Deli of the month: Cowdray Farm Shop – Driven by ethos, not Epos
Cowdray Farm Shop reflects the ‘healthy, natural and fair’ ethos of its titled owner as much as the point-of-sale data coming from its tills. Newly installed manager Rupert Titchmarsh tells us how this delicate balance is struck.
I’ve met Rupert Titchmarsh maybe a dozen times over the last decade, first as owner of Harrogate’s Tartufo deli and more recently as brand manager for distributor Hider Foods. A sensible sort of chap, he’s always chosen his words with care when I’ve had a notebook in my hand. Never more so than today, however, when he’s eight months into perhaps the most prestigious gig of his career.
Since February, Titchmarsh has been farm shop manager at Cowdray Park Estate in West Sussex. Owned by Michael and Marina Pearson – aka The Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray – this is the largest private estate in southern England, with 16,500 acres of prime land in the South Downs National Park.
The farm shop itself, just outside the market town of Midhurst on the busy east-west A272, was set up in 2008 in a converted stable block. Initially a slow burner, it really took off around 2013 under the management of ex-Whole Foods Market and Wyevale food buyer Katie Cordle – who is Lady Cowdray’s niece – getting into The Times’ Top 20 UK farm shops and the Telegraph’s top five.
Last year, turnover for the store and its 45-cover café (which seats a further 45 outside in summer) was £2.3m and it’s slated to hit £2.5m soon. “We’ve got some fairly ambitious plans to rejig things,” says Titchmarsh, when we settle down to talk at one of the none-too-cheap hardwood café tables in the shop’s courtyard.
These plans include more indoor café space, a bigger, more prominent butcher’s counter and more Cowdray own-brand lines.
This is a fine looking store, helped along by its classic half-timbered exterior and the deep yellow Cowdray Estate paint that’s familiar to anyone in the area. Inside, it’s not over-designed, very definitely still a farm shop and, with the exception of a non-food gifts section, much less “boutique” than you might expect.
Stand-out features include a sizeable cheese counter that features some beyond-the-norm British and Continental varieties, from Somerset’s Wellesley goats’ cheese to Italy’s raw milk Blu di Zibibbo. Most of the Brits come from Neal’s Yard Dairy, which also trains Cowdray’s counter staff.
The butcher’s is core to the business, majoring on lamb and beef from estate farms. Venison, from fallow and roe deer stalked on the estate, is a big seasonal feature, and there’s growing emphasis on added-value meats for quick suppers.
The farm shop café, meanwhile, has a breakfast and lunch menu that combines the local (Cowdray rump steak, or Welsh rarebit with Sussex Charmer cheese) with the healthy (like a ‘superfood’ salad including quinoa, sprouting lentil and Hollyhock yeast dressing). Coffee comes from Monmouth in London, which also trains Cowdray’s baristas.
The café kitchen doubles as a production kitchen for the shop too, making quiches, pies, soups and salads. Plans are afoot to enlarge this unit and add Cowdray-branded frozen ready-meals to its output.
Katie Cordle, who spent seven years at Whole Foods, undoubtedly put the stamp of a career retailer on Cowdray farm shop before leaving last winter. But it also strongly reflects the ethos of her aunt, who is marketing director for the entire estate.
And that’s one reason Titchmarsh is being careful: there is a clear and quite personal Cowdray “brand” on display here, he says, that needs to be rigorously protected.
“The estate is effectively designed to reflect Lady Cowdray’s ideals and beliefs,” he tells me. That means all things natural, organic, sustainable, healthy and, where possible, local. Google Marina Pearson and you’ll find numerous references to her interests in nutrition, nature, spirituality and meditation. According to her LinkedIn profile, she is an advisor to the respected Oxford Centre of Mindfulness – part of Oxford University’s department of psychiatry.
If this sounds a bit worthy, that’s not how it translates into the farm shop. In many ways the Lady Cowdray touches are light: posters in the café promoting classes in Qigong, Yantra and Mandala; a preponderance of better-for-you soft drinks in the chiller (Botanics Lab juices, TreeVitalise, SaVse smoothies); an absence of pester-power-inducing sugar confectionery; a strong range of wholefoods from distributors Infinity and Suma; and generous shelf-space for organic veg. The result: a shop with its own distinct flavour but still one where the mainstream shopper can put together a full basket.
“There’s an element of the range that is very much led by Lady Cowdray and what she considers to be responsibly sourced, ethical and healthy,” says Titchmarsh.
“It’s not always necessarily what one would sell from a purely commercial point of view but it’s nonetheless successful.”
It’s not organic or local at all costs, he stresses, but all things being equal, if a product exists that ticks the organic, fair trade and sustainable boxes, that’s the one that gets listed.
“We need to provide a one-stop shop, if we can do it without compromising our principles too much. [But] I’m trying to strike a balance between providing a service here and the restrictive practices some shops have where they’ll only sell local or sell what’s in season. If people find they have to go elsewhere for their mangoes, they might also go elsewhere for their beef and lamb.”
One category where a clear line is drawn is confectionery. You won’t find any giant chocolate Santas on sale over the next couple of months because “Lady Cowdray believes we shouldn’t be pumping the youth of today full of refined sugars”.
“Would a huge BonBons stand make money? Undoubtedly, yes, but we have to be true to our roots.”
Having said that, when I ask what lessons Titchmarsh carried forward at Cowdray from his five years trading at Tartufo, he says: “You have to stock what the public wants to buy, not what you want to sell. That’s a lesson every retailer should learn – and learn quickly.”
If Cordle put Cowdray Farm Shop on the national map, Titchmarsh has found plenty of scope to fine-tune the business, some of it informed by his “interesting and enlightening” three years at Hider. He has already lifted the shop’s average gross margin to 40% and hopes to improve it more – and not through higher retail prices.
“The first port of call is price negotiation,” he says. “All wholesalers have a discount strategy, and in my first week in the job I found suppliers that had never given us a discount simply because they had never been asked.”
He has also looked at staff rotas, to keep wages in the right ratio to turnover while ensuring there are enough hands on deck at busy times.
“And there are plenty of other areas where we can look to trim costs, like negotiating with service providers and playing them off against each other. It’s about not necessarily accepting the first price, and questioning every invoice that comes across my desk.”
He adds: “When you take on a new business, these are the first places you go to to keep a lid on expenditure.”
Cowdray Farm Shop is walking distance from the centre of Midhurst, a pretty and hardly impoverished market town with more than its fair share of listed Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings. By providing ample free parking, the farm shop has made itself a good starting point – and coffee stop – for a stroll into town.
While a regular cappuccino costs £3.50, Titchmarsh says prices are not intended to exclude anyone. “We always benchmark ourselves against other retailers,” he says,“and Waitrose is the obvious one.
“We don’t have a fixed margin structure, but we can’t be too expensive against other businesses. And the simplest way to ensure that is to look at Waitrose, given that their margin expectations are healthy and they would be buying considerably more cheaply than we do.”
One of his first tasks on arriving in February was to “tidy up” the roster of suppliers, partly because “the more you spend with a single supplier, the more purchase you have on pricing”.
The pasta selection, for example, had become unwieldy through trying to be all things to all people. Similarly the olive oil and balsamic selection has been rationalised (“No-one understands them, so the more you have the more confused people become.”) And rapeseed oils have also been culled. “From a gastronomic point of view,” he says emphatically, “you can’t say rapeseed is equivalent to extra virgin olive oil.”
Four wholesalers – Diverse, Hider, Infinity and Suma – provide the bulk of ambient stock, and the shop deals with 20-30 other suppliers on a week-to-week basis. Nonetheless, the total supplier list through the year numbers nearer 200, from the UK and further afield. Whether it’s the artisan Parmesan producer from which Cowdray imports direct or the local guy who rocks up once a year with an armful of wet garlic, it all helps maintain a point of difference.
With so many farm shops drifting towards the formulaic, it can be disappointing to walk into a new store and feel you’ve seen it before. But Titchmarsh reckons most of the grand private estate shops have their own character, to a large extent reflecting the family behind them and the land on which they are rooted.
While other farm shops in this patch of southern England tend to be very much focused on their own produce, he says Cowdray is “more of an amalgam between a farm shop and food hall, with a more complete offer”.
“The word I want to use is ‘classy’,” he adds, choosing his language with care once again. “But I don’t really want to, because the last thing we want to seem is aloof or elitist.”
Gospel Green cyder
Mummy Makes Fudge
Biotiful Dairy kefir
The Fine Cheese Co Toast For Cheese apricot & pistachio
Chegworth Valley apple juice
Luscombe elderflower bubbly
Turtle Dove’s recycled cashmere gloves
Rosebud Preserves sweet onion marmalade
Cowdray Park pies (made in-house)
Location: Cowdray Farm Shop & Cafe, Cowdray Park, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 0AJ
Owners: Michael and Marina Pearson (Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray)
Average gross margin: 40%
Key wholesalers: Suma, Infinity, Hider, Diverse Fine Foods
Shop opening hours: 9am-6pm Mon-Sat; 9am-5pm Sun