Retail discussion: Fine food in The North
It’s becoming a September tradition for FFD to host a round table discussion. So, with Fine Food Show North around the corner, we gathered some of The North of England’s best independent retail minds in Harrogate to consider the industry’s recent challenges, its future and possibly dispel the odd myth about what it’s like in the upper half of the country.
Meet the panel
From left: Jennifer Horton, (The Corbridge Larder, Northumberland), Heather Parry (Yorkshire Event Centre / Fodder, Harrogate), Emma Mosey (Minskip Farm Shop, nr York) and Sangita Tryner (Delilah Fine Foods, Nottingham) sat down with Guild of Fine Food MD John Farrand and FFD editor Michael Lane to discuss all things independent in the Yorkshire Agricultural Society boardroom, next door to Fodder, in Harrogate.
Photography by Phil Taylor
The North-South divide
The initial premise of this discussion was to test the theory of the North-South divide in the context of speciality food, so that’s where the conversation begins.
Heather Parry’s opening gambit concerns the produce itself.
“I think the one difference is the amount of speciality regional foods that we’ve got in The North. We’ve got more here than in the South,” she says. “There are bigger, more productive counties, with livestock, arable and the coast. And there’s a lot of really strong regional dishes – from Yorkshire pudding and parkin to pease pudding.”
“I’m not saying the South is dishonest but I think The North has got a bit more honesty in its food, more clarity. Companies base their call centres in The North because there’s more trust in those voices. It’s the same in food.”
The Corbridge Larder’s Jennifer Horton says this is reflected in the service that northern retailers offer, too.
“We’ve got a customer from London that comes in and he always says the service he gets here is much better than he gets down there,” she says adding that it’s a simple formula of freshly made food and friendliness.
Emma Mosey is quick to point out that the North-South divide is a problematic theory.
“I think we probably need to make a distinction between talking about London and talking about the whole of the South. I’ve just been to Devon and people were just as friendly as they are here and there are lots of local producers.”
She adds: “Maybe it’s a ‘rural versus city’ thing – but I would still say Northern cities are probably friendlier than London.”
“Rural areas down South have amazing farm shops. Not the same concentration that we have in Yorkshire, but they do.”
As one of two relieved southerners in the room, John Farrand thinks that a better understanding of, and relationship with, farming is certainly something that shapes the retail experience both in terms of customer attitude and the experience they want.
“Inherently people in London and the South East do not have a connection with the land, do they? It’s more often that brazen ‘I want to pay more money for food’ and ‘This is for the dinner party chat’.”
Sangita Tryner thinks that the Capital no longer has the monopoly on innovation in retail or food. “15-20 years ago when I first started, there was this ‘Ooh let’s go down to London and see what’s going on.’
“That’s not the case anymore. I want to go up North and see what they’re doing, to get more ideas and influences.”
The group then tackles an infamous lazy stereotype: people being tighter with their money up North.
“It’s a misnomer that there’s less affluence up North,” says Emma Mosey. “Generally, the incomes are lower, but I think in areas where you can commute to big cities from the countryside there is a lot of income.”
Heather Parry, who set up Fodder at the Yorkshire Event Centre to encourage take-up of local food says that not even retailers in God’s Own Country can escape the struggle of having to prove they are competitive with supermarkets on price.
“Fodder’s here next to a supermarket and their eggs are twice the price of ours, so this thing about local food being expensive isn’t actually true and we’ve done a lot of work on challenging that so we get a very broad visitor in.”
While Minskip’s Mosey agrees that staples should be accessibly priced, there is also a bit of a balancing act when it comes to the mark-up on other goods in a farm shop.
Jennifer Horton agrees. “It’s because it’s aspirational, so when you go in and it’s too cheap, people will think: ‘What’s wrong with it? Are they just trying to get rid of it?’”
For Sangita Tryner, the most urban of the retailers in the room, there is an element of price sensitivity, though.
“In Nottingham, we probably are. Lots of people might see us on the tram, pop their head in and see what we are and they do say: ‘God, a bar of chocolate for £3.29? Are you having a laugh?’”
“When I am buying for the deli I’ll be very careful. Yes, that might be an amazing product but can I sell it for what I need to sell it for?”
The conclusion around the table is that customers react the same was as they do in other parts of the country and they want the same things – but up North they’re getting that with more of a smile.
“I think they demand that up North,” says Tryner. “If you’re rude to them, they won’t come back to you.”
The producer scene
Echoing her earlier point, Heather Parry likens Yorkshire to the US state of Texas – in terms of its abundance of produce and products.
“Lemons and bananas are the only thing you can’t get here. You can’t get anyone to grow them. By God, I’ve tried!”
She adds that some gaps that perhaps would have seemed unfillable by local producers several years ago are now happening, with The Yorkshire Pasta Co being a prime example.
“There’s some really clever innovations coming on in places you wouldn’t expect,” she says, citing a grower in Bradford that has created a hybrid between radish and cress.
All of the retailers around the table agree that the small local producer scene is strong in their respective areas.
“In Northumberland, we’ve got so many producers and even more so since COVID,” says Jennifer Horton. “There’s a lot of people that were maybe on furlough and have decided to go out on their own. And I’m seeing more and more people come up with things. You get that more up North.”
And the panel also agrees that a lot of these producers very much see the independent retail market as the best place to start, shunning the route of start-up “brands” who seek listings with Ocado or Waitrose immediately – a phenomenon mentioned by John Farrand during the discussion.
Sangita Tryner says that the smaller cost pressures on start-ups in The North make it a perfect breeding ground. Like The Corbridge Larder, Delilah has seen a real upswing in numbers of new producers.
“In the last year, I have been bombarded by people saying ‘I’ve just come out of my job. I was an accountant but I’ve made this.’”
Tryner adds that she has taken a number of products on a ‘sale or return’ basis and has maintained her commitment to helping fledgling producers improve their products, businesses and margins.
Heather Parry groans at the mention of the last item, and producers’ lack of understanding about the differences of selling direct to consumer and into retail.
“I think one of the most depressing things is going to a food event and a producer is selling something at £2 to the consumer and they want to sell it to you at that, too. There’s a lot of work to be done to improve that.”
The discussion also highlights some other universal themes. While Emma Mosey’s farm shop isn’t looking to stock strongly branded, glossy start-ups, Delilah’s urban customer base expects them. And there are several stories swapped of smaller brands going into the multiples, leaving the independents that first supported them completely priced out.
Perhaps what every retailer will appreciate here, though, is the infuriating nature of trialling new products.
“We find that there’ll be things that producers say sell really well and we’ll buy it and it just sits there,” says Jennifer Horton. “That happens all the time. Anything that somebody delists will sell well in our shop and anything that flies out the door elsewhere will stick.”
Heather Parry has had a similar experience at Fodder. Other nearby farm shops will recommend new items that work in their stores but they won’t sell for her, and vice versa, even though they’re 40 minutes down the road.
If nothing else, this goes some way to proving that all independents are unique.
The general consensus among the assembled retailers was that independents have been coping better with the Brexit/COVID-induced supply chain issues causing headaches for the supermarkets.
Everyone is finding that costs are going up but most suppliers are transparent about this and are fulfilling orders.
“We do a lot more Continental stuff and, yes, the prices have gone up but it’s gone up everywhere,” says Sangita Tryner. “Hand on heart, I can say I haven’t struggled to get anything. It might take a week longer to get it but customers are willing to wait. I mean, how badly do you need a cooking chorizo?”
There is talk at the table of some prices becoming untenable on European lines. “I’m seeing tariffs where one day it’s a fiver and the next it’s £165 on the same product,” says John Farrand.
And Tryner has also seen some lines double in price – and then had to drop them. She adds that, at least, this price hike led her to discover how that line was produced with some pretty dubious raw materials.
The group agrees that quality is going to be the bigger issue going forward, whether it’s the provenance or the shelf life of orders declining.
Both Emma Mosey and Jennifer Horton say that they and their staff will have to be hotter on checking dates when orders arrive, with the latter already reporting an increase in wastage.
That said, the supply crisis is also an opportunity for independents to keep building their reputations further in the face of supermarkets letting consumers down – as happened during the first lockdown.
“I think we’ve got to keep that message going that we’re still here, still doing it and still being creative and we’ve got the stuff,” says Heather Parry. “Sainsburys next door was like a warzone last week.”
Jennifer Horton adds: “The good that will come out of it is, if we can make it in the UK, we will make it in the UK.”
COVID’s legacy and other problems on the horizon
Reputationally, COVID has been good for independents and Jennifer Horton thinks that this phenomenon will continue.
“I’ve certainly noticed over the last few years that people are understanding that what they’re buying from the supermarkets isn’t as fresh as they would think.”
But the virus also allowed all of the retailers around the table opportunities to experiment and improve their offer too.
The closure of her shopfloor to customers saw Horton rethink the positioning of items – chiefly the wine that has now moved from being obscured by upstairs café tables to a prominent position on the ground floor.
“Now we sell bucketloads,” she says. “Probably partly because of COVID and everyone drinking more. It’s also almost like the sweeties by the till with kids.”
The switch to more online and delivery retailing, has seen The Corbridge Larder develop its hamper business properly. “In five years we’d sold 30 hampers because it’s something we’d never got round to. In the last nine month we’ve sold something like 600.”
Heather Parry says the pandemic has made most retailers a bit braver. “The energy of COVID has shown us you actually can do stuff and you can do it much quicker than you thought. And actually the wheels don’t fall off, it just changes. It gets tidier as it goes on but it doesn’t have to be perfect from day one.”
Emma Mosey, who was opening a restaurant at Minskip Farm Shop as the virus struck in 2020, found herself with lots of staff on the books and has retained them throughout. She says having a larger team has allowed her to delegate and devote more time to thinking about the direction of the business, even though the shop has been twice as busy as it ever was pre-pandemic.
For Sangita Tryner at Delilah, putting social media to use has been a big eye-opener, having shied away from it before COVID.
“It’s been massive for us because it was the only avenue,” she says, adding that Delilah ran one of its virtual wine tastings with 240 guests, resulting in sales of £15,000. “Obviously we’ll be continuing that kind of thing,” she says. “And because the cost of doing it is small, you could bring me just 20 people!”
The future of retailing – rural or urban?
John Farrand starts the conversation by repeating concerns voiced to the Guild and FFD about the increasing number of farm shops that aren’t technically farm shops.
“Some farm shop owners, who are proper farmers, get annoyed with the ‘food hall in a field’ situation. Do you sense any of that?”
Emma Mosey, whose operation is based on a farm, says the idea of a shop that isn’t linked to a farm can be acceptable. “If they’re supporting local producers and encouraging people to shop at other gourmet food outlets, I don’t see a problem with it at all. The more people that shop at places like ours, the better.”
Having toiled in a city centre location for over 15 years, Sangita Tryner feels that there is plenty of potential for this food hall model.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more of that, where people like me – that are delis – are going to be looking for a bigger piece of the farm shop pie,” she says, adding that a new breed of retailers could emerge, as deli operators reconsider their locations.
The panel agrees that increasingly it is food destinations – usually more rural ones that offer a combination of foodservice, retail and non-food – that appeal most to consumers.
While Tryner tells the group that delis like hers cannot survive without foodservice, it is agreed that farm shops could manage – but most are likely to maximise the revenue from day-trippers with a café or restaurant offer.
Jennifer Horton also thinks there’s potential in cities. “I know there’s been a move out of town but people are also going to be coming in to the city because we need more housing and people are going to want to shop around them. I think it’s going to be about small independents, almost back to the 1950s when people shopped in their local environment.”
Tryner agrees with this point, adding that delis have a chance if they are surrounded by other independents. She admits that she has been considering locations on a street but not necessarily the main high street.
“During lockdown, I was most jealous of shops on this one strip just outside of the city [Nottingham]. It was rammed. More people there than in the centre. I thought, ‘Jeez I should’ve done a pop-up’.”
She is also in active talks with Nottingham’s council about how they revive the city centre, which needed a refresh even before the pandemic.
“It used to have such a draw for small independent shopping and that’s hopefully where we’re going. Although the Debenhams and the Burtons are leaving massive holes, they could be filled with something really exciting”.
Those around the table agree that planning regulations and business rates will have a big impact on whether change can really happen.