Rick Sheepshanks is the Founder and MD of Stokes Sauces, based in Suffolk. With the launch of a new range of Stokes Easy Meal-Making Sauces, it’s fair to say the product range has expanded since Rick created its first product, Real Mayonnaise, 18 years ago
Rick Sheepshanks has led a life that has taken him all around the world. But for the past 18 years he has settled on making a success story out of Stokes Sauces, the condiment company proudly based in Suffolk. The gloriously rural setting, of The Old Stables in Rendlesham, seems fitting for the founder. ‘I was bought up on a farm,’ he says. ‘I know this seems a bit romantic and idealistic, but I was brought up with all those good ol’ Suffolk boys. Some of them had walked across the land with horses and ploughs and would know all the hot spots.’
Rick’s brother is David Sheepshanks CBE. ‘David and I were given a book each as kids – he was given a book on Africa I was given a book on football.’ Perhaps it should’ve been the other way round, as he says: ‘Africa just captivated me. I did end up living there.’
But he adds: ‘What I ended up doing was starting a business with my brother, who was busy running Ipswich Town Football Club.’ Suffolk Foods manufactured mayonnaise and sauces. ‘It turned into quite a big operation,’ says Rick. ‘The long and short of that was that it got sold.’
It was decision time for Rick. Describing himself as ‘totally unemployable’, he says: ‘I had to start something, I had to do something.’
Stokes Sauces was that something. What’s the story behind the name? ‘I lived alone for most of my life, and I used to do a lot of running,’ says Rick, who thought he was a ‘confirmed bachelor’ until he married Anny when he was 47. He used to run around Staverton Forest near Butley, which contains some of the oldest oak trees in England. He fancied the name Staverton and Oaks which was then shortened to Stokes.
His very first product was the luxurious Real Mayonnaise. It is finished off by adding Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the Koroneiki olives of Crete. ‘We only use extra virgin olive oil – the first press. It’s delicious,’ says Rick.
‘I did an experiment three years ago, using a single estate Spanish one. Everyone preferred the olive oil Stokes uses – they could taste it was different but didn’t know why.’
Rick then created Stokes’ famous Tomato Ketchup when he was trying to encourage his young daughter to eat more vegetables – 200g of sweet, plump Italian tomatoes are reduced into every 100g of the thick, juicy ketchup.
From this, he expanded into a variety of other sauces, condiments, relishes, chutneys, and dressings. Sourcing the finest ingredients is key. For example, Stokes Brown Sauce is particularly rich with extra date puree, sweet with black treacle and a unique blend of Persian spices. ‘We make a brown sauce which I think is the best brown sauce out there, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?
‘It’s nine percent date puree – we don’t scrimp. Little things do make a difference in terms of quality.’
He adds: ‘I’ve never been in business to make money – that’s the result if you do a lot of things right. For me it’s to make the best. If something tastes good you’ll want to eat it again. Any old idiot can sell something once.’
Nowadays, more than 70 employees make more than 60 different products, and the latest is the Easy range of ‘Meal-Making Sauces’, including Katsu Curry, Red Wine & Green Peppercorns, Salsa Roja and Pomodoro.
He says of the latest Easy range: ‘The joy of home-cooking is one of the few positive trends to grow from recent adversities, and one we’re sure is here to stay.
‘Time spent pottering in the kitchen is such a valuable opportunity to extend our foodie interests.’
Stokes Easy comes in those characteristic glass jars – the company avoided using plastic bottles from the start. However, overwhelming customer demand for squeezable Stokes encouraged them to move in that direction early in 2015, though it took four years of research to finally get there. They spoke to various suppliers before finding one able to develop a plastic bottle that is 100% recyclable. It’s all part of Stokes’ environmental drive to deliver a ‘zero landfill’ policy.
‘We were the first to come up with recycled, recyclable bottle. We are all really proud of that,’ says Rick.
Another thing Rick is proud of is the fact that the walled gardens behind the Old Stables is home to a growing menagerie of rescued animals. Pigs, sheep, peacocks, hens, geese; rheas and emus, cats and dogs; Bennetts wallabies, cattle and goats all happily sharing their peaceful new lives – there are more than 250 in all. ‘It started with a peacock and went from there,’ says Rick. ‘We rehomed a lot of animals. People keep dropping off cockerels at the doorstep.’ He says of the menagerie: That’s where the profits of Stokes Sauces goes!’
The past two years has not been without its challenges for the company. ‘When the pandemic hit, I had everyone on a three-day week. Two weeks later furlough came in – I had half the people on furlough.
‘Within three months I was bringing people back – I don’t think anyone was on furlough after three months.’
He admits: ‘Covid and Brexit have been the perfect storm and made life very, very difficult. It did affect us, but we are readjusting and remodelling ourselves.’
He says of the team: ‘In our factory about 30 per cent of our staff are from 17 nations and they are fantastic people.’ He describes himself as a ‘crap leader – I tend to make a nuisance of myself.’
The secret ingredient to the Stokes success story? Rick replies: ‘I’ve a) employed some really good people and b) stuck to my guns.
‘I don’t see the heart of the company changing,’ says Rick. Some of the employees have been there since the very beginning, such as machine operator Netty. ‘These guys in the production team are magnificent people – I cannot praise them enough.’
It sounds like Stokes and Suffolk will be synonymous for a long time to come. ‘We are here in rural Suffolk – I don’t see us moving to Manchester – and we’ve got a couple of units on the land that used to be Bentwaters.’
And it doesn’t sound as though he’s going to compromise or cheapen his brand anytime soon. ‘That’s never going to be the way Stokes will go – not while I’m alive. He adds: ‘I hope Stokes will be going long after I’ve gone.’
Award-winning Stokes’ products are available from quality independent retailers, farm shops and online and quality leading supermarkets.
Featured image of Rick Sheepshanks – picture credit: Ben Rourke