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03 Apr 2024

Stokes Sauces: Championing taste and an independent spirit

Stokes Sauces: Championing taste and an independent spirit

Speciality & Fine Food Fair pays a visit to a unique condiments brand who are putting quality at the heart of everything they do. 

The weather was typically British when the Speciality & Fine Food Fair team hopped on the train at London Liverpool Street station and headed east to visit the home of Stokes Sauces in rural Suffolk. 

However, no amount of rain and drizzle could put a dampener on the delightful experience of going behind the scenes at the brand’s factory and hearing the inspiring story behind its range of quality condiments, jams and chutneys. 

Stokes Sauces Factory

A visit to Stokes Sauces includes not just a fascinating tour around the business’s immaculate factory (a converted barn) and a delicious lunch courtesy of Innovation Chef Andy Weatherill, the Speciality & Fine Food Fair team also had the opportunity to explore the beautiful grounds of Rendlesham Hall, with its menagerie of animals including rabbits, chickens, dogs, sheep, deer, emus, over 100 incredibly cute wallabies and a Shetland pony named Jasper to name a few.

Stokes Sauces MD and Founder Rick Sheepshanks even tells us that Rendlesham Hall has earned such a reputation locally as a sanctuary for animals that it’s not uncommon for unwanted creatures to be left at the end of the estate’s driveway. 

Tour over, we sat down with the Stokes Sauces leadership team to learn more about the origins of the business and its passion for people, planet, and quality ingredients. 


Before Stokes Sauces, explains Sheepshanks, his business Suffolk Foods was supplying mayonnaise in bulk to the likes of Pret a Manger and Greggs alongside a variety of supermarkets, cruise lines and airlines. 

Years earlier, a friend working in a fish and chip shop in Fall’s Road, Belfast, had fallen into making mayonnaise for customers in his garage, and due to popular demand had enlisted Sheepshanks to join the growing condiment empire. 

“I motored up through the night, got the ferry from Stranraer, drove through Belfast and then spent the day making mayonnaise in an old cow shed,” he recalls. “Then I came back the next night, sleeping in almost every lay-by on the way down the A1, and started transferring the mayonnaise out of big buckets into little buckets.  

“My first four customers were P&O Ferries, one of the canteens at Terminal 4 at Heathrow, which had just opened, Harrods staff restaurant and a chap down in the East End, who will remain nameless but who was related to the Kray twins.”  

From humble beginnings, Suffolk Foods was born, and at its peak was producing 400 tonnes of mayonnaise a week for clients across the UK and abroad. 

Getting the basics right

Following a failed management buyout of Suffolk Foods it resulted in restrictions on operating in the foodservice sector, Sheepshanks turned his attention to retail and to an approach to condiments which championed quality ingredients over mass production. 

“Supermarkets always wanted it cheaper,” he recalls. “You’d end up taking out the expensive stuff – eggs and oil – and putting in water and emulsifiers. I’ve never enjoyed doing a bad job. I want to do a good job and I think most people do. That’s how Stokes Sauces started.” 

Stokes began with the idea of finding the best version of every ingredient going into the jar, which saw Sheepshanks travelling to Greece to find the best Koroneiki olive oil, using only British free-range eggs and investing in a particular variety of sweet Mediterranean tomatoes. 

“There’s no cheating, there's no skimping, we want the best,” he concludes. “Taste is an emotional reaction. If you like it you’ll want more, if you don’t, you won’t.” 

Putting people at the heart of the business

“People are the centre of our business,” says Sheepshanks. “Whether that’s our team (around 80 people), our suppliers or our customers. It’s important to be kind, which is about treating people how we would want to be treated. It doesn’t mean there isn’t tough love, but we want to be kind to our team, our suppliers, our customers, our consumers and our environment.”

In 2023, Stokes Sauces was once again awarded the coveted Carbon Charter GOLD in recognition of of the company’s passionate commitment to the environment. In response to growing customer demand for squeezable bottles, the company also undertook four years of research to develop a 100% recyclable plastic bottle, forming part of the company’s drive to deliver a ‘zero landfill’ policy. 

Stokes Sauces label

Stokes Commercial Director Chris Reeve adds: “We are taste without compromise. And one thing that makes it easy to not compromise is that we make everything ourselves. We’ve converted a stable block into our factory, and we have that control because we choose where we buy our ingredients from, how we mix them and how we pack them, and that end product is therefore uncompromisingly good. 

“So many brands now are outsourcing to other factories and having to compromise when it comes to ingredients or packaging.”

Taste always comes first for Stokes Sauces when it comes to picking supplier partners, however the company has also removed Russia and Belarus from its supply chain and is working to remove Chinese suppliers. 

“That's a lot harder,” admits Sheepshanks. “While we've done quite a lot - we've stopped taking glass from there now - it’s a messed-up supply chain. It is difficult to ascertain the origins of products sometimes.

“It’s a big thing for me that at Stokes Sauces everybody has to be responsible. Responsible for yourself, responsible for your teammates, and responsible for the environment. Every one of us has to hold ourselves accountable.

“Our team understands that I’ve got their back, and they’ve got mine. The company is much bigger than me - every single person here counts and makes a difference. It is about understanding you are a valued part of a special team.”  

Crafting an experience for consumers

“Good food should be an experience, says Reeve. “That experience can be about browsing an independent and finding something new that you haven’t seen in your everyday shopping. Then taking that home, the way our jar feels, opening the lid, the labels – all of that leads to the experience when you can finally taste it and have that ‘wow’ moment. 

“Independent retailers can help us to do that because they want consumers to have that experience too. None of that works if the final ‘wow’ isn’t better than what they can get elsewhere. By delivering a brand that people can trust, with taste at the forefront, we can support independents in providing that experience.”

Or, as Sheepshanks puts it rather more succinctly: “If you liked all of our brand values and our culture but not the taste of our sauces, you wouldn’t bother coming back for more.”

Stokes Sauces lids

Past experiences in the food industry, both as a business leader and as a supplier, have shaped the type of business that Sheepshanks wants Stokes Sauces to be. 

“When we started this, one of my goals was to make sure that we never put all our metaphorical eggs in one basket,” he says. “That’s the advantage of independents, and of independence. We also export to about 50 countries, we work with multiples, we work with foodservice, and we do some white labelling.”

The company’s work in foodservice is invaluable when it comes to keeping on top of the latest trends and innovations. 

Reeve explains: “We’ve developed a brand that is supported by consumers not just in our core range but in those other exciting and different products that we’re able to deliver. By being involved in foodservice and talking to chefs we can make sure that we’re bringing that knowledge and insight into retail. 

“We try and listen to as many people as possible. We talk to chefs and owners all the time. We’re talking with independent retailers and our distribution partners, who in turn talk to customers. We’re always having conversations about different trends, and sometimes we just have our own idea. For example, Rick will wake up one morning and decide we need to make a Bloody Mary ketchup!”

After a fantastic day, and laden with goodies from Stokes Sauce (although sadly no wallabies), the Speciality & Fine Food Fair team set off back to London inspired by the company’s clear vision and commitment to delivering a quality, speciality product. 

Stokes Sauces will be returning to Speciality & Fine Food Fair in 2024 after a ten-year hiatus just in time to celebrate the Fair’s 25th anniversary and take part in our biggest and best event yet! Find out more about the company’s product range and business ethos at


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