Dancing to their own tune: Harp Lane Deli
At Harp Lane Deli, Henry and Hannah Mackley have reinvented a Ludlow landmark food shop in the image of their home larder: ‘Everything has to look beautiful and taste good’
It might not have the heritage of Fortnum & Mason (established in 1707) or Paxton & Whitfield (1797), but the little deli at 4 Church Street in Ludlow is something of an institution.
Set up nearly three decades ago as Ludlow Larder, it then saw 13 years as Deli on the Square under the ownership of Maggie Wright.
With its prime location in a beautiful medieval building at one corner of the Shropshire town’s traditional market square, it was perfectly situated to ride the wave of interest in Ludlow that followed the launch there of the UK’s first major food festival in the mid-1990s.
Now, along with shops like its neighbour Mousetrap Cheese and butchers like D W Wall & Son, it’s at the core of Ludlow’s reputation as a food destination.
No pressure, then, on Henry and Hannah Mackley, who took over three years ago and bravely set about reimagining a store that some shoppers had been loyally supporting for three decades.
“We had big boots to fill,” admits Henry, when I visit the Mackleys at what is now called Harp Lane Deli on a grey Thursday afternoon in early February.
Luckily, though, the couple came to the shop with a strong local foodie heritage of their own.
Not only are they both Ludlow born and bred, but their parents were together instrumental in setting up the now-famous festival in 1995. Hannah’s father is a retired former MD of Pol Roger Champagne, while Henry’s mother Lesley is a food writer and cook and is heavily involved in the Slow Food movement.
“Our parents are all very food-driven,” says Hannah, adding it was “kind of inevitable” she and Henry would eventually work in this sector.
Although she’s currently at the shop only part-time while looking after their two young children, Hannah previously worked in sales and marketing for multinational ingredients supplier ADM. “I’ve always been in customer service or sales in something to do with food,” she tells me.
If those are useful skills for a deli owner, Henry’s experience was even better. After university in London he cheffed for a couple of years, then “stumbled into a job” at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor in London, home of its main restaurants and foodmarket. After a stint out of the food industry – “I did a bit of property marketing” – he returned to Ludlow, where for three years he helped run the deli section at Ludlow Food Centre, on the A49 just outside the town. And it was here he learned many of the tricks he is now applying in his own deli.
“I wouldn’t have been able to run this place without that experience,” he says, although he also stresses that the Food Centre – built 10 years ago on the edge of the Earl of Plymouth Estate and incorporating a large café,food hall and several onsite food production units – was an entirely different operation.
“It’s almost incomparable,” he says. “They’re a company employing 100-plus people. We employ one full-timer and four or five part-time. And they have quite a different customer to us.
“But the experience was invaluable. I was co-managing cheese and deli, but towards the end of my three years there I spent more time in the office working on new product development. So in a relatively short time I covered a lot of ground.”
Even a quick glance around the shelves in the compact little Harp Lane Deli tells you a lot about the approach the Mackleys have taken. With limited space they’ve gone for the best of everything, but also for products that look great on-shelf.
As Telegraph food writer Xanthe Clay put it when she spoke at Harp Lane’s official opening, it’s “curated”.
“In general,” says Hannah, “everything is here because it looks beautiful and tastes good. It has to do both of those things.”
“And it’s here because we like it,” her husband adds. “What’s the point in having a shop like this if you can’t fill it with stuff you’d want at home?”
He continues: “It sounds a bit superficial, but I want everything in my cupboard at home to look nice, and it’s the same in shop. In 2017, there’s no excuse for bad packaging.”
Products like Ortiz tuna from Brindisa and Jose Gourmet canned fish, bought through a small Portuguese importer in London, set the tone, along with McClure’s dill pickles from Detroit, USA, sourced through Buckley & Beale. “These are ferociously expensive,” says Henry, holding up a big jar of McClure’s. “You don’t get much change out of £9. But on a scale of 1 to 10, how sexy is it?”
It’s three years since the Mackleys took over the Deli on the Square, and they then closed the shop for six months to effectively rebuild the interior – within the limits of its Grade II listing – before reopening under their new name. Walls were squared up, and a joiner was brought in to install deep shelves, carefully measured to enable full cases of product to be put out on display.
The building, squeezed between Church Lane and Harp Lane, is the width of a standard §medieval “rod, pole or perch” – just over 16ft – and perhaps twice that in depth, with narrow stairs up to small first- and second-floor rooms. The first floor incorporates Henry’s kitchen and a tiny 6-8 cover informal dining room that is used a few times each month for pre-booked functions. Storage is on the top floor, and you wouldn’t want to be going up and down those narrow stairs too often in a day. “At Christmas, things become pretty tricky,” says Hannah.
Another aspect of the refit was the addition of a small coffee bar on one side of the shop, encouraging shoppers to linger. “It was a very functional deli before,” says Henry. “We wanted to make it more of an extension of our own home – a nice place to be in.” Plans for an upstairs café were quickly abandoned as “logistically ridiculous”, not least because of those narrow stairs. But reinstating the first-floor kitchen, which had only been used for storage during Maggie Wright’s ownership, means Henry can produce quiches or patés for the deli counter as well as catering for those occasional fixed-menu private parties.
“We don’t have the staff or the time to have a permanent dining room,” he says, “and it’s not much of a money-spinner, but it’s a nice little addition and it helps keep us creatively excited.”
His biggest buzz, he tells me, comes from finding new products and suppliers – one area where he felt limited at Ludlow Food Centre. “They were very constrained, at least initially, by their local sourcing policy. But we don’t have any percentage rules here, so it’s refreshing to get away from that and talk to different wholesalers and suppliers.
He particularly enjoys finding small or niche suppliers. “Obviously we get some of our stuff from Cotswold Fayre or Hider, and we do very well with The Fine Cheese Company – they’re really good people to talk to. But I go and visit other delis a lot, with a deli man’s eyes, and I can always see when someone has just bought everything from Cotswold Fayre.
“I’ve just bought some stuff from Christian Gimblett of The Good Food Network, who goes across to France with a van twice a month and brings back nice jars of cassoulet and Perard fish – things I remember from my own visits to France. It’s talking to guys like that that gets me really excited.”
Others singled out for praise include Bath-based coffee supplier Easy José, Pembrokeshire preserves and syrups supplier Coedcanlas, Spanish specialist Brindisa and Harp Lane’s main cheese supplier, Fromage to Age, run by Simeon Hudson-Evans and now owned by catering wholesaler Aubrey Allen.
“Simeon comes up here regularly to take me out for a pie and a pint and to chew the fat, and that’s what makes me tick,” says Henry. “I enjoy that personal contact – and I trust him. I’m not very patient with people who muck us around.”
With turnover currently around £500,000, business is looking healthy for Harp Lane. But there is one cloud on the horizon. As FFD went to press, outline planning permission was granted for a supermarket on the edge of town – the first mainstream store far enough out of Ludlow to suck business from the centre.
Lidl and Sainsbury’s are both said to be interested in the site, but the Mackleys’ real fears are that Waitrose might start sniffing round.
It seems like a shocking planning decision for a town that draws so many visitors on the strength of its traditional, independent-rich high street.
Henry said an existing Tesco and Aldi, close to Ludlow centre, “sort of work” because shoppers can walk from there to the high street and market in a matter of minutes. If an edge-of-town store is built, he says: “I fear for what would happen because I’ve seen it in other towns. Whether it’s an Asda or a Waitrose it will inevitably draw people away.”
But there’s no doubting the current strength of Ludlow’s traditional town centre. “It’s that rare thing: a fully functioning market town where people still use the butchers, the bakers and the ironmonger,” Henry says. “It’s hard to do the statistics, but probably 70% of our customers are people who live here and come to the shops every day.”
Fingers and toes crossed that, as the developers of the proposed supermarket claim, it will be Aldi and Tesco who feel the impact, not Ludlow’s independents.