Louis Barnett’s IFE: From supplying Sainsbury’s at 15 to growing the F&B brands of tomorrow
Of the more than 27,000 people that passed through the doors at this year’s edition of IFE, one was Louis Barnett, someone with a fascinating entrepreneurial career and a long history with the UK’s leading food & drink trade event.
Louis is a food & drink consultant and the Chief Operating Officer at Comesto, a disruptive F&B tech startup aiming to create a faster, fairer and more personalised wholesale service for the on-trade.
He first attended IFE in 2007 with his brand Chokolit (named in reference to his dyslexia) at the age of 15, already with a stunning track record as the youngest ever supplier to Waitrose at 13 years old.
“I grew up in a little village in the West Midlands,” he tells IFE. “I didn’t even know that what I was doing wasn’t normal. I came to the IFE with my dad and with the plan to speak to farm shops and specialist retailers, but at the last minute I was invited to pitch as part of a Meet the Buyer event in partnership with IFE and a regional Midlands food group, and met a buyer from Sainsbury’s.”
Pictured: Louis and former Sainsbury's CEO Justin King.
Having come to the show prepared to meet with smaller retailers, scaling to meet the demands of a mainstream, national supermarket brand presented some unexpected challenges.
“We weren’t prepared at all,” he admits. “But as an entrepreneur you like to say yes. We moved into a small production unit, employed ten people and started doing 16-hour days for months and months. I wouldn’t necessarily do it again.
“My advice now to brands is to be honest and upfront about your capabilities. You only get one crack at certain things and it’s better to be honest rather than spoiling future chances.”
Pictured: Louis at IFE 2007.
Having worked as an industry consultant, specialising in consumer psychology, Comesto is a step back into the world of running a business for Louis. The startup, which he describes as modelled on ‘the distributor I would’ve liked to work with’ uses AI and machine learning to match buyers and brands, while providing insights and data into key trends and fulfilling some of the more classic distributor functions. Leading Comesto as CEO is Valentine Smith, who brings extensive in and experience of the food & drink sector.
“The brands we’re working with are anything from early startup to some with good existing distribution, but the focus is generally artisan, independent brands and a focus on quality first and foremost,” he explains. “We don’t have a hard and fast line on working with brands who are in multiples but if they’re chasing large distribution and getting into more of a cost driven marketplace it wouldn’t be the right fit.”
We ask Louis what he advises for brands looking to grow their presence in the marketplace.
“One of the things bigger brands understand is the value of brand awareness,” he says. “I think things are slightly changing now because it used to be understood that you would need to take part in shows a few times before making inroads with buyers.
“The ROI conversation can be challenging but I think it’s a really good idea for brands to be there. It’s exposure but it’s also important to understand the opportunity. One of the things I found exhibiting at IFE is that the curtain drops and suddenly you understand the variety and diversity of opportunities that are out there.
“You speak to international buyers and distributors, and it opens your eyes to the world beyond the UK. Not long after launching we were in 17 countries around the world and export took up a lot of our attention. Not enough smaller brands realise that they could be selling to countries like Argentina or Colombia. Especially as a chocolate brand it took a while for us to understand our USP and the opportunities there. It’s about finding your niche.
“I find sometimes trade bodies advise going to Europe because it’s close but that’s a very saturated market with a high density of brands. Not enough brands take advantage of Britain’s strong international brand. We used to dress in bowler hats at international trade shows! There are so many opportunities for small, independent, artisan brands.”
Concluding our chat, Louis highlights some of the industry trends he’s most passionate about.
“I’m gluten free so it’s been interesting to see the growth of free from and more brands thinking about audience and allergens and making things clear. I also don’t drink and think there's a huge opportunity in low & no. With the younger generation drinking isn’t a given.
“I also care a lot about sustainability; we were using biodegradable chocolate wrappers back in 2006 and donated 10% of our profits to animal convservation. It’s great to see so many brands at IFE focussing on substantiality and not just tick boxing but thinking about the whole system of delivery, logistics, packaging etc. B Corps are something we want to highlight on Comesto and find ways to make it easier to understand for buyers – I think in the future there will be more specific sustainability labelling. Ultimately the plan is to move more towards brand selling than product selling and championing these businesses.”
And finally, what did he think of IFE 2023?
"I was absolutely captivated by this year's IFE," he enthuses. "It was an exhilarating F&B spectacle featuring groundbreaking producers and an unmatched array of offerings across the entire food and beverage spectrum. As a visitor, I can confidently say that the IFE is an unmissable event for both buyers and brands in the industry!