By Karen Carruth

Photographs: Rob Haining

There are so many advantages to being part of a food co-operative, many hands make light work and all that, but also many eyes and ears looking for opportunities to benefit the greater good, makes for good business sense.

Food from Argyll is a collaboration of food producers, pulling their resources to gain as many collective benefits as possible. It started back in 2007 and has grown organically over the years. Argyll is a vast area, covering from south of Campbeltown all the way up the west coast to Coll and Tiree, and as far inland as Helensburgh, that’s a lot of land covered and a lot of producers to deal with.

What makes Food from Argyll a little different is that they have managed to have a shopfront for the producers in the form of the Food from Argyll at the Pier café, situated slap bang in tourist country, at Oban’s ferry terminal, serving the food that is produced all around the area. What better way to advertise your wares than to feed it directly to visitors and locals.

But first, a little background. I’m speaking to Virginia Sumsion, co-ordinator for Food for Argyll co-op, she likens herself to a shepherd rather than a co-ordinator, and with the huge area covered, you can see her point.

Virginia says: “The food producers in this area are living and working in one of the most scarcely populated areas of Scotland with landscapes and seascapes as diverse as anywhere in Europe.

“However, this group of passionate producers strive to bring good food to their customers, working, learning and conversing together to achieve common goals and a unique quality of life.

“Argyll offers a natural larder from the hills and glens and pastures to farm and harvest, plus miles and miles of coastline to fish and cultivate, which is terrific. However, running a business from this area also throws up many issues. Getting your products to market for one thing, as distribution costs are inflated just by the distances that often have to be covered.”

The co-op was born out of a request to pull together producers in order to provide food at a few local festivals. It worked well, and after a few attempts that allowed the group to work out what sells and what doesn’t, they decided to get organised and the co-op idea was floated.

Funding was sought from the Highlands and Island council and they were off. They have learned a lot since then, and the co-op currently has 29 members with a great variety of products, and varying sizes of businesses involved. From Loch Fyne Oysters down to one-person operations, there is business knowledge to be passed on, transport to share and new developments to discuss.

One of the latest developments has been to forge a relationship with the Argyll and the Isles Tourism Cooperative, as they both realise that what the coop does in promoting the food of the area, brings new people to Argyll.

In 2017 they collaborated together during a major food tourism conference and from that, has come the bones of a National Food Tourism Strategy, which has been taken on by Scotland Food and Drink which has been a great outcome for both organisations.

Virginia continues: “Having spent so much time together over the years, doing festivals and events, it has really given us a strong core group, you definitely bond together when you’ve stood in the pouring rain for 12 hours trying to sell your produce. We’ve solved a lot of problems together over the years.”

When you have a group of producers who are making the same products it’s imperative that they don’t compete with each other. For example, there are six smokehouses in the area, and Virginia advocates that they compete with those outwith the area. And she mentions that if anyone within the Argyll area is not using a local smoked product, then why not as there is so much choice.

Trying to get the message further afield is one of the challenges for the co-op. They have a strong presence at Murrayfield during rugby matches, even though everyone has their own branding, they also include the Food from Argyll branding too.

Food hubs

One of the new ways of expanding the reach of the producers is through food hubs, which is basically an online farmers market.

Producers only list what they have to sell that week, customers order a few days in advance and then pick up their order from a central location. At the moment, they have two running, one in Oban and one in Dunoon. It’s an ideal market for small producers, it happens once a week, it’s very flexible and they know they have sold it before they take it to the collection point.


We turn up at the café to speak to Tommy Johnston the chef and manager, and it is going like a fair. The café is quite a small space, with shelves filled with the wares of both the co-op members and other Scottish food producers.

The café opened in 2016, and has proved a fantastic base to promote the local food. It uses ingredients and products from co-op members and if they can’t source what they need from the co-op, they try to find it as locally as possible.

Whether you are in for a snack, a meal or a takeway there is plenty of options. And being in Oban, the tourists like to pick up some of the food gift sets to take home with them.

Since year one, the turnover has increased by 75%, and they are often full. Tommy says: “Ideally we would love to expand, but until then we are in talks with CMAL, which owns the ferry terminal, to see whether we could extend our tables outside, I am imagining a herb garden outside as well, but nothing has been confirmed yet.”

So, what’s on the menu… well, it would have been bad manners not to have partaken in a little taster or two.

They offered, we didn’t ask, honest! A delicious bowl of Cullen skink arrived on the table, beautifully presented and scoffed within a nano-second of it hitting the table by our under nourished photographer. Then a steak sandwich (six slices high) with meat sourced from Mull slaughterhouse, it was delicious, with a hint of mustard in among the layers of salad and steak.

Today’s special is a roll with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, roquette leaves, all bundled onto a morning roll, alongside home ground coffee from Helensburgh. What’s not to like?

First thing to catch my eye is a few shelves of wine. Scottish wine! Who knew. They stock Cairn O Mhor wine from Perthshire, however, also on the shelves is a range of bottles from Islay Winery, fruit wines made by husband and wife team, Kenneth and Helen Carter, from Port Ellen on Islay.

Tommy tells us that the cheese counter probably attracts the most sales, Isle of Mull cheese is popular, particularly when tourists can jump on the ferry outside the café and be in Mull within an hour. They also sell a lot of smoked salmon, and the trout from Tobermory is very popular.

Jams and chutneys are good sellers too, Kintyre Preserves is a range of award winning artisan jams, marmalades and chutneys. I would think as gifts they would be perfect as they will last the journey home.

One of the factors that the café encourages is the staff having a good knowledge of the local food, they know where it comes from, who makes it and its special qualities.

Virginia Sumsion mentioned this also: “When we took our events knowledge, speaking to customers about what they were buying, and took it into the café we found that customers really responded to having the story of the food on their plate explained to them.

“It’s one of the things that is mentioned on Trip Advisor all the time, how customers love the service. I always think service is underestimated, and to have such enthusiastic staff has been a real bonus to the business.”

On the wall there is a map showing where all the producers come from. Alongside it is a map of the UK and one of the world, and guests can pop a sticker on the map showing where they have come from. It’s astonishing to see that travellers have come from all over the world and passed through Oban ferry terminal.

Tommy tells us that the café and shop are particularly busy when ferries are delayed, what better way to kill some time than to sit down to a bacon roll and hot coffee that was roasted just a few miles away. The shop also does a great business in Christmas food hampers. Just pre-order and pick them up.

The café is now open all year round, so that the food is available at all times for hungry travellers.

Food trails

Working with the Argyll and Isles tourism group, the co-op have decided that it would make good sense to organise food trails.

There’s been a seafood trail in Argyll for a long time, which Virginia thinks needs a little better marketing to revive it. Other trails on the cards are a coffee and cake trail, as baking is a big tradition here and there are four coffee roasters in Argyll, sign me up for that one.

They are also working on a whisky and gin trail and a vegetarian/vegan trail, all of which focuses a traveller’s mind on what is being produced and where.

Of course, Argyll can’t produce everything the café needs to operate, there are no banana trees growing in Campbeltown. They source items that they can’t get in Argyll as locally as possible.

It’s part of the ethos of the place. Argyll first, Scottish second. But if you know of any banana trees growing on the west coast, they would be interested to know.

Virginia concludes: “People are prepared to pay for quality produce, and our producers should have the confidence in their product to say this is what it costs, and why it costs this much.

Tell the story of how this food got onto their plate and the time and expertise involved in the process. People love to hear the story behind our food. They invest in it, and even if they only buy it once a week, it makes a huge difference to our producers.”

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