After the shock announcement in January that Unilever plans to close Colman’s Mustard factory in Norwich in 2019, steps are being taken to set up a community-owned replacement.
The condiment is an iconic brand for the city, where it has been produced for more than 200 years. Colman’s of Norwich was founded by Jeremiah Colman in 1814, after he created a tangy recipe mixing white and brown mustard at a water mill nearby.
Operations moved to the current Colman’s site in the 1860s, not long after the brand developed its classic yellow packaging and bull’s head logo. It also wove itself into the life of the city, with philanthropic efforts including a school for workers’ children and a nurse for staff who fell ill.
In 1995 the brand was taken over by Unilever, which helped mustard growers to form the English Mustard Growers Co-operative in 2009 as a grower supply group.
But in December, Unilever announced plans to move operations to Burton on Trent and Germany, and said the Norwich factory would close in 2019.
The news was met with dismay – and also sparked a conversation between Cllr Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group on Norfolk County Council, and local social entrepreneur, Robert Ashton, about the possibility of a new community-owned mustard brand.
This video posted on LinkedIn attracted 5,000 views in four days. An online survey was completed by more than 100 people and, after reports in the local press, public support began to build for the idea of Norwich Mustard as a community-owned co-operative.
Mr Ashton said: “This would put ownership of the new brand firmly with the people of Norwich. This would prevent it ever leaving the city, as all the shareholders will be local, or at least people passionate about Norwich and of course, its mustard tradition.
“The early success of this campaign shows that the appetite for community-led co-operatives is strong.”
A crowdfunding campaign which hopes to raise £6,000 to fund the set up of the the co-operative, and the development of a deliverable business plan, raised 20% of the total in the first 24 hours.
Power to Change, a Lottery-backed body which supports community business, has agreed to match fund the campaign with a grant.
Once the share issue has been completed in the spring, the two founders intend to hand control to a board of directors elected by the shareholders.
Mr Ashton added: “I’ve long been a fan of community-owned co-operatives. It’s a fair, open and enterprising way that people who feel strongly about something can stop sounding off and do something positive. The story of Colman’s mustard leaving Norwich is just such an opportunity.
“I believe that with the right people in the team, we can create a new local mustard brand that keeps the history alive, in a contemporary, sustainable way.
“I don’t see Norwich Mustard competing with Colman’s, but being a 21st century opportunity to create a new brand that excites, delights and can return modest dividends to those who buy shares.”
Mr Ashton is now looking for a farmer to grow mustard seed so a product can be made to test demand, and for a premises to manufacture the condiment.