Deli of The Month: Millets Farm Centre
With an ever-widening offer stretching from its pioneering maize maze to Wimbledon tennis teas, family-owned Millets Farm Centre has all the advantages – and all the management challenges – of a highly diversified operation
She doesn’t look it, but Lucinda La Velle admits to feeling a bit frazzled when we sit down in the Farmhouse Kitchen restaurant at Millets Farm Centre to talk about her family’s third-generation business.
La Velle has just emerged from the Centre office and whizzed behind the café counter to rustle up a very competent cappuccino – just one sign of the multi-tasking she and brother Ben Carter have to undertake in their shared role of site manager.
“We both have that job title, but we’re really general dogsbodies,” she says, not entirely in jest. Like anyone brought up in a family business, she’s been mucking in with everything from bag-packing to trolley collection since her school days.
Now, she is as likely to be found clearing tables in the café-restaurant as attending to the financial or HR duties that are more in her ‘official’ line of work. “At Christmas I’ll spend quite a lot of time behind the deli counter, wrapping cheese,” she tells me.
The role has become more of a beast, she says, as new elements – from an ice cream parlour to summer barbecues – are steadily added to what is far from being a simple farm shop operation. Despite the presence of events manager Jo Kent and site development manager Daren Fisher, it is stilll a monster to manage.
“Although we have department managers who can run their section to a high standard, you need people who can move between them and oversee things. Particularly in the summer, we’re getting pulled more and more in all directions.”
Based near the village of Frilford, a few miles from Oxford, today’s Farm Centre began life as a pick-your-own strawberry shed on the family farm. La Velle’s grandparents, John and Christine Carter, bought Millets Farm in 1952 and ran it for many years as a mixed dairy and arable operation. “Then my father and uncle [Nigel and Tony Carter] got involved,” she says, “and brought the business to where it is today.”
Pick-your-own was developed in the 1970s. The original shed eventually became a shop and café, and then 25 years ago the current farm shop building was erected, and it remains the financial core of the Farm Centre. The farm is still productive, but the cattle have gone and the focus today is very much on fruit and veg – contributing to a fresh produce section in the shop that represents 25% of sales.
But bolt-on attractions have always been important at a site that is nowadays a coach-party destination. Notably, in 1998 Millets opened what La Velle says was the UK’s first maize maze – a giant with over a mile of pathways that won it a Guinness World Record. Great publicity, of course, but she adds: “The next year we scaled it back, because people didn’t want to be in there for two hours!”
The list of on-site attractions nowadays ranges from a falconry centre, beauty salon and clock and mirror shop, all operated by tenants, to a children’s play area and farm animal walk-way.
The calendar of events at Millets is impressive, from hosting MGB car owners’ rallies to storytelling sessions for kids and, in June, “tennis & tea” afternoons, allowing customers to watch Wimbledon on a big screen while indulging in a tennis-themed tea.
Ultimately, these are all about pushing more money through the tills, and it’s seen as important they don’t distrupt normal trade. “Our events are always about benefiting retail first,” says La Velle. “We’re mindful of not putting off regular food shoppers by making ourselves too busy.
When it comes to driving footfall, Millets has also benefited hugely from a long-standing tie-up with Frosts Garden Centres, a small, family-owned chain that has been a tenant at Millets for decades. The two work closely to ensure their offers are complementary. “We’re very lucky to have Frosts as our partners,” La Velle says. “They put a lot of investment into our site.”
The Carter family was fortunate to have diversified into PYO and retailing in the 1970s, as it made the decision to quit dairy production less painful than for others who faced the dual catastrophes of BSE and foot-and-mouth.
“We were very lucky we had the retail operation,” she says. “No matter how much you love something, you can’t afford to have it dragging down the rest of the business.”
It’s a little unusual, La Velle points out, for a farm shop to develop around a fruit & veg offer, rather than beef, pork or lamb. That’s the main reason why, for many years, the butchery counter was let out as a concession. But six years ago it was taken in-house, giving Millets more control over this key category. “We do feel that being able to set the same standards across the board is helpful,” La Velle says.
The same principle led to another change in January 2016 when the Farmhouse Kitchen, previously tenanted, was also taken in-house. With 160 covers inside, many more outside in summer, and up to 30 staff at peak season, it has brought new management challenges but also some major benefits.
“Running it ourselves enables us to give the same provenance message across the site, and that has been great,” she says. “We already have four bakers making bread for the shop, and now customers are served the same bread in the café – not a Warburton’s loaf. It doesn’t sit well for customers to be told they can’t have the same products they’ve seen in the shop because ’it’s nothing to do with us’.”
Now, sausages and burgers made in the butchery department, quiches made behind the deli counter or cakes produced in the large on-site bakery are all available in the café, while soups or patés made in the restaurant will migrate back to the shop. “There’s a fair amount of inter-business number-crunching going on,” La Velle says.
With each department manager naturally focused on their own targets, this inter-trading needs clear ground-rules, so the various production kitchens are paid at a fixed 40% discount to the retail price. The Farmhouse Kitchen or the upstairs Limbrick’s restaurant, which serves Sunday lunches and doubles as a function space, might be able to buy cheaper from outside suppliers, but the shop’s butchery and bakery benefit from a good ’wholesale’ margin, so it balances out.
The main thing, says La Velle, is to focus on the customer experience. For example, the shop might want to keep a stock of bread rolls on-shelf, but if the restaurant runs out of rolls to go with soup then that’s where they must go.
“It’s about saying, ’That product is going there because that’s where it works best for the customer, as part of a holistic offer’.”
Raised in the family business, La Velle talks retail with far more confidence and insight than you would expect from someone who qualified as a nutritionist in 2004 and worked in the NHS for several years. She always knew she would return to Millets, she says, but came back earlier than expected, in 2007, because an “opportunity” arose that, with hindsight, was more of a chance to learn than to prosper.
Millets had been asked by property developer Eagle One to open a new shop on a site at Evesham, Worcestershire. “We did our figures,” says La Velle, “and worked out that if we achieved a third of the sales there that we do here, we would be, not as profitable, but profitable enough.
She and her husband moved to Gloucester, where they stayed for five years. But the Evesham shop has simply not worked, and this Easter, with the lease coming to an end, they will be closing the site – an experience that La Velle describes a “devastating”.
In short, there just doesn’t seem to be enough money in Evesham to support the “labour intensive” Millets model that works so well in more affluent Oxfordshire. “We had done extensive surveys to look at its viability,” she says, ”but we misjudged the area.
“We look at it now and think, if we could pick that shop up and move it here it would work.”
Being a tenant rather than a landlord was also a learning experience. “For example, if you own the land you can give yourself a rent holiday. But we had to keep paying.”
She continues: “The lesson we learned was, if you’re thinking of opening a second unit, look at more than one option. We did research that site, but if we’d researched a few other areas it wouldn’t have come out as our first choice.”
While it was a gamble the Carter family could ultimately afford to take – and La Velle does say, philosophically: “You can’t play life safe, can you?” – everything about her tone suggests “once bitten, twice shy”.
Investment will continue, but in the Millets Farm Centre site, starting this year with the £1.5m development of an indoor play centre to bring young families to the site and keep them there. It will include its own 160-cover café, with an “assembly” kitchen run as a satellite from the main farm shop kitchen
“We’ve been a fair-weather destination for so long,” La Velle says. ”A bad summer can be very difficult for retail, and this is something a lot of people are going into.”
A Facebook posting of an artist’s impression of the play centre has already attracted 1,500 likes, leading La Velle to predict: ”Our soft launch may not be all that soft!”
And if £1.5m still sounds a lot of cash to invest after Millets’ recent experience in Worcestershire, she points out: ”If the play centre doesn’t work, we’ll be left with a building we can do something else with, whereas at Evesham we were investing in someone else’s site.
“So that’s the way we’ll be approaching it going forward.”