Deli of the month: By the people, for the people
“It’s community. You can’t buy it. You can’t knit it,” says Andrew Mason, a member of the management committee at Church Fenton Community Shop, near Wetherby in Yorkshire. “It’s the endorphins of the place, people like coming, they love the ethos.”
We’re sat in front of a floral print covered table at the rear of the shop on a sunny late summer morning. Two farmers hop off their hay-laden tractor to collect a couple of pasties, an elderly resident pops in for some milk and a natter with a volunteer cashier, and a film-crew caterer who has made a 10-mile journey to pick up some of the shop’s ethically sourced produce strikes up conversation. “I make the journey here because I love what they’re doing,” she tells FFD. “I’ve got the same ethos and I can get my hands on items that I’d otherwise have to travel much further for.”
Since setting up five years ago, the shop – staffed and run entirely by volunteers – has become a shining light among the burgeoning army of community-run businesses, picking up a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in June of this year, the highest award a local voluntary group can achieve. While much of the recent attention has been lavished on the collective spirit underpinning the enterprise, it isn’t virtue alone that has turned a run-down post office into an operation now turning over £500k a year: some very savvy business decisions have established the shop as both a vital resource for the villagers as well as one of Yorkshire’s best delis.
In 2017, the Church Fenton Post Office – run by the same couple for 40 years – was put up for sale. With no buyer forthcoming, property developers began hovering. However, Mason and a group of other villagers, including his wife Jo and another couple, Jane and Stewart Hardman-Ferris, began to explore how they could keep it open.
“A group of us came together and formed a company called Church Fenton Community Shop Limited, which is a company limited by guarantee, meaning any profit from the company has to be reinvested,” says Mason. “Then we drew up a business plan for how a community shop would operate and began the hunt for funding.” With a loan from the Public Works Loan Board, the Parish Council was then able to buy the asset and lease it to Church Fenton Community Shop Limited.
The first job for the 70-plus volunteers was turning the site from a tired Post Office with a tiny square footage into a 72 square-metre retail space.
“We traded for the first year in the small area of the old Post Office while getting plans for a refurbishment done via a local architect for free,” says Mason. “Nobody gets paid in this shop, you see. The architect worked for free, the accountant works for free, the gardeners, the shopkeepers. We’ve got over 20,000 volunteer hours, 72 hours a week, and nobody’s had so much as a nickel.”
By the time the refurbishment began, the shop was already beginning to evolve as a business, thanks to volunteer buyers Jane and Stewart Hardman-Ferris.
“We took the shop over immediately from the previous owners and inherited their stock. It was all pretty basic – bread, butter, biscuits, a basic line of sweeties and tins of peas. They had nine different types of tinned peas! Who knew there were that many? But we started experimenting with a few little things. We got a few different oils in, and then we got a few different olives in. And then we got some pâté in and we installed a fridge and started stocking nice sandwiches. These things all started going out really quickly and we realised there was a market for it.”
Despite having no experience in retail, Jane relied on her own love and food and, more importantly, her knowledge of the village to carefully expand the stock range.
“I’ve lived in the village now for nearly 20 years and watched the demographic change significantly, especially with younger people getting married and wanting more of a rural quieter life away from the cities.
“It’s quite a sophisticated bunch of folk that have moved to the village now and they have tastes that are far and beyond what would necessarily be available in a village. So if James Martin on Saturday Kitchen used, say, Gochujang paste, and they wanted to try it themselves, there wasn’t anywhere nearby that they could buy it. It was either a schlep into York or Leeds to go to a supermarket.”
One of the first suppliers the Hardman-Ferris’s brought on board was Suma, an ethically minded vegetarian co-operative, which supplies the shop with the likes of dried herbs, pulses and grains. The couple then began building relationships with some of Yorkshire’s artisan producers. The result is a whole wall of the shop now dedicated to local produce from Yorkshire Pasta to York Gin to a Church Fenton Hooting Owl Gin, created by the Barmby Moor-based craft distillers using botanicals collected from around the village.
Other hits include a range of Aagrah curry sauces, based in Shipley, West Yorkshire; cheeses from the Yorkshire Dama Cheese, founded in Halifax in 2012 by a Syrian refugee; and Yorkshire Heart sparkling wine from Nun Monkton. Meat, pies and pastries come from nearby Starkeys of Sherburn and milk and dairy products from Longley Farm.
As the shop has grown, it has even evolved into its own brand, says Jane. The sympathetic wooden-shelves and bunting create an established aesthetic, while a local
designer’s logo for the shop now sits on the front its own-brand preserves, provided by Bracken Hill Fine Foods.
“It’s become a destination,” says Mason. “People come from York, Tadcaster, Sherburn, especially those who are vegan or gluten-free as we have a great range catering to that. But we have to remember that we set up the shop to service our community first.”
Destination foodies might help pay the bills, but the seven-strong management committee that runs the shop make sure the villagers, especially its elderly residents, remain a priority, with a full range of groceries and essentials.
“We make sure that we cater to everyone – from grumpy old men popping in for a newspaper, to those with very little disposable income who want to come in and get some bread and a can of 45p baked beans, to people with more disposable income who might want to cook a new recipe,” says Jane Hardman-Ferris. For some, the trip to the shop might be their only social interaction of the day. And for those who can’t make it out, the volunteers also run a free prescription service dropping off medicine for villagers.
Every single aspect of the shop’s running is entirely reliant on an army of 70 volunteers – some of whom enjoy the interaction of running the till, others who are happy to chip in with small background jobs such as breaking down and recycling cardboard packaging. Volunteers sign up for two-hour shifts on app Three Rings, while a WhatsApp group ensures that any problems are quickly addressed by an available volunteer.
The lengths and efforts everyone has poured into the shop are astounding, says Mason, but it does come with its challenges.
“We’re not dependent on anything except our volunteers. We need to make sure that we can man the shop from seven in the morning till seven at night. And for that the volunteers have got to feel respected, wanted, encouraged. So we never tell anybody, we only ever ask people, and it’s so difficult to get that fine line.
“I’ve been in business all my life. If I want something done, I tell one of my employees to do it. But I might pay him £40,000 a year. Whereas you can’t do that with volunteers. So it’s more like: ‘Oh, if you get 10 minutes, can you just check on the drinks fridge?’ There’s a whole vernacular that you’ve got to be careful about.”
Because staffing costs are zero, the shop has been able to realise healthy profits – all of which have been ploughed back into the business. Volunteers recently built a raised bed vegetable garden, which villagers tend themselves, alongside a greenhouse, which means that – along with the established fruit trees – homegrown vegetables, fruit and herbs arrives on the shelves, and there are more plans afoot to keep on improving the business.
“I’ve lived in villages all my life,” says Mason. “I’ve been on parish councils for 40 years, I’ve been in business for just under 40 years, I’ve built on three different continents, prisons to hospitals, social housing, Grade I and II star listed buildings, but this is the proudest thing I’ve ever done.”
Interview and photography Tom Vaughan