Deli of the month: Perfectly Purbeck
It’s small, it’s quite seasonal, but when it comes to delivering a warm welcome, Swanage’s award-winning Purbeck Deli can teach bigger stores a thing or two.
Robert Field’s Dorset Honey, Conker gin from Bournemouth, The Seasonist from Bridport, The Gilded Teapot – they’re in Dorchester…”
Between sips of latte, Diana Jones is perusing the shelves alongside us and pointing out just a handful of the many local producers available to her as as owner of Dorset’s award-winning Purbeck Deli.
Not that we’re actually in Dorset’s award-winning Purbeck Deli. We’re in Love Cake, a “café, deli and cake emporium” just round the corner from Jones’s shop in the neat little coastal resort of Swanage.
As an interview venue, this has two advantages: an espresso machine and a bit of space to sit down with a notebook.
At something under 400 sq ft, Purbeck Deli has neither. “We are teeny tiny,” Jones had told me in an email earlier the same day.
It turns out that Love Cake, owned by caterer Emily Strange, is one of several similar local businesses that Purbeck Deli trades with on a regular basis.
“They make fabulous cakes here,” Jones tells me, “so if we suddenly find we can’t get a cake or a quiche we’ll call them and say, ‘Can you make one?’ And if they run out of cheese, they’ll come to me.”
It all sounds very neighbourly, although Jones stresses that it’s also business-like. “Everything is done by invoice or receipt. It’s not an airy-fairy bartering thing. If they need something from me, I’ll invoice them.”
I’ve met Jones only 20 minutes earlier, but I’ve immediately warmed to her. In fact, if Swanage had a welcoming committee to greet its many thousands of day-trippers and holiday visitors, you’d want her in the front line.
Last time I was here – to visit premium chocolate-maker Chococo – it was the height of summer, the narrow streets were swarming with tourists and parking was murder.
This time, in the second week of January, I’ve left the car on an empty seafront, and I’m still 50 yards from my destination when I hear a female voice hollering “Are you looking for the deli?”
We’ve never even spoken – the interview was arranged hastily by email over the weekend, with Jones kindly agreeing to stand in for another deli owner who’s fallen victim to the flu – but she greets me in the street like a long lost friend.
We briefly pop our heads into the shop to say hello to manager Amy Spreadborough – busy in the back room, preparing pastry cases for her next batch of quiches – before heading off out again in search of caffeine. Several locals are given similarly warm hellos as we make our way to Love Cake, including one older man who turns out to be Jones’s dad, on his way to do her banking.
“He‘s the rock behind my business,” she tells me, after we’ve sat down. A former financial director, he’s the shop’s accountant and visits every day to look after the cash.
Jones, as it turns out, is usually at the shop only once or twice a week – and this despite it winning the Best Specialist Retailer title in the 2016 Taste of the West awards.
She and husband Dave, a chef, also own Worth Matravers Tea & Supper Room – winner of Best Café/Tea Room in the same awards in 2015 – and while it’s only three or four miles away, Jones has found trying to run both on a daily basis is just too much of a stretch.
After they met, with Dave working restaurant hours and his wife in the deli, they had been “like ships that passed in the night”.
They took on the Worth Matravers business so they could work together, but Jones found she was forever driving back and forth between the two. “It was bit crazy. But then Amy came along, who had worked for me before at the tea room. She has been with me at the deli full-time for a year now, and she’s my right-hand woman.”
Jones moved to Swanage with her parents as a child, and remembers visiting Purbeck Deli even then. “It’s been a deli forever,” she says, but by the time she bought the business 10 years ago, it was “very dilapidated, dark and dingy”.
Jones had worked in a local language school for many years, and was a nanny before that, all over the world. This might have exposed her to a lot of different cuisines, but she had no professional experience in the food game. “On the day we took over the shop, I remember standing there with my mum, thinking, ‘What have I done?’ I had a lot to learn.”
She stripped out many of the deli’s dusty, unloved lines – there was a lot of miscellaneous stuff in cans, she recalls – introduced home-cooked beef, hams and other shop-made ready-to-eat lines, and then steadily took the ambient range further and further down the ‘local’ route.
“Even at the start,” she says, “people really appreciated being able to buy something handmade, rather than manufactured, and I’ve gradually made it more and more local.”
Swanage sits on the south east tip of the Isle of Purbeck, the picturesque peninsular between Weymouth and Poole. The area hosts a lively community of small food and drink producers; the wider county of Dorset and the rest of the West Country even more. “I tend to start with Purbeck and work out from there,” Jones says.
Visitors to the West Country have a clear expectation of finding local foods on sale, and she makes it her business to keep her offer refreshed. “My approach is to keep the range moving, looking for new people and new things. I go to the local fairs and markets and make sure I know what’s going on.”
Again, day-to-day ordering is delegated to Amy Spreadborough, especially on fresh foods. Another of the deli’s key local partners here is event caterer Carla Cherry Daniels, who produces a Spanish-style tortilla for the deli every day, helps out with cakes and quiches and also supplies scones to Worth Matravers Tea & Supper Room.
There’s a fair bit of inter-trading between deli and tea room. The shop boils hams for the tea rooms; Dave roasts beef for the shop and will also use any short-dated product that Spreadborough can’t make use of in her own baked goods.
“We do quite well on ‘zero waste’,” says Jones. “Dave will use anything we don’t use.”
That’s one reason Jones can make a go of one of the smallest shops we’ve featured in this slot. Turnover is only £100,000-£120,000, despite opening seven days a week in summer and six in winter. Even though Jones aims for a fat 70% gross margin across the board (it’s not an “everyday shopping” venue, she stresses) you don’t need an accountancy degree to know its not paying a fat salary to its owner, her shop manager and a part-timer.
“It earns it’s keep,” she says. “It doesn’t make a profit, but it pays a couple of wages and now we have the tea room too they complement each other quite a lot.”
She continues: “I’m not a hugely ambitious business woman. And economically, no, it doesn’t really make sense. But I enjoy it.”
She has no superstore competition nearby, just a Coop and a Budgens – although the latter does have a local food offer. But Purbeck Deli can still draw people in with products such as sumac and stem ginger that aren’t to be found in smaller multiples.
“We have our own cooked meats, we do Montgomery‘s cheddar; we do the West Country bries, and a gorgonzola you might not get in the supermarket.”
And they offer one other thing you won’t get in Waitrose: a warm welcome. “Some people come here because they’re lonely,” she says, adding: “Cheerfulness really is the name of the game.”