A view from the Hilltop
When it comes to local sourcing, you
cannot get much more local than your family, and the Hilltop Farmshop is a
Run by John Ellis and his sister-in-law Maggie, the Hilltop Farmshop, which also features a café and newly opened restaurant, is situated in the tiny village of Hunningham, five miles from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire.
Farming has been the family business since 1938, says John. There are two farms - Hilltop and Hall Farm. Together, they provide the majority of the meat served in the shop, café and restaurant. The rest comes from other nearby farms, some of which belong to family and others to friends.
Local sourcing is key to the company's philosophy, says Ellis, who has responsibility for the meat side, while Maggie looks after other products. The majority of the lamb and beef comes from the Ellis's two farms. The pork, including some Tamworth, is mainly sourced though his father-in-law's farm at Elmsthorpe. And it is all natural, Ellis explains: "All the animals at Hilltop and Hall Farm are fed from produce grown on the farm, with no antibiotics or additives. We don't dip our sheep and we only use organic fly repellents and wormers, which we feel is a strong selling point.
"Other meat is sourced from Andrew Mitchell at Lawford Heath Farm, a friend of the family who is a very good farmer and just eight miles away." The eggs, sourced from a farm in Offchurch, are also organic, as is the free-range poultry sold in the shop.
However, by his own admission, Ellis is no butcher and so depends on the help of a local butcher, who works 10 hours a week while showing him the ropes.
Some of the butchery is also outsourced to Simon Boddy of Best Butchers at Great Brickhill, Buckinghamshire, while local abattoir, Joseph Morris at South Kilworth, slaughters the cattle and lambs as well as cutting some meat to spec.
"If we have a particularly busy time, I will tell Morris that I need certain cuts - steaks chops and so on - which are all supplied to order," says Ellis.
The pigs - free-range, of course - are slaughtered at local abattoir Long Compton. "My brother-in-law, Andrew Wincott, also owns his own butchery business at Woodhouse Farm," says Ellis. "He's an award-winning sausage-maker and makes all our sausages for us from our meat. He also cures some of the bacon and ham we sell, and bacon is our best seller." Other additions to the shop include ready meals, all freshly prepared by restaurant chef Neil Overton, and range from lasagnes to moussaka and shepherd's pie.
The business has grown from rather humble beginnings 10 years ago, when Maggie sold asparagus and pork from the 'back door'. A move into farmers' markets followed, which saw Maggie starting to sell lamb reared on the farm.
But it was the outbreak of BSE in the 1990s and the FMD later on in 2000 that put things in perspective for the entrepreneurial Maggie. "Following foot-and-mouth and BSE, it became obvious to us that people wanted to know where their meat was coming from," she says.
With a redundant barn on the farm and a decision to be made on its future, the choice to go into retail couldn't be any clearer. "Customers were very happy to buy things from our farm and so it was natural to convert the barns into a farm shop."
Over the last three years, through the café, shop and business at the farmers' markets, turnover is around £700,000 a year, John adds.
The shop is proud of its pedigree, regularly pushing its 'own and local produce'. "We want people to do a one-stop-shop here," Maggie states. "Seasonal produce is another objective of the business, so we are growing more and more vegetables each year."
Meanwhile, John is keen to expand production to supply local foodservice businesses, as he explains: "Local restaurants and privately-owned pubs have already approached me to supply them and I am keen to expand into that sector." Unfortunately one obstacle to his ambition has been Warwickshire District Council, which has turned down planning permission because there is 'too much rural retail' in the area. Although keen to see the business grow, John is adamant he will not 'sell out' to the multiples.
"If you do your marketing correctly you can sell as much as you want to. It's really up to you," he says, arguing that the best marketing for a business is word-of-mouth, which certainly seems to have been the case for Hilltop Farm. "Over the last two or so years, the business has built up a substantial and loyal customer base," John says. "If you give customers a good product, they will come back for more."
Each family member plays a part in the business; John's son Edward, helps out with computer management, as well as looking after the livestock with John's brother Crick. John's eldest daughter, Rebecca, acts as manageress in John and Maggie's absence, while John himself gets involved in all aspects of the business. "Maggie is brilliant with the customers," John adds, "and very good at dealing with all enquiries. We are so lucky that we also have such excellent staff."
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