Stoats founder talks about becoming a porridge expert
When Tony Stone turned up at a support agency with a business plan to make porridge for a living he didn't know whether the advisors would laugh at him.
Thankfully Business Gateway encouraged him to develop the idea and Stoats was born.
The original vision for the company a large cafe bar serving porridge in the centre of Edinburgh was quickly scaled back due to the hundreds of thousands of pounds it would have cost to get off the ground.
But Stone and business partner Bob Arnott remained convinced they were on to something.
So in 2005 they set off around UK music festivals with a converted hot dog cart to test how popular their fresh porridge would be.
Stone said: "We were delighted as we had queues we couldn't handle.
"We had a great time at the festivals but we worked bloody hard and took some money so it was clear people were looking for this sort of thing."
The company still does a regular circuit of large events and farmers' markets.
However the bulk of revenue, around 80 per cent, now comes from the range of Stoats retail products which includes porridge oats and a growing range of oat bars.
The original batches of these were cooked up in Stone's mum's kitchen then hand wrapped but the move towards those products was borne out of frustration.
Potential customers confused by the Stoats Porridge Bars name came up asking for a porridge bar only to be told the item didn't exist.
From those humble beginnings in a kitchen more than 10,000 Stoats bars are now produced in Edinburgh each week.
Alongside a host of retailers in Scotland there are also stockists in Malaysia, Singapore and Iceland.
The range has expanded to include oatcakes, mini bars, oat crunch, microwaveable porridge pots, dairy free bars and even t-shirts.
Stone said: "We didn't have the porridge bars which people were asking for which was frustrating as in that first year you are desperate for sales.
"So we got into the bakery stuff just by listening to customers. We didn't want to see people walking away without buying anything."
Retail customers are based in the UK and abroad with the client base ranging from cafes and independent retailers to 24-hour offices, vending machines and tourist attractions.
Earlier this month Stoats started supplying to Waitrose's Scottish stores and it has recently begun exporting products to America for the first time.
Stone said: "Waitrose has been an eye opener for us and a different experience to some of the stores we supply.
"At a lot of our independent customers the buyer is also the owner so they try the product and you start building the relationship there and then.
"We met with Waitrose at a meet the buyer event through Scotland Food and Drink a few months ago and now they are taking three different bars from us.
"Waitrose have quite big plans for growth in Scotland and they are very good on local sourcing.
"Obviously the hope is things go well in Scotland and they stock us more widely than that."
While Stone admits it is brilliant to be seen as a porridge expert in Scotland he is keen to broaden the company's horizons.
Stone said: "We have decent coverage in Scotland and although there is still growth to be had here for us to bag another s500,000 to s1m in sales we need to look to England and overseas.
"Export sales are probably between five and 10 per cent so there is a lot of scope there.
"We have a really good importer in the United States we have been working with for three months now and we are beginning to get a little bit of traction on the east coast.
"We have spent a lot of money getting to the market in the States so we are hoping for success.
"In Singapore we are doing well through Boost juice bars and we have a place in Helsinki which is also doing well.
"If we get the range and the retailers right then the growth follows.
"We don't just want to chuck out new products for the sake of it but we are always looking at new things.
"We have just done a bar which is dairy, sugar and wheat free so that taps into a new area for us."
While Stone is ambitious he remains passionate about using quality local ingredients.
He said: "All the oats we use are grown and milled in Scotland and we use a lot of organic oats.
"We use local produce wherever possible such as Galloway Lodge jams from down in Dumfries and if we can we get our hands on Scottish butter and honey we use them.
"We also use Vegware, which is based in Polwarth, and do compostable packaging such as potato starch spoons.
"We recycle about 95 per cent of our trade waste but we don't really shout about it."
With a rising number of clients and accounts the possibility of moving to larger premises has been discussed.
But with only one manufacturing shift currently being done at the Stoats HQ on an industrial estate near Portobello there is some spare capacity in the current digs.
Stone said: "There are other units we are considering but the feeling is we need to be bursting out of the rafters before we move.
"We could move out to somewhere else where the rent would go down but it is convenient here and it is a good base.
"There are other units in the estate which are available but we would have to fill it.
"It is expensive to have a big place you are not using. I would rather have a small place we are working hard."
So far the company has not used outside investors to help it grow.
It's not a situation the 31-year-old Stone envisions changing in the short term.
He said: "Thankfully we are debt free. We have never had to ask the bank for money and I wouldn't want to.
"We have had certain people who wanted to put money in or said we were under capitalised.
"I guess if we wanted to grow really quickly then you have to get money from somewhere but given the last couple of years it was probably a good thing we didn't."
From a young age Tony Stone had wanted to run his own business.
However he wasn't quite sure what the business would do but was constantly talking about ideas while studying hospitality and marketing at Strathclyde University.
After graduation he worked in Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomond and the Crowne Plaza in Edinburgh.
Then he went to Wales to do marketing for a boutique 40-bedroom hotel.
But when his mum fell ill with leukaemia Stone decided he wanted to come back home.
He thought running his own business would give him the flexibility to pop into hospital when he needed to.
The plan was to capitalise on porridge's trendy status as a favoured health food among celebrities.
Original plans for a large porridge bar on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh were scaled back due to the costs involved.
However in the summer of 2005 Stone and friend Bob Arnott went round UK music festivals, farmers' markets and other events selling fresh porridge.
Stoats quickly gathered a cult following and launched a wider range of products including bars and cookies.
Today it sells more than 10,000 porridge bars a week and has a turnover of s520,000.
Stone lives in Edinburgh where he enjoys eating out and playing golf.