Serving customers by the shedload
Cheshire farm shop The Lambing Shed was named Café/Restaurant of the Year at the most recent Farm Retail Awards. Here’s how the operation works.
When many food businesses were frantically setting up marquees and building temporary shelters to comply with various Covid lockdown rules in 2020, one Cheshire farm shop was already ahead of the game.
Within a year of trading, The Lambing Shed in Knutsford had so many café customers that it bolted on an awning to provide more covered seating.
“It was one of the best things we did, because it’s got retractable sides and a retractable roof,” says Kathryn Mitchell, director at
“During the pandemic, it was amazing for us as we went through all the different tiers, and all the challenges we had to face with indoor and outdoor dining.”
This covered area was actually installed at the end of 2016 to keep staffing rotas more predictable in face of the North West’s changeable weather. Although it may not have been incredible pre-pandemic foresight, this move demonstrates the kind of operational nous that won this farm shop eatery the Café/Restaurant of the Year trophy at the Farm Retail Awards earlier this year.
As you might expect from the name, The Lambing Shed is based on the plot of a former agricultural building at the Mitchell family’s Moseley Hall Farm. First opened in 2015, the operation has grown to post annual turnover in the region of £1.5m – and some 60% of that is accounted for by its café.
The aim of the business is simple: sell good quality, local food and showcase it in the café. All of the lamb and beef on the menu comes from the farm and the chefs buy ingredients from the same regional suppliers that stock the retail side.
Organisation is key when you’ve got 80-covers in your indoor space and more than 110 when the patio area comes into play during the warmer times of the year.
The menus for breakfast and lunch are kept to a core of 15-20 staple dishes, including The Lambing Shed’s top-selling burgers, with weekly specials added on top.
“That’s where we can be really creative. If the butchery in the shop has cuts of meat that aren’t selling well at certain times of the year, chefs can make something amazing with it for specials.”
None of the dishes are outlandish but there is a mix of old-school crowd-pleasers like beef pies and fish & chips alongside more diverse options like BBQ pork bao buns and spiced red lentil dahl.
“I’m a bit of a foodie but that’s balanced out by my dad [fellow director Michael Mitchell], who is 75 and says ‘Where’s the shepherd’s pie?”
While older customers tend to opt for safer choices, Mitchell says they can be just as receptive. She cites a 90-year-old gentleman who recently discovered sriracha mayo
and now shares her own enthusiasm for the condiment.
The main menu only changes once a season, with Mitchell not afraid to remove best-sellers from one version to the next, trusting her customer base to try new things. And many customers’ diets have already shifted in the years that the café has been open, especially when it comes to demand for plant-based and gluten-free items.
The Lambing Shed kitchen handles this by creating menu items that can be adapted.
“It might be a certain salad that has chicken on it but we have a vegetarian or vegan option where you could swap meat for roasted veg.”
Mitchell says that menus are likely to be redrafted more frequently as the cost of ingredients continues to fluctuate this year but she is more fazed by another aspect of the current economic turbulence.
“Wage increase makes me more nervous than food costs, because we can react to food costs. Not everything is going to change in price and we can change our menu easily, unlike a chain restaurant. The minimum wage rise and the fact that we have to pay more for good staff, understandably, is worrying. Because we are very labour intensive here.”
While working at the café appeals to chefs (sociable daytime hours, creative license with ingredients), finding front-of-house staff is trickier.
The Lambing Shed offers full table service, which is demanding, especially when the only people applying for jobs are teenagers looking for their first gig. Needless to say, Mitchell says these employees require months of on-the-job training but it can often pay off, provided you give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
“When it’s a first job, you can’t really judge a book by its cover, you have to give them a couple of months. We’ve had people that, on first impressions, you think ‘They’re so shy’ or ‘They’re never going to get this’ and they go on to be supervisors.”
The other thing on Mitchell’s mind is whether the café will be able to maintain its target gross profit of 72% for each dish – even with 200 bills per seating on weekends, at an average spend of £29. Below the line costs, like the energy to run an oven for slow-cooked meals, are now something she will have to scrutinize and factor in.
That said, if The Lambing Shed sticks to its philosophy, that should guide it through.
“We simply don’t cut corners, we’re not just driven by profit,” says Mitchell. “We’ve got things on the menu that don’t have the best margin but they bring people in.”