste after storage. We could make instant ice cream, to eat the next day, which was great if we were doing an event from the van but it wasn’t lasting, for example, for four months, so that massively limited our capability to respond to bulk orders. We couldn’t match up to a commercial level.

Then Manolo [Imperatori, Northern Bloc’s chef, chief creative and third generation ice cream maker] discovered us in Trinity Kitchen and completely changed the way we do business.

With Manolo’s help we started to source our ingredients and flavours from Italy. Their quality and range of products is next level. The new way we source our suppliers has dramatically increased our level of consistency. Before, there was so much variation in quality and that impacts the taste of our products; if the sun wasn’t shining in Scotland on the day when our strawberries were picked, for example, then they’ll taste completely different the next day when the sun is shining. It was complete chance that our paths crossed but he has allowed us to take this great idea and make it completely commercial viable.”

What’s next?

“The plan is to have a good Northern base. We already have a strong presence in Leeds but we want to move along with M62 corridor to Manchester, Liverpool and up to Newcastle. Then our spring 2017 target is London. We’re moving into retail next month and national retail in October.”

Let’s talk about funding. What support have you accessed?

“I researched and got to know about the LEP and the Manufacturing Growth Programme (MGP) [formerly MAS] really early on but I think we probably could have looked for it even sooner. It certainly would have helped with some of the challenges we came up against when we were just starting out.

We made a decision last summer that we would manufacture and sell so we wrote a 5-year plan to take us to national retail. We received money from MAS to support with coaching and consultancy. That helped us get our SALSA accreditation, which is the minimum accreditation you need to supply supermarkets. Now we have work with that consultant on a monthly retainer.

We received a grant from the LEP this year to support us with the purchase of new machinery. This will take us into Year 2 of our plan. We can currently produce 7,000 wholesale tubs a week but we’re hand filling so results can be inconsistent and it’s labour intensive and slow. With the new freezer we’ll be able to produce 750 an hour, which will massively increase our production capacity. The new machinery will allow for ripples, bits, fruit, etc so we can also start to diversify our product range in other ways.

We’ve also started to work with another consultant to help us to move from artisan kitchen to industrial manufacturer. He’s helping us look at our manufacturing capabilities: what are our inefficiencies? What aren’t we doing well enough? Where do we need more staff? What are our processes?, etc.

And we’ve engaged with local food groups, another thing I wish we’d done sooner. They’ve been really good advising on legislation, packaging, that sort of thing.”

Your proudest moments?

“We don’t celebrate success enough and one of our mentors is always banging on about stepping back and celebrating! It’s so easy to get drawn in to the day to day and the hassle. You can lose sight of your achievements and it’s not until you step back and work out how much you’ve done or someone else says “wow, this is amazing!” that you can really think about your big moments. Most of the time you’re thinking, “We haven’t done enough! We need to do more!”.

For me on of our proudest moments was being listed in the Food Hall at Fenwick’s just before Christmas last year. They were our first ‘known’ customer outside of Leeds.

When we became the ice cream suppliers for Bolton Abbey and Yorkshire Sculpture Park was amazing too. They’re two big attractions in Yorkshire and that really seemed like a big step forward.”

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

“We didn’t always think things through in the beginning. Sometimes we tried to do too much. We made mistakes on machinery, mistakes on the layout of the lab [Northern Bloc’s purpose build ice cream laboratory]. Some of the machinery we bought wasn’t right for the job. We ran into it not really understanding the world we were now operating in. We thought the stuff we were buying was new but it was so old.

I think it’s so easy to think “I should be doing this or this” but really you need to strip everything back and just focus on doing things really well. And know that there is help out there.

You just have to have confidence in what you’re doing. You can have some days where you think “what am I doing?? Why am I doing this to myself?” but the next day everything falls into place and you’re thinking “this is fantastic!”.

Having a good network helps too, when you see someone else, another SME, in a similar boat you can take comfort in that. Everyone has doubts but everyone has good wins and lucky breaks too.”

Your top three online tools for an SME?

Xero – this is our real-time accountancy system. It displays live data from the bank and it’s jargon-free so I can see clearly money in and money out at all times. It’s a great, cheap tools for SMEs, especially when you’re just starting out and you’re working with daily figures.

Instagram – everyone should just get on with Instagram. As an SME it’s hard to know what your values and what your identity is right from the start so social media can be intimidating. But it’s a great, free marketing tool and there will be other SMEs in social media or marketing who can help you out at a really reasonable price.

Unleashed – this is another brilliant cloud-based tool for manufacturers. It allows for complete traceability of each of your products; where it was made, when, what products were used to make it, where it went. It links with Xero too so we have traceability standards that are way above our food-safety accreditation.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“We’ve been really fortunate to have had a range of mentors throughout this process.

One of the best pieces of advice we’ve had is that it’s good to be new, small and different. Don’t think about that as a disadvantage. No one has eaten our ice cream before, we’re different and emerging and we should stick by that and not always think that we need to be bigger and better. Don’t think “I need to do this because someone said so”, stay true to what you’re doing.

Being small has so many advantages and that’s important for all SMEs to remember: identify your strengths as a small business. By being small you can identify new trends or products quickly and react to that. Don’t be frustrated that you can’t make enough, diversify. There are some markets with ice cream that are so undervalued but lots of large producers are constrained by their own massiveness, they can’t change processes quickly but we can.”

as told to the LEP

More stories from SMEs – manufacturers and otherwise – can be found in our case studies section.

Or to find out what support you can access, contact our Growth Service on 0113 348 1818 or