Olly Kohn played rugby for Harlequins until early retirement and a review from Michel Roux Jr helped him transform The Jolly Hog into a bona fide business.
Delivering a plastic bag of raw pork sausages to the door of celebrity chef, Michel Roux Jr, has to be up there as one of Olly Kohn’s more surreal career moments.
The memorable meat-drop happened during the early days of The Jolly Hog, the pork food company that he runs with his brothers, Max and Josh.
An ex-pro rugby player, Kohn was playing in the second row for Harlequins at the time. He met Roux after a game and his team-mates dropped him in it. “They told him that I make sausages on the side, which was very embarrassing, because he’s a legend in the food world.”
Roux suggested that Kohn bring a sample to his world-famous restaurant, Le Gavroche.
“So there I was," recalls Kohn. "In my training gear, at a restaurant that has two Michelin stars." He delivered the goods in a supermarket carrier bag. “I walked off thinking: this is crazy.”
It proved to be a turning point for Kohn and his company, which,
with his sporting career, had until that point been more of an entertaining sideshow.
The week following the delivery was National Sausage Week and Roux was interviewed on a morning television chat show. Asked what his favourite banger was, he replied: Jolly Hog. “The phone went completely off the hook,” remembers Kohn. “We realised then that we had to take things more seriously.”
The Jolly Hog journey began when Kohn’s wife bought him a sausage-making machine in 2008. “I made some good – and some bad – ones, but I really enjoyed it,” says Kohn, who learned through YouTube, books and friends about mixing the meat, linking the sausages and how to cook and present them properly.
Then Kohn's brother, Josh, a cabinet-maker for their father, came on board. After finessing their recipe and investing in some larger machines, the duo, under the banner of “Jolly Hog” (a portmanteau of their names), held their first pop-up food event, in the Harlequins stadium carpark on the day of an international rugby game.
“I remember that well, because we came home with £500 in our pocket, thinking that we were millionaires,” he says. “But later, adding it all up, we realised that the whole day had cost us £650.”
Despite being down on their investment, the brothers were buoyed by customer feedback – it was a good time to be launching an independent, family-run sausage brand. “We had something that people liked,” explains Kohn. “People were starting to become more aware of what was going into their food.”
Next, the two brothers were joined by their sibling, Max, who had a finance background. Together, the trio scaled up the operation, expanding to more events and locations, growing the team, outsourcing production and exploiting any moments of celebrity chef-shaped luck that came their way.
Today the company is made up of three parts.
The events business, upon which the company was founded, is what Kohn calls their “bread and butter”. This includes outdoor concessions, pop-up stalls and airstream trailers at music and food festivals, sports stadiums and events (The Oval and Tough Mudder, for example).
What’s amazing about being a pro sportsperson is that you’re constantly surrounded by competitive people who want to be the very best… that carries through
Olly Kohn, The Jolly Hog
Then there’s its retail pack business, which launched two years ago. “We’ve got a range of pork products – bacon and sausages – that we sell through Ocado, which was a fantastic place to start because it backs independent brands,”
says Kohn. Success there led to deals with Morrisons and Sainsbury's. Now Jolly Hog's products can be found in more than 200 supermarkets across the UK.
The final strand is PIGSTY, a permanent restaurant in Bristol that Kohn launched with current Harlequins player, Will Collier, last year. “We’ve just secured some funding to roll out more,” he explains. “It’s something that we think could work in other university cities. It’s scalable and uses all of our products.”
The Jolly Hog business, which has 15 full-time employees, registered turnover of £1.3m last year. “Success has simply come from a real passion for good quality food,” says Kohn.
Battle-scars weren’t the only thing that Kohn carried over from his sporting career – it has made him a more determined business owner, always on the hunt for improvement.
“What’s amazing about being a pro sportsperson is that you’re constantly surrounded by competitive people who want to be the very best,” he says. “That carries through.”
Other rugby connections have helped – support from Harlequins,
in particular. “The club has been extremely helpful, even from day one, when the chief executive at the time helped us put up a Jolly Hog tent in the car park,” says Kohn. “We’re still very close and wherever we can, we try to work together.”
He also thinks clubs have a duty to educate and support players to think about life after they hang up their boots: “It’s more relevant than ever, with the game getting more physical and with the issue of concussions, people are retiring earlier.
“There’s a much stronger culture within clubs now to talk about life after rugby, which is great," explains Kohn. “Harlequins are particularly good at supporting players with that – and encouraging it as well."
It can be a win for both sides, he thinks, because by encouraging players to think about life after the sport – whether that's business or something else – teams can foster a more rounded group of players.
“If you’re 21, playing in the premiership, and you’ve got something to think about outside of the sport, it gives you perspective,” says
Kohn. “Yes, you have to live and breathe rugby when you’re playing it, but you also need days when you try some work experience.”
More mature players will also be better at handling themselves in difficult situations, such as when they’re injured or face a few games on the bench.
Ultimately, however, it falls to the player to consider their future options. “You never know when you have to retire,” says Kohn, who had to at 32. "That decision was taken out of my hands, unfortunately, due to injury, but I had a good innings. If you have something else
or some options at that point, you’re in a better place.”