Nowt Poncy: The Lancashire couple making good grub proper healthy
For Christmas in 2015, Jools Abel and Karen Walker decided to give gifts with more of a personal touch. Their homemade pasta sauces went down a storm, with their local butcher going as far as to say that he'd stock the stuff and sell it in his shop if he could. That gave them an idea.
At that time, Karen had recently left her job as a headteacher due to stress. "I left after a breakdown and it took me 18 months to recover but, in that time, Jools was always looking for things that we could do together to help me regain my confidence," says Karen. Jools agrees. "When Karen left teaching, she was absolutely broken," he says. "We needed something that we could do together to rebuild her from the ground up."
That thing was starting a food company.
Dismayed by the quality and unhealthy nature of the jarred sauces on supermarket shelves, the couple - who met at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1987 - founded the Rossendale-based Nowt Poncy in 2016 and set about creating a product range which was tasty, healthy, and which reflected a range of global cuisines.
"Working in food together seemed like a way forward; you know, start a business, take on the conglomerates, and sell it for £20m after 12 months," jokes Jools, from Cardiff. "Little did we know about the huge learning curve and the financial black hole the food industry is. Nothing could have prepared me for it; it's been a roller-coaster of huge highs and terrifying lows.
"You have to gain a very thick skin; it’s not about your lovely little product, it’s about ensuring retailers make more profit from your product than they currently make from existing suppliers," adds Jools, 55. "The sector is incredibly tough and competitive."
From spending two or three days a week cooking in their own kitchen in the early days to building and moving into their own commercial kitchen last year, Nowt Poncy has been working hard during lockdown.
Collaborations with Lancashire companies such as Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses are now on the cards, while the budding business has also had enquiries from national companies looking to develop recipes and co-packing agreements.
"Our products don’t contain any rubbish; we want to sell what we would eat," says Karen, 58, who's from London and was raised in Norfolk. "There've been many standout moments but the pride I feel is in Julian: he's developed so much knowledge about what we do. He's amazing."
"To see our jars on shelves is just incredible," Jools says. "We’re a family company and our fabulous customers and retailers are at the heart of everything we do. We’re not a faceless conglomerate which only cares about shareholders and vast profits; a little bit of our heart and soul goes into every jar. To see Karen thriving fills me with pride as she’s come so far in such a short time."
Not only doing waistbands a favour but working towards social good, too, Nowt Poncy is also the front-of-shirt sponsor for Preston Typhoons RUFC, Lancashire's first and only inclusive rugby club after Jools - himself a big rugby fan - got talking to a supplier who mentioned the team.
"We wanted to be involved with something that we love and believe in, and the Typhoons is a passion for us," says Karen. "To be able to support such an amazing group of people from all walks of life who just want to be able to play and be there for each other... I just have no words to tell you how wonderful that is."
"We're so proud to be associated, in some small way, with them," Jools adds. "We’re part of their family and they are part of ours; they put up with my shouting from the touchline and have even offered me a game, but I think that’s just to tick the ‘senior citizen’ inclusivity box!"