Posted: 20/06/2022

Deli of the month: From zero to food heroes

With two popular sites across south London and a third in the pipeline, Dugard & Daughters has built up a loyal customer base over the last nine years. Despite its founders’ retailing nous, this “butcher and larder” concept was quite the leap of faith in the beginning.

Neil and Rosie Dugard met in a supermarket. Or to be precise, they met while overseeing the fitout of a supermarket (a Budgens, in fact, for whom they both worked at the time). Fast forward nearly 20 years and the two are still on the shop floor, it just happens to be their own shop, Dugard & Daughters. 

The husband-and-wife team might now boast two sites in premium locations in south London, but their mini-empire was originally born out of adversity. “We’d just given birth to our second daughter in 2013 when Rosie was made redundant,” says Neil, who at the time was working for independent retailer Andrew Thornton at his Crouch End Budgens franchise. “Then, out of the blue, I was made redundant six weeks later. We had a newborn, a three year-old, a mortgage, and no job between us. I pretended to look for jobs for a few months but, really, I wanted to do my own thing.”

Sitting in a drawer was a business plan Neil had written a few years prior for a deli-cum-health-food store. “We never did anything with it because it was like stepping off a scary bridge. But I got it out and dusted it off and thought: ‘what if we add meat to this and make it the focus?’” 

With a rotating selection of 50 cheeses, the decision was made not to slice to order. While increasing prep time, it leads to more sales

That concept turned out to be the blueprint for Dugard & Daughters – a “butchers and larder” that sells everything from fresh bread, pasta and dried goods through to cheese and charcuterie, with a butchery counter full of rare-breed meat and free-range chicken as the central focus point.

Living in Brixton in south London, the couple swiftly identified nearby Herne Hill as a location, attracted by the affluent residents and a lack of competition outside of a Sainsbury’s Local and lower-end butcher. One of their criteria was that any site must be near the railway station to mop up the commuter traffic. Eventually, the couple fought off sealed bids to land a unit in the railway arches refitted by Network Rail, and in November 2019 launched Dugard & Daughter.

Despite no promotional campaign and the Dugards only having “one month’s mortgage payment left in the bank when the doors opened”, the shop quickly took off – a fact all the more impressive considering its proximity to that Sainsbury’s Local (and now also a Tesco Express). 

While there was pressure, the couple were never unduly worried that they wouldn’t convince customers to ditch the self-checkout queues for their meat counter. “I’m not scared of supermarkets at all,” says Neil. “We try and do everything differently from supermarkets. Most importantly, we sell stuff by the weight. People can come in and buy one pork chop, or two sausages or three rashers of bacon. That’s really important.”

Having worked for supermarkets and big food-retail chains, Neil understood not only how to give Dugard & Daughters a point of difference, but also how to take the supermarkets on at their own game – staying open to 8pm to make sure they could take advantage of after-work rush hour arrivals in Herne Hill and offering plenty of grab-and-go items. “Today, we can do as much business between 5pm and 6.30pm as we do in the whole day between 9.30am and 5pm.”

The site launched with five members of staff. Even though Neil has worked in food retail for 17 years and installed meat counters in many of the shops he had managed, he is no butcher. So, one of the first members he recruited was Gary Singleton, a master butcher and ex-colleague. 

“We made a decision at the start that we wanted to do the meat properly. We wanted to go top-end – all English free range and rare breeds.” Neil and Gary both knew the Rare Breed Meat Company from their time at Budgens and brought them on as the first meat suppliers. “From there, we’ve just added other suppliers as we’ve found them.” 

The butchery counter full of rare-breed meat and free-range chicken is the central focus point at Dugard & Daughters

All beef is aged for a minimum of four weeks onsite (up to 10 weeks), with not a single freezer to be found across either Dugard shop. Neil and Rosie make sure they pay an annual visit to every farm that supplies them, including the two chicken farms “that if you were to draw a free-range chicken farm, would look exactly like that”. 

When it comes to the butcher counter, Neil is guided by what sells. While they order in whole lambs, half pigs, whole chickens and a monthly whole beef carcass, they also bring in 30 ribs of beef a week to sate the huge demand for rib-eye and roasts. 

And both shops work hard to cater to the barbecue demand (which can drive revenue up by 75% on a summer’s day), preparing kebabs, burgers, deboned chickens, marinated pork and chicken and 13 varieties of sausage. The meat:non-meat split is 55% to 45% in Herne Hill and as much 70% to 30% in their second Earlsfield site, with both shops offering counter service and a grab-and-go meat selection for hurried commuters.

Another popular part of the shop is the cheese fridge, with a rotating selection of 50 cheeses. Neil says they made a decision early on not to slice cheese to order. “We pre-slice it all and wrap it up, priced. Having managed supermarkets with delis you often find that people don’t know what 100 grams looks like, or exactly how much it will cost. We started doing it this way in the Crouch End Budgens franchise and we put the sales up by probably 50%. It’s more prep but we do it in the quiet times and that frees up a staff member from cutting cheese at the busier times.”

“We made a decision at the start that we wanted to do the meat properly and go top-end”

Beyond that, the shop sells items in every other supermarket category apart from non-food – everything from tinned tomatoes through to oats, olives, smoked salmon and dried herbs. The couple works with over 200 suppliers to source best-in-class items. The only rule is that it has to be from smaller suppliers and not readily available in major supermarkets. If it comes from nearby, all the better. 

Customers will find beer from Brixton Brewery, cured meats from Balham-based Spanish food specialist Brindisa and daily bread deliveries from Blackbird Bakery. “In each case, we know the suppliers and there is a personal touch to it. I think you’ll only find about five items in the shop that would appear in a medium sized Sainsburys.”

Neil also makes sure to listen to customers and make note of requests. “In the space of a month we had 15 people ask if we had guanciale. So, I called our supplier, Taste of Sicily, and asked if they could get us a kilo of it. We portioned it up like we do the cheese and it sold out in about two days.”

The only area that Dugard & Daughters holds back on is fresh produce – a courtesy to the local independent greengrocer in Herne Hill. Rather than a full fruit-and-veg selection, it offers a limited amount of organic vegetables. Across the whole shop, margins stay pretty static at 35%.

With year-on-year growth steady at 10%, the couple decided to take the plunge and open a second store in 2017, applying the same criteria to a potential new location as had proved successful at Herne Hill: an affluent area in the commuter belt, no existing butcher or deli and a site near a train station. 

Hence, the couple quickly latched on to Earlsfield, but Neil made sure to do his homework before committing. “I sat in my car one evening counting how many people came out of the train station and what direction they turned. It was something like 1000 people per hour, so I knew it was perfect.” 

The second Dugard & Daughters opened in 2017, replicating the same model as its sister site. The only problem is that Neil’s dreams of being able to step away from the day-to-day management has grown more distant with a second site. 

Customers at Dugard & Daughters will find beer from Brixton Brewery, cured meats from Balham-based Spanish food specialist Brindisa and daily bread deliveries from Blackbird Bakery

“It’s like having two kids – it’s more than double as hard as having one.” As a result, Rosie – who left food retail shortly after the couple got together, has come full circle and now manages the day-to-day running of the Herne Hill site while Neil takes care of the Earlsfield one, assisted by a staff of 20 (including four butchers in each shop) across both sites. 

“She missed food retail, I think. Every day is different. But we can just both be rubbish at taking weekends off, which can obviously have an impact on family life.” Has that put them off ever opening a third site? “Well, actually, there’s one in the pipeline,” says Neil with a glint in his eye. “It’s top secret. It’s been four years since the last, so we were starting to get bored again. It was mostly Rosie’s idea. I think she might be trying to kill me.”

Interview Tom Vaughan

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