Heading away from the busy Hull city centre, where 1960s office blocks jostle against grand Victorian statements, down the long, straight A1105, the houses turn more modern and the trees increase. Villages such as Ella and Ferriby have been swallowed up by the urban sprawl, but church spires poke above the playing fields and long rows of houses. It is, in other words, a good place for an independent business, and Brian Fields, of Fields of Anlaby butcher's shop, has been flourishing.
He is sitting in his tiny, box-like office as we walk in, computer screen rammed with figures. Fields has just got off the phone to his accountants, but his mood improves when we mention his Meat Trade Journal's Butcher's Shop of the Year (BSOTY) triumph last year.
"It was great to win," he says. "Great for the staff, great for PR, and great for giving us major credibility. Over the years, you read about the few butchers who manage to win Butcher's Shop of the Year, and you try to get up to that level, but you never imagine you'll do it. Over the past five years, I knew I was approaching a high standard, but to get to the top is fantastic."
Fields has made sure people know that he won the award. He put the prize logo on company bags and booklets, and placed a framed certificate in the shopfront window. A radio station in York covered the victory by Fields, as did local TV, and the Hull & East Riding Times chipped in with an article.
In 2008, Fields had been voted the best butcher in the Midlands and the East of England, but rather than celebrating his success and putting his feet up, he asked for feedback on why he had not won the overall award. The judges were honest his marketing was not up to scratch and, says Fields, "I knew in my heart that they were right."
This turned out to be the impetus Fields needed to push his shop to improve. He produced and distributed a booklet to locals; he bought a Ford Model 'T' car to deliver products "to get us noticed, people never forget you in that old car"; he redid the website "in a way that concentrated on the product, rather than a history lesson"; and he installed two TV screens in the shop, running information about many of the products on sale.
It was a case of moving from improvements in the business to telling people about what he had done. "In the early years in Anlaby, we had concentrated on the shop, making it clean and accessible, rather than that sawdust-on-the-floor look." Wall-to-wall cream tiles, plus a mosaic were inserted, "to add a bit of character".
From Hessle to Anlaby
When he took on the premises in 1994, he says, it was "a bit of a wreck", needing plenty of work. He had moved from a shop in nearby Hessle, a quaint village with a church and one, winding main road, surrounded by large Victorian villas, owned along with another butcher. However, Fields saw things completely differently to his partner and got out after just two years. "I was looking at my customers one day and it just hit me here were these folk who wouldn't be around in, say, 20 years' time. Where were the new customers going to come from? There were simply no youngsters."
Fields realised that he needed to radically change his approach and split from the other butcher in the business. "I decided that any shop I ran had to be more approachable to housewives. Going into a butcher's shop can be a daunting experience. Often, all the assistants are male and people feel they are expected to know things about cuts of meat. The housewife can feel daft not knowing what to ask for. I wanted to make it more feminine. I'm not suggesting getting all the chaps to act a bit camp just that we wanted to soften things, to allow shoppers to ask questions and help them. Even something like, 'Put it in the oven for 45 minutes and roast at 180C' you'd be amazed how often we get asked questions about how to cook a joint of lamb. Give the answer straight to people and they come back."
Fields saw too that he had to change the offer. "I'm surrounded by Tesco, Asda and Morrison's in Anlaby, but I reckon they've done all the damage they're doing to do to the small, independent butcher now. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, they were hitting butchers hard. A lot of fine, long-standing establishments were being finished off."
So Fields started offering more ready-to-cook products. His counter now has lamb glazed with mint and chicken covered in tandoori marinade along with rump steaks and pork chops. There is a large cheese section, and shepherd's pie. Plans are afoot to offer vegetables and potato alongside pieces of meat in a tray his version of a supermarket ready-meal. "People don't want to witness us cutting up a pig or a whole animal on the back of the block any more. They want to come in and see their tea."
More luxury feel
Rather than try to compete with the supermarkets head-on, Fields is offering products "at a more luxury level". He is happy for his customers to visit a large retailer before coming to him to buy their meat. "People in the trade say there's no money in meat and they're right in that they can talk themselves into that. But if you've been flexible and carved out a niche, then it can work," he says.
During 2008 and 2009, Fields saw other butchery friends suffering sales nosedives, but says, "We just about managed to keep our sales on an even keel. It will be a while before things look rosy again, but we're stable," he says.
That could be threatened by a new Marks & Spencer Simply Food, which has just opened close to Fields. "I'm slightly worried, because they are something of a crossover with us, offering products people will want to drive miles for," he says.
True, M&S may have the two-for-one meal offers, but they would be hard-pushed to serve the locals of Anlaby as well as Fields does.
At a glance
Fields of Anlaby
7 Hull Road, Anlaby, Hull HU10 6SP, Tel: 01482 657 358
Staff: 14 full-time
Opening hours: 9am-6pm (Mon to Sat); 9am-5pm (Sun)
Do you want to win the 2010 Butcher's Shop of the Year, gaining all the attendant publicity and the boosting to your business that come with it? Visit www.meatinfo.co.uk to download an entry form or contact Helen Law on 01293 846587. Or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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