Julie Whalley - why I left the armed forces to champion Lancashire food
PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 October 2015
Julie Whalley swapped an army career for organising and helping some of the county’s leading lights in the food industry. Sue Riley reports
Julie Whalley’s army career stood her in good stead for organising Clitheroe Food Festival. She once despatched guns and kits bags to Germany. These days, she may be dealing with sausages and beautiful biscuits rather than pistols and rifles but this famous food event still needs huge organisational and logistical skills to ensure the 20,000 people who visit each year leave happy and come back for more.
‘As an officer in the armed forces you had to plan, to know how the logistics work; no matter how wonderful the soldier, they need the right supplies,’ she said.
She’s obviously been getting something right as visitor numbers at the summer festival have increased from around 8,000 to more than 20,000 during the past five years. She coincides organising the festival with running her company Lancashire Bites where she works with the county’s food and drink suppliers to champion local produce.
With food the second largest manufacturing industry in the county (the first is the aerospace industry) it is a vital part of area’s economy.
She said: ‘If more people bought more Lancashire produce - that’s one of my aims – the economy would be better and we have some amazing producers. We are just missing a sloe gin producer.
‘I’ve had lots of jobs and sometimes you wonder why you are doing what you are doing. It was when I was asked to organise the Clitheroe Food Festival that it all slotted into place. I had a background in food, logistics, communications and you need all of that to run a festival.’
After training in catering, she went into the army – she eventually became the first TA officer in the country to become Platoon Commander at an Army Foundation College in Harrogate. She then did a variety of jobs which honed her organisational and promotional skills. It was only when she was made redundant from her job at countryside development consultancy Rural Futures that she came up with idea of setting up Lancashire Bites.
She admits for six months she was ‘lost’ as she had loved her previous job. But then she was approached by Ribble Valley Borough Council to help with the food festival. On the back of organising the annual event she was invited to be a Great Taste Award judge and has also advised hundreds of food businesses on subjects including distribution, promotion and networking. She also organises other foodie events including the first Lancaster Food and Drink Festival and an olive oil conference at award-winning Italian restaurant La Locanda in Gisburn. Now she scours other food festivals and artisan markets to find new producers.
‘I already knew a lot of producers and chefs; Reg Johnson, Kirkham cheeses, Nigel Haworth, Paul Heathcote,’ she said. ‘I love it. I think we are very blessed in Lancashire. We have beautiful fells where you have all your game, come down a level and you have sheep and high grazing cattle and out to the coast your veg producers and salad growers and seafood. If you could put a wall around Lancashire we could easily become sustainable, although we are not very good at growing flour.’
She also understands how tough it is to set up and maintain a food business; she set up cupcake company Buns of Bowland a few years ago but said it was ‘a bit of a nightmare’. Now she prefers to help other organisations in the food world. Clients include large concerns like Dewlay cheese in Garstang to smaller ventures like Posh Tarts in Freckleton who make beautiful tarts and Shirley’s Pies at Preesall.
‘It’s very hard work; you have got to be disciplined. I get a lot of my work by word of mouth,’ she said, talking about a couple of companies who now supply their goods in London
‘I can help with suppliers, distribution, and with contacts.
She is currently embarking on her latest challenge – launching two spin-off companies. This autumn she set up Event Owl – an online booking system for companies wanting to take part in festivals and events. She’s also behind Red Events which supplies food and drink experiences on double decker buses for the corporate market, weddings and festivals nationwide.
Born in Whalley in East Lancashire, she trained as a chef at Accrington & Rossendale College followed by hotel management and hospitality courses at Blackburn College. She says her early days training to become a chef, then learning logistics in the army together with her family’s background in the food and drink industry has given her the perfect CV for her job. She also loves to cook and entertain at her home – a barn conversion in Newton. She’ll turn her hand to most things but her favourite meal is probably Venison Wellington.
Over the years she’s worked for councils, private companies, had a season as a groom – she still has two horses, a Danish Warmblood called Casey and a Shetland pony called Tommy – but now she feels she’s found her niche.