Posted: 02/12/2020

Deli owners launch online-only business in response to COVID demand

The Food Forager team
From left: The Food Forager managing director David Rippington, founder Iain Hemming and Oliver Basham, fish & wine buyer

The first national coronavirus lockdown saw a large swathe of the nation’s independent retailers flip their offer to introduce delivery services, and now one Hampshire deli has taken things a step further.

In response to the popularity of their home deliveries, the owners of Stockbridge-based Thyme & Tides have launched a dedicated direct-to-consumer operation called The Food Forager, widening the product range and expanding the area covered by the parent business.

Thyme & Tides’ founder Iain Hemming said: “I’m an old-fashioned retailer at heart and if you’d asked me a year ago if we’d be looking at launching an online business, I’d have said ‘no’.

“But things have changed rapidly, and what became evident was the people who have come through this relatively unscathed were the people who had their eggs in different baskets – spreading their risks.”

The Food Forager now covers a 15-mile radius around its base in Stockbridge – next door to Thyme and Tides – and also offers a nationwide next-day courier service.

The start-up’s grocery range includes staples such as bread, fresh fruit and veg and chilled products spanning fresh meat, cheese, butter and local fish pâtés as well as high-end produce like lobster and truffles. 

The most exciting part of The Food Forager, said Hemming, is its focus on sourcing and supplying local produce and supporting “embryonic” local start-ups. “What it has made me do is get off my arse and get out there and start to dig and delve, and forage, for these embryonic food producers,” he said.

“It’s interesting to tell people’s stories, and we’re hoping to take these people into the market and give them exposure.”

Hemming said the decision to launch the new venture under an entirely new banner was to differentiate between the “four-dimensional” bricks-and-mortar deli and the more one-dimensional online business. To try to bring a bit of that experience to The Food Forager, the owner has started doing weekly Instagram videos. 

“It’s somewhat against my will,” he said. “But because it’s a one-dimensional, web-based business, we wanted to present the suppliers to the customer. We’re trying to bring those extra dimensions that you have in a deli to the online business.”

The Food Forager is housed next door to Thyme and Tides on Stockbridge’s high street, something that Hemming said is helping keep the risk low.

“If someone wants to set up an online business like this, which is carrying 350 products, they have to buy in those products and potentially watch them go out of date in a warehouse – that would be worrying,” he said.

“But I’m selling these lines anyway and cherry-picking out of that range, pulling boxes together and then dispatching from next-door.”

Predominantly selling gift-boxes at present, Hemming has hopes that the grocery offer will broaden after Christmas and has a plan for the New Year. The Food Forager is working with celebrity chefs Gill Meller and Valentine Warner to develop guest recipes with a healthy eating focus.

“This is our way of telling our customers that we still want to appeal to them for their birthdays, anniversaries and so on, but these are products that you’ll want to buy year-round,” said Hemming.

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