Caroline Kenyon is founder and director of The Food Awards Company and an anti-food-poverty campaigner. Her company hosts three separate food-related events – Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year and Tiptree World Bread Awards in the UK and USA.
Caroline is passionate about the cultural value of food, making sure we source it in a sustainable way, eradicating food poverty and encouraging the public to embrace healthy attitudes to food. Her awards celebrate the people raising awareness of those values.
She has a history of successful businesses behind her. At 24 she had her first book published (Establishment Wives); at 27 she was magazine editor of the publication Traveller; by her 30s she set up a PR firm specialising in British food, and ten years ago she set up The Food Awards Company because she wanted to do something of lasting impact. Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year is partnered with the World Food Programme which recently received the Nobel Peace Prize and she’s worked with many high profile names from Ferran Adria to Antonio Carluccio and Yotam Ottolenghi.
Based in Lincoln, she has led an all-female team of 8 people for the last decade. In her spare time she helped set up the Lincoln Food Summit (now the Lincoln Food Partnership) – a network of local organisations who work to get fairer, healthier and greener food for all.
Welcome Caroline, as you have an extensive history of successful businesses behind you, can you take us on a journey through your career trajectory?
Thank you so much for inviting me to take part in your interview. It’s a very good question and I can only describe my trajectory as a zig-zag career. I started off planning to be a barrister – the shameful truth is that I had a crush on an older boy when I was 14 and he was planning to go to the Bar. I was genuinely attracted by the idea of defending the vulnerable and oppressed, but having scraped through my degree and then the Bar exams, I realised law and I were not intended for each other. I fell into journalism – my mother had been a journalist – and I had done a little as an undergraduate. So I managed to sell an article to the Evening Standard and built my freelance career from there. After five years, I was offered an amazing job editing a travel magazine all about tribal peoples and exploration. During that time, I met Charles, the man I was going to marry, who was in the Army and stationed in a quirky, old fashioned county called Lincolnshire which I came to know and love. Charles was posted to Germany and then London, but we always thought we would move to Lincolnshire one day. I left my magazine job, which I adored, when I was 8 months pregnant, cried like a tap, and arrived in Lincolnshire with a five-day-old baby, no job, one friend in the county and a husband working in London all week. But from there, grew my first business, a PR agency specialising in the promotion of British food.
My first client was a friend married to a farmer and they paid me with a box of beef. The business grew and grew to 8 staff, national clients and then 2008 happened. Though we were still doing OK, I thought it was a wake-up call and that UK plc was in for a very rocky ride for many years to come. I wanted to move my business more online, have a more global reach and also build something of value to my team and me, rather than just for our clients. It took a few years for the idea to crystallise. In 2011, the night after a client was very rude to me on the phone, I had the idea for an international food photography competition, and that was the start of The Food Awards Company. It’s grown into three awards, Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year, Tiptree World Bread Awards with Brook Food UK, and Tiptree World Bread Awards USA with American Bakers Association. I am so grateful to that rude client, they changed my life and I have never loved my work more.
You publish your first book at 24, before joining the editorial team at the Traveller at 27, where did your passion for journalism come from?
As I mentioned, my mother was a journalist and freelanced throughout my childhood. In those days, a mother who worked was quite unusual. I was extremely proud of her – she wrote about the arts and also campaigning articles on a social issue for The Observer and The Guardian. My scrap paper for drawing as a child was the back page of reams of press releases from Thames Television and sometimes she would take me with her to press events where I would be the only child or to an interview. My parents were very loving and quite indulgent but one thing they were strict about was table manners. So it was a special treat on Saturdays when we would always have a ploughman’s lunch, with several newspapers at the table. My parents would hand out sections to my brother and me which we loved.
When I became a journalist myself, I found myself specialising in interviews. It seemed so natural. I love talking to people and hearing their story. Every single person on this planet has a story which shapes them and from which one can learn something. To be paid to indulge one’s passion is a huge privilege. Writing Establishment Wives, a book of 50 interviews, with my friend Rachel Silver, when we were only 24, was an extraordinary experience. We found ourselves in all sorts of incredible places from the official residence of the Foreign Secretary to the First Sea Lord’s flat in Admiralty Arch on Trafalgar Square to the library at Longleat. We were so innocent that we had no idea how lucky we were.
Leading on from this, you set up a food PR business, and then the Food Awards Company a few years later. Do you think that by concentrating on such a niche market, that this factor has contributed most towards the success of such a prestigious award?
I absolutely do. Focusing on one thing lifts one out of the crowd. I learnt that first as a young journalist, at the beginning, I was a generalist, like many other young aspiring writers. Once I had found my niche, which was interviewing women, I developed a profile, which led to the book commission followed by more book offers, a literary agent, and then the job at TRAVELLER.
Finding myself in the world of food, which I really love, and of awards, which I also love because celebrating people’s talent and hard work brings them so much joy, I have also realised how central food is to life. Not just the obvious in that we need to eat to survive. But it’s also about health, farming, the environment, about politics, about big business, family, community and celebration and so much more.
I also feel extraordinarily lucky to have lighted on an area of photography that had not been marked out before. There were awards for wildlife, landscape, garden photography and so on, but nothing for food. I could not believe it!
The Food Photography Awards are one of two food-related awards within your company. They seem like a philanthropic extension of what you do. The awards are aimed at highlighting global issues around what we eat, can you tell us the thought process behind this?
Well, the Awards and their categories are very much reflections of who I am as a person and what fascinates and drives me. I have an amazing team and they do indulge me by allowing me to lead on the shaping of the categories. I am someone who adores my food, but I am also very political. I do see food as a very political issue, increasingly so as levels of poverty rise stratospherically around the world. And more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, as well as land ownership.
We also use the Awards to support various charities. The partner charity to Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year is Action Against Hunger, working to end child hunger across the world. We have a category called Spayne Lindsay On the Phone for images of food taken on mobiles. £2 for every entry goes to AAH, and we also sell as many pictures as possible from the annual exhibition for their benefit. A few years ago, the World Food Programme became an official partner to the Awards and we created a category for them called Food for Life showing the humanitarian side of food. We were ecstatic when WFP was given the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of months ago, we are so honoured by the association.
How does your company structure look overall? Ie. team,
There are 9 of us all together. Everyone has a very distinct role. I had a business mentor a number of years ago who said that because my team were so kind and helpful, and trying to support one another, the lines were blurry and less productive. So we all know what we should be doing and I think everyone plays to their strengths. We are all very different personalities but very close. We have been through a lot together – divorce, bereavement, partner’s redundancy, children’s illness. GHQ is a converted potting shed (a wooden studio, really) at the side of my house, and in normal, non-Covid times, we use my kitchen as the boardroom for team meetings. Always a lot of good food, tea and coffee, everyone brings something and the dog sleeps by the Aga. It is very creative and we cannot wait until we can be together again.
What about the funding aspect? Was it bootstrapped or do you have partners?
I feel very fortunate that the business was a low-cost start-up. By complete chance, I did attract an investor at the beginning. I was listening to the Bottom Line on Radio 4, with Evan Davis, and one of the speakers was the entrepreneur Luke Johnson (Pizza Express, Channel 4, Gail’s Artisan Bakery). He was very interesting and clearly involved in food businesses. So I sent him an email and he asked me to come and see him. He ended up offering to invest in The Food Awards Company. Although I didn’t really need the money, because I wasn’t having to buy equipment or premises, I was so flattered and also thought he could bring so much to the business, that I said yes. And earlier this year, another investor came on board, Angus Montgomery, the fifth-generation exhibition company with offices in 15 countries. Damion Angus is now a co-director, so between Damion and Luke, I feel very supported and have access to a lot of great advice.
You also juggle motherhood alongside your career, can you tell us of any personal commitments or sacrifices you’ve had to make as a female entrepreneur?
I have a step-daughter who came into my life when she was 7, though she didn’t live with us. Rather like my mother was with me, she became involved in my work from time to time. But I only really started working again properly when Henry, my son, started school. When he was small, I tried to make my work invisible to him so that I only worked when he was at school. As he grew older and more independent, it coincided with the business needing more of my attention. At 13, he went to boarding school, not because of my work, but for many other reasons. It did mean I could focus 100% during term-time, it was hard in the holidays because I so wanted to spend time with him while knowing how much there was to do at my desk. However, he has always been very involved. As a very small boy, he would put on an apron and assist our chef-client when she was demonstrating at food festivals. When he was 12, he became very seriously interested in photography and we would always go to Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum. That was part of the inspiration for Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year – after I had the idea for it, I collected him from school one Friday for a weekend at home. I told him my idea in the car and thought he would dismiss it in the way 14-year-olds do. But he seized an old envelope and pencil from the glove pocket and we brainstormed category ideas all the way back. And as of this summer, he is our in-house photographer, which is wonderful, we are now a proper family business! And I must mention that my husband, who runs his own business and is also writing a doctorate, is fantastically supportive of me too.
What is one high point that you have experienced in your career so far that has taught you a valuable lesson at the same time?
Perhaps the one I remember most clearly is the first time we ran the Tiptree World Bread Awards in the USA. It was such a huge thing to set up a business in America – the idea came out of a visit to New York for a young cousin’s wedding and eating sublime focaccia in a little neighbourhood restaurant. It took me almost two years to get the sponsorship and organisation in place. I and my team flew out twice in three weeks. First for the Judging Day and second for the Awards Evening. On the morning of the Awards Evening, knowing sponsors were flying in from across the world and that I had to be the face of the event, give a speech and perform for three very demanding hours, I woke at 5 am, in this strange hotel next to a freeway where workers had been drilling all night. I was literally shaking with nerves, curled up in the foetal position, wondering what on earth had possessed me to set off such an ambitious project. I had to work really hard to get a grip of myself and calm down so I thought about my home and my garden, my family, and starting to stop trembling. The evening went like a rocket, it was so exciting and I had the most enormous high from it. I learned that the greater the risk, the greater the rewards – and I don’t mean monetary. And again, that if you dream you can create something, and it is a good thing, and you work really hard – you can make it a reality.
Lastly, what can expect to see from you in 2021?
This has been such a strange year and so wretched for millions of people across the globe. In the first lockdown, I was in London for four long, hot months caring for my mother who is very frail now, and separated from Charles and Henry. My pleasure was cooking each night, with the radio on. Everyone was talking about food, about food producers, about baking sourdough – and listening to the radio. An idea I’d had for a radio station all about food returned. I’d talked about it a year ago with a friend, Karen Morris, who runs a sponsorship agency. I rang Karen, she was at home with three school-age boys, running her business and driving as a volunteer round Hackney delivering food parcels. I said, do you remember the idea for FoodFM? Karen replied, Yes, I do – you know I was Head of Sponsorship at Classic FM? I didn’t. But with that, we were off. We are now a team of five and recording a pilot to go out before Christmas with a full launch planned for next May!
Food Photography Awards: https://www.pinkladyfoodphotographeroftheyear.com/
World Bread Awards http://www.worldbreadawards.com/