Shop Talk: If I’d known then what I know now…
Emma Schwarz, founder, The Barn Little London, Chichester
In my kitchen there hangs a poster with the slogan: ‘You never think it will take as long as it will’ and I try to live by that. I never thought it would take as long as it did to obtain the planning permissions for the two buildings that are now our premises. My husband Mark and I discovered the properties in 2017. The barn had a 3000 sq ft courtyard and adjoining that was a building with frontage. It was ideal for the hybrid retail-restaurant I had in mind. Unfortunately they were owned by two different landlords, which meant two sets of negotiations. We wanted permissions for office, storage and residential use, which added to the complexity.
Three years later in February 2020, just as we were ready to sign the lease, the pandemic arrived. Our initial reaction was to pull out, but, after some reflection, we decided the timing might be good for starting a business grounded in the principles of slow food, eating local and wasting less.
I went to the landlords with a proposal to trial an online delivery service, using one of the sites as a collection point. I got a website built within a week, populated it with local organic products and used the database from my existing pop-up retail business, The Rare Brand Market, to quickly build up a customer base.
After three months, I had the confidence to sign the leases. The Barn opened in September 2020 and enjoyed a glorious first month. Two lockdowns then taught me the importance of being able to pivot between different revenue streams – at one point we became a sourdough toastie take-out place. My career with M&S Food and The Rare Brand Market gave me the experience to do this.
Last April, when hospitality reopened, we became a popular option for breakfast, brunch and lunch. People loved our wooden dining chalets, and we were handling 900 covers a week. We traded phenomenally last year – and raised over £40,000 for UKHarvest by encouraging diners to donate 10% of their bill to the charity.
Then in January 2022 things started to decline. But I realised that the previous year we had been overtrading post-covid and the resurgence of footfall to high streets. 2021 hadn’t been a ‘real’ year – 2022 is a more ‘real’ year one. So adaption and pivoting was going to have to happen again.
We have responded by reducing our range, being careful about stocking perishables and getting rid of fridges and freezers to cut energy costs. I am on a mission to make local food more accessible on the high street and fill the vast gap between farm shops and supermarkets, but it is a slow journey, and my mode of travel needs to be robust enough to get me there. Wish me luck!
Interview Lynda Searby
Photography Dan Stevens