Graham’s The Family Dairy is one of the food industry’s big success stories. Robert Graham and his son, Robert, tell Karen Peattie about their journey to becoming Scotland’s number one food brand.

It’s one of Scotland’s most-loved family businesses, its products sitting in fridges and freezers across the UK. And last year, independent dairy group Graham’s became the cream of the crop when it overtook Irn-Bru for the first time to become the number one Scottish food brand.

The third-generation farming business – Scotland’s largest independent dairy – trumped a raft of prestigious homegrown stalwarts including Caramel Wafer maker Tunnock’s, soup and preserves firm Baxters and ice-cream experts Mackie’s to head up the Kantar WorldPanel poll of the top 30 Scottish brands.

Bridge of Allan-based Graham’s The Family Dairy, which saw sales of butter double amid a surge in home baking during the first lockdown last year and stepped up its doorstep delivery service as people stayed at home, points out that there’s much more to its business than just milk.

While Graham’s is known for its award-winning range of milk, butter, cream and ice cream, including the Graham’s Organic and Graham’s Gold Jersey ranges, it has expanded into health-focused categories such as high-protein yogurt and ice cream, and cottage cheese. Last year, it launched Goodness Kefir, a cultured, fermented milk drink similar to yogurt.

“Over the years we’ve expanded our product range by moving into butter, yogurt and ice cream,” says Robert Graham snr. “But the challenge is also to be innovative and react to trends – we want to surprise our customers and give them something that’s a bit different.”

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Graham’s newest range and a first for Scotland – its Gold Top Luxury Yogurt – certainly ticks all those boxes. Made with the freshest Jersey milk from the company’s own herd of “Golden Girls” in Stirlingshire – Robert snr’s “pride and joy” – the velvety, smooth yogurts are indulgent, luxurious and perhaps a little naughty.

But that is countered by the fact that Jersey milk is naturally 18% higher in protein and 20% higher in calcium than standard milk, plus it’s rich in essential vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iodine and vitamins A, B, D and E. Add an opulent layer of strawberry or salted caramel and Graham’s Gold Top Luxury Yogurt is a must-have treat.

“It takes a long time to bring a new product to market,” explains Robert snr. “There’s a lot to get right because it has to look the part and you’re competing with a lot of other equally exciting products for precious shelf space. Most of all, though, it has to taste great and it really helps when you have a story to tell.”

Robert jnr agrees with his father. “We’re pretty good at coming up with innovative products – we pride ourselves on it and are always working on new ideas. You can’t sit still – you have to keep thinking about the next thing. But you also have to take advantage of the provenance of your product and we have that in spades.

“People are interested in your story, about the history of your business – how it started. And dad’s always happy to oblige when people ask him!”

Indeed, Graham’s familiar packaging that features three different sizes of welly boots reiterates both its family and farming roots. As Robert snr points out that the company is now over 80 years old, Robert jnr finds it hard to believe that he’s been part of the business now for 30 years.

Joining the business in 1991 when he was 21 and working his way through every department from milking cows to delivering milk until he took over from his father as managing director in 1996, Robert muses: “It’s amazing really when I think of all the hard work put in my grandfather at the beginning then my father and to still be going from strength to strength.

“Today, more than half of people in Scotland buy our products and that’s a reflection on their generation – it’s up to my generation to ensure Graham’s is here for the fourth generation.”

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Robert works closely with his sister, Carol, Graham’s marketing director. His mother, Jean, is also a director. “It’s very much a team effort although we have our own areas of responsibility and a fantastic team of people who are every bit as passionate about the business as we are,” he continues.

Are there every any family fallouts? Robert snr laughs: “I’d say we don’t fall out, we fall in. What would life be if everyone had the same opinion? Of course we have different views on things but I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say I don’t always get things right – and Jean will always tell me when I’m being crabbit!

“I’m slowing down a bit but I’m still very much around – it’s a 24-hour business, after all – and it’s hard not to be hands-on when that’s what you’ve done all your life. My father started in 1939 with just 12 cows so I’ve got his work ethic and so do Robert and Carol.”

According to Robert, his father’s vast experience is invaluable. “Dad goes to Bridge of Allan every day and the farm and to know that he has all of that anchored is a weight off my mind when you’re running a multi-site business like ours,” he points out. “We have to look after our raw product and the 125 farmers who supply it.”

From Skyr and Quark to its high-protein products and spreadable butters, there’s always something cooking in the Graham’s development kitchen. And it’s a far cry from the days when Robert snr was a lad. “I’ve been around cows all my life – going out as a milk boy, collecting the money, milking, bottling milk,” he recalls. “Robert’s absolutely right when he talks about our story and how important that is, and also our people.”

According to Robert jnr, that feeling of family and belonging has strengthened during the pandemic. “I think people wanted security and they turned to local, great-tasting Scottish products like ours that they understand and trust,” he says. “That desire to support brands which are local, and have the provenance they can trust, has definitely grown.”

Last year, Graham’s joined forces with another family business to develop a new butter made mixed with natural, unrefined sea salt from the Isle of Skye. The Scottish Butter with Isle of Skye Sea Salt, a collaboration with Chris and Meena Watts of the Isle of Skye Sea Salt Co, was crowned Champion Butter at this year’s Royal Highland Show.

Dairy lovers can expect to see more new and exciting products from Graham’s in the future. The company is also committed to finding ever-more sustainable solutions for its packaging and making positive environmental changes, and has ambitious plans to transition to a net-zero carbon business.