Deli of the month: Weald Smokery
Once housed in a glorified shed and nearly flattened in a road development, Weald Smokery’s outlet shop was reborn in 2014 as a classy rural deli-brasserie
I’ve picked November 21, a day of torrential rain across the south west of England, for the 190-mile drive from Devon to East Sussex to interview Weald Smokery owner Andrew Wickham. When I arrive at his shop and smokehouse – just off the A21, in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – it’s clear the West Country is not alone in taking a hammering.
As Wickham is giving me a well-practised 30-minute tour of his traditional smokery, the air ripe with wood-smoke, he apologises for the black, tarry and now decidedly slippery floors around his brick-built cold-smoking kilns and steel hot-smoking ovens – all built to his specification when he expanded into new production sheds in 2003.
“When we moved here, one thing we wanted to achieve was to get the smoke out of the building,” he explains, pointing to the slats incorporated into the roof design.
“I’m agriculturally trained, so I know a bit about ventilating buildings. But the downside is that sometimes, when it rains, this happens…”
I’ve spent enough time in smokehouses on fish docks from Grimsby to Aberdeen to be unfazed by Weald Smokery’s modest puddles. Besides, the smell of duck breasts slowly smoking over an oakwood fire – an aroma released when Wickham opens one of his locally built ovens – is enough to take my mind off the state of my shoes.
Wickham believes he is one of the few UK craft producers still smoking salmon, eels and poultry in a brick kiln, relying on a thermometer, watch, clipboard and the skills of the head smoker to manage the process.
Most smokehouses nowadays, and all the big ones, use computer-controlled stainless steel kilns, which are great in terms of efficiency and consistency but don’t impart the same character to the product. When Wickham was told by his EHO to clean the tar off the bricks, he not only asked for evidence that it posed a health risk, but said he would rather close the business than comply. “In the context of smoking salmon, ’traditional’ means using brick kilns,” he says.
An old-fashioned smokery is a joy to behold, but today I’m here to talk shops, not production. Because, in the 26 years since he took over this operation in the village of Flimwell, close to the East Sussex/Kent border, Wickham has gradually converted its original ‘factory outlet’ – a small shed alongside the slightly bigger one that housed the smoker – into a full-on fine food store.
The current shop building was erected in 1999, but two years ago it saw its biggest investment yet, with a £150,000 refit and rebranding that included the addition of a small café-brasserie. Together, the shop and eatery now account for around £350,000 of Weald Smokery’s total £850,000 turnover, which includes mail-order retailing but is led by sales of smoked salmon, chicken, venison and more to independent delis, farm shops and the foodservice sector.
The 1,000 sq ft interior of today’s revamped retail unit is “unrecognisable” compared with two years ago, Wickham tells me. For starters, the café, seating a dozen at tables and another five or six on bar stools by the window, has gobbled up a third of the previous retail footprint. “It was quite a decision to go down that route and lose the sales space,” Wickham says. “But the idea was that customers would be able to taste what we’re selling in the deli, and not just the smokery products. Literally everything we sell in the café is available in the shop.”
This message is reinforced by a large blackboard in the café, declaring “Eat it…Like it….Buy it…”, which is consistent with the all-round excellent signage and product labelling throughout the shop.
Like others in the trade, however, Wickham has found that 18-20 covers is barely enough to make the café pay, once staff costs are taken into account. “A lot of people think a café is the be-all and end-all,” he says, “but you do need to reach that critical point where you’re fully utilising the staff in the kitchen.”
Outside seating under a large parasol gives an extra 20 covers “but only for three months of the year”, so he is already planning a café extension and is applying for a LEADER grant, under the Rural Development Programme for England.
“This will be my first grant for some time,” says Wickham, who is well versed in the support available to rural firms as he is also a Conservative county councillor for Kent. “A LEADER grant covers 40% of the project cost, and that could amount to £20-30k. I’m slightly dreading the cash-flow analysis – I might leave that to my accountant – but it’s well worth filling in the forms for.”
The 2014 revamp wasn’t just about adding a café. The shop, headed by long-serving manager Jo Nicholas, has also been transformed, to give a better balance of full service and grab-and-go. The former is focused very much on the shop’s strong range of cheeses sourced largely from Neal’s Yard, The Fine Cheese Co and direct from the best cheesemakers in Kent and Sussex – The Traditional Cheese Dairy, Alsop & Walker, High Weald Dairy, Greenacres Farm (maker of Golden Cross) – and that’s where service, advice and product knowledge matter most.
“Serveovers are great for cheese and deli items,” says Wickham. “In fact, we pride ourselves on the fact we cut cheese on the counter – I don’t like to see it in pre-packs. But customers were having to ask for service, even if all they wanted was a packet of smoked chicken.
“The British are shy about having someone looking at them over a serveover. They feel inhibited. We felt if they were able to browse witheeout that slight intimidation they might buy more.”
What he didn’t want, however, was a self-service ‘deli’ that resembled an Esso forecourt shop, so he worked with designer Creative Retail Solutions to “furniturise” the self-service fridges, building them into timber surrounds painted with the shop’s new mid-green livery.
Another key shopfitting supplier was Linkshelving, whose mix-and-match ‘artisan crates’ give Weald Smokery a range of display options for everything from wines (mainly English), craft gins (Chase, Durham, Brighton, Cotswold, Pinkster and the local Anno Kent Dry) and fresh bread (Lighthouse Bakery) to its carefully chosen ambient range.
Cotswold Fayre, Hider, Cress Co, Diverse and Moordale are the main wholesale suppliers here. But with many other Sussex and Kent delis and farm shops buying from the same catalogues, Wickham and his team also source direct from as many local suppliers as they can to create a point of difference, like The Captain’s Cookies from the Zingiberi Bakery in Dover, jams from Martha & Ed’s Kitchen in Henley Down and Mini Mouthfuls fudge from Battle.
“We started out just selling smoked foods and morphed into what we are today, which is more of a deli,” says Wickham. “But with so little space, we have to be quite strict about what we buy and not go off on a tangent.
“We try to stock things that are not widely available elsewhere, and which fit our quality criteria. Local is good, but not a prerequisite. The quality has to be there. If we’re going to do brie, it will be Brie de Meaux.”
If may have taken 26 years for Weald Smokery to reach this point but it’s worth pointing out that the business has taken one especially interesting turn. In 2007, Wickham took a “seven year sabbatical” when the Highways Agency bought him out as part of a scheme to widen the A21. Until construction started, the Agency was persuaded to let Wickham’s then shop manager, industry veteran Christopher Milns, carry on Weald Smokery as a tenant. Then, when the coalition government cancelled the road scheme, Wickham bought it back and set about his £150,000 redevelopment.
Milns, who dide leave for a while to run a nearby farm shop, is now back in the company, running trade and mail-order sales, and is now its longest serving employee.
Since returning in 2014, Wickham says business has got noticeably tougher. “From 1990 to 2007 I was making a good profit. I’m not saying we don’t make money still, but it’s a damned sight harder.
“I’m constantly having to think of new ways to have an edge on the supermarkets. We’ve got to give people a reason to come here.”
That means service, product knowledge, a few stand-out products from very small, very local suppliers. And of course, Weald Smokery’s own products, which certainly won’t be found in a Waitrose near you.