Deli of the month: It takes two
In the space of three years, Ben Clark and Ella Smart have turned a pair of run-down barns on an East Anglian A-road into a bustling foodie destination. Here’s how they went from working in the fine-dining world to running a busy farm shop, gift shop and bakery.
It’s the hottest weekend of the year when FFD visits rural Essex, and while outside the tarmac might be practically melting, inside there is a cool serenity Ben & Ella’s farm shop. Baker Benjamin Clark has the last of the day’s loaves out of the oven and business partner Ella Smart calmly glides between the two black-timber former-grain stores that house their farm shop, gift shop and bakery.
Three years in and the business is booming – turning over in excess of £1m – but it could have been a different story were it not for a chance suggestion. The couple, who met working at Michelin-starred Cambridge restaurant Alimentum, had left the fine-dining world and were running a wholesale bakery when inspiration came from the unlikeliest of sources. “We were supplying another farm shop and there were a couple of girls who worked there that I know,” says Smart. “They had found this site and they said to us: ‘How do you feel about taking it on and we’ll come and work for you?’. We thought: ‘Okay, why not? Seize the opportunity while it is there’.”
With Smart’s experience working front-of-house for the likes of Alimentum and Hotel du Vin, and Clark’s background as a pastry chef and self-taught baker – with Michelin heavyweights such as London’s The Square on his CV – the couple certainly had a complementing set of skills to move into food retail. The first challenge, however, was turning the site from a run-down barn into a functioning business space.
“It was part of a working farm that had just moved over the road. It was pretty rough,” says Clark. “There were carpets that had been down for 80 years, the whole floor needed levelling, lots of the timbers had woodworm. There was a huge amount of work.” And it was work that the couple did entirely themselves.“The only thing we paid for were the fridges, everything else we built or did ourselves,” says Smart.
The couple had two guiding principles for the new shop: they wanted everything to be as British and as environmentally-friendly as possible. At the centre of the offering is a selection of 40 British cheeses, supplied by Neal’s Yard and the Fine Cheese Company. “We both agreed that British cheeses are fantastic, but people don’t really know a lot about them,” says Clark. “Everyone thinks if you want a brie you have to go French. But there’s so many great English cheeses which, okay, they’re versions of French and Italian cheeses, but some of them we think are even better.”
This dedication to British extends beyond the cheese, with 98% of products sourced from inside the UK – a number that will go up with the couple soon to source British-made pasta.
Alongside the bought-in range are Clark’s handmade breads and pastries. Originally, their wholesale bakery worked through the night to supply the farm shop, as well as other local businesses. But the couple say one of their best decisions was to close the wholesale operation and move the bakery on site. Not only did it heighten the appeal to customers, but merging the two businesses also means Clark is now on-site. “Now we bake through the day. We don’t have all the breads baked for early in the morning,” says Clark. “That way, I can gauge whether I need to put more sourdough in the oven, and don’t have to throw out a load of bread come the end of the day.”
On quieter weekdays, Clark might bake 40 loaves, but this sky-rockets to 150 at the weekends, with prices ranging from £2.70 for tin loaves up to £3.90 for sourdoughs. With everything made in house, profit margins on the bread and pastries are among the highest in the shop, but this has been eaten in to by flour shortages caused by the Ukraine war. “My wholesale price for flour has gone up from £10 to £14 for a 16kg bag,” says Clark. “We’ve put our prices up by 20p, which is the first time we’ve done it in three years. But I don’t want to go too much higher, I think we’re still at a level that people are happy to pay and I don’t want to push that too much.”
The popularity of the bakery’s grab-and-go products has helped to offset the rise in wholesale flour, says Smart: “Pies, sausage rolls, Scotch eggs, whole hams – because we make them all the profit is so much better than any other product that we’re buying in.”
The rest of the food offering has evolved since the farm shop first opened its doors in 2019, when it was weighted more towards luxury products.
“It wasn’t intentional, we were just gravitating towards the nicest items when we were picking them. And we ended up with a really expensive shop,” says Clark. Then Covid hit and everything changed. “We saw a massive influx of people coming from the supermarkets because I guess they didn’t want to be crammed in with everybody. So, for us it was about trying to find the products that you can get on the shelves in supermarkets. Now I’d say it’s a mix [of luxury and essential items].”
The couple hasn’t ventured into raw meat – neighbouring Morgan’s Butchers caters for this – but otherwise, Ben & Ella’s hits almost every category customers would find in a supermarket.
“If you wanted to, you could do your weekly shop here,” adds Smart. “We do everything – all the healthcare products, all the cleaning products.”
Since opening, the shop has brought in a wide range of non-food items, from dogfood to shampoo, as well as a gift shop, in part thanks to the addition of a second retail space. With other businesses joining Ben & Ella’s in the surrounding buildings – including a butcher, an antiques centre and a garden centre – the neighbouring barn became available and the couple pounced on it to expand their business. “One of the main reasons was I didn’t want anyone to take over and have different values to what we have.”
Originally, they opened it as a gift shop, selling cards, books, candles, but rethought the model after a short period of trading. “It’s been a little bit of an evolution. We tried to run them as two separate shops originally,” says Clark. “And then after a while we kind of thought: we need to pick one or the other. We can’t be a gift shop and a farm shop as they operate quite differently in terms of buying stock and the margin. So that’s why we chose to reduce the gift shop idea.”
Partly prompted by a flood to the original bakery site – a small room off the farm shop – the couple moved the bakery to the new barn, pairing it with their homeware section, and scaled down the gift shop to fit in its place. “It really made us focus on the key sellers,” explains Clark. Gift trade can be slow and steady through the year, but Christmas is a different matter. “We can sit on stock for a while, but we know that it will all go at the end of the year,” says Smart.
Underpinning all of this is the couple’s commitment to sourcing only environmentally-friendly products from their 180 suppliers. “The main thing for me was that the whole shop was palm oil free,” says Smart. “There’s absolutely no palm oil – including sustainable [palm oil] in any products. That goes across our whole gift range, all of our beauty and health care, all our food and bakery products. I’m very, very strict about it.”
This dedication certainly costs them extra time speaking to wholesalers, who have been known to get it wrong, meaning the items have to be returned. And at times it has even cost them customers, but Clark and Smart have stuck to their guns. “Before we had the bakery on site, we were buying fresh cakes from a local lady. We specified no palm oil. Then another local farm shop started using her as well, but because they didn’t care about palm oil, it was costing them three times less. People were asking us: why are we so expensive, are you taking the mickey?”
As well as cutting out palm oil, Ben & Ella’s will not sell products packaged with single-use plastic. “When I when I look for new products, I always ask what the packaging is to make sure that if there is plastic, it is recyclable or has it been recycled? It’s another thing that we have to we have to do our research on.”
With three years of trading under their belts and Ben & Ella’s now firmly established as a foodie destination, its founders aren’t settling for two barns, but have their crosshairs set on neighbouring towns. “We’re looking at the moment,” replies Clark. “Since the beginning we’ve had an idea of smaller satellite sites, selling the main items: the bread, the cheese, the veg. They’ll work us extra advertisement and pull more and more people towards the main shop.”
Interview by Tom Vaughan