ONE of the North-East's most successful and innovative small food manufacturing companies is preparing to conquer new national markets.

Artisan Foods won five awards and generated a flood of inquiries at the recent Guild of Food Retailers' Great Taste Awards.

Their luxury ice creams, made with real cream; sorbets made with real fruit, and desserts created by resident pastry chef, Alistair Walklett, caught the eye of national retailers like Fortnum and Mason and Harrods.

The prospect of supplying major retailers, plus the ever-increasing demand from the company's core market of hotels and restaurants in the North of England, has resulted in the introduction of shift working and accelerated ambitious plans to move into larger premises.

Underpinning the company's development and growth has been the availability of specialist advice and practical help from Teesside University's food technology centre.

Barry McCrea, the centre manager, said Artisan was one of the success stories of the region's food manufacturing industry. "We have been able to help them build on the superb skills they have developed by keeping them up to date with legislation and advising and helping them in key areas such as good manufacturing practice, staff training, quality management systems, food hygiene and networking.," he said.

"We are co-ordinating activity with Artisan and the food clusters manager at One North-East to re-locate the company to larger manufacturing premises."

Since it was formed in 1996 by former National Coal Board mechanical engineer Ian Craig and his son, Peter, to exploit a gap in the North-East market for luxury ice cream, Artisan has expanded from a two-man business in a single unit at Blaydon Business Centre to a thriving business, with 14 staff in five units.

Its reputation has been built on the creation of products using nothing but top quality ingredients. Sweets range from traditional favourites to "originals" such as black pepper and chocolate and chilli ice creams, vodka martini sorbets and mascarpone cheesecakes. The company frequently works in collaboration with customers to create new products