The Comeback Kids
It might sound like the plot of an unlikely Hollywood film, but the Bexleys boys have bounced back from rock bottom to take the title of Best Butcher’s Shop in the UK. Ed Bedington went to meet them
Sylvester Stallone might have come close in Rocky, but Bexleys went one better and took the title, walking off with the 2008 Butcher’s Shop of the Year award.
The shop, in Old Swan, Liverpool, run by Ian McCormick and brothers Paul and Martin Brereton, has only been trading around four years and was set up in the wake of a devastating collapse of the team’s previous business.
Ian and Martin have worked together for 23 years, previously running a chain of 35 butchers’ concessions within the Kwik Save empire, but with the well-documented collapse of that retailer, the pair found themselves bankrupt. Martin says the situation was a nightmare for them all, but they managed to dust themselves off and were lucky to be able to get back into business with the help of his brother Paul, a joiner by trade.
And while going from a chain of 35 to just one might seem a comedown, the businessmen quickly found that going back to basics was exactly what they needed. “In many ways we came here to rediscover the butchery business. We’ve gone back in time, and it has worked,” says Ian.
At first it was tough; being bankrupt meant they had no funds with which to develop the business. Having a brother who is a joiner was helpful, however, and Martin says Paul was initially working elsewhere during the day, then coming to work on the shop at night. “Obviously we had to build up the business before we could do anything,” adds Martin. “It was called Clarkes and we traded under that fascia for eight months. The business was in a serious state – it was in need of a refurbishment and we knew that when we took it on – but we had nothing behind us, so had to keep it as it was and do our best with it.”
Those lack of funds, though, meant the butchers had to get back to basics and focus on customer service. And it’s that ethos which still runs through the business and is now the driving force behind their success. Ian says: “You need to make sure customers are getting served right – you can see it in their faces if they’ve had great service.
“Customers say thank you and that they haven’t been served like that in a long time. They just don’t get that out there – they want good service. We lost that customer focus in Kwik Save and to come back to this and do it is refreshing.”
Those lack of funds has also meant the business had to take its time developing the shop. “We’ve had two relaunches – once when we renamed the shop Bexleys and another when we’d had some further work done,” says Martin.
The results are impressive: counter space in the shop has more than doubled and it now offers a wide range of products, from fresh sandwiches (which Martin points out are priced to beat all their local competitors) to fruit and veg, sauces, condiments and even sweets.
But the heart of the shop is, of course, its meat offer. “If we had more space, we’d do more,” says Martin, “but we don’t want to lose the fact that we’re butchers.”
Extra-special products are key, though. Ian points out: “We only sell Orkney Island beef – we wanted to sell a branded product we could build on and link to our Bexleys brand. We wanted to work hand in hand with a leading brand. “Orkney Island beef is recognised and people do look for it and come from far afield. And you cannot get it from the supermarkets. We’re looking for products that make Bexleys unique.”
That said, Bexleys still caters for the mainstream, says Martin. “We do need to sell the standard stuff, such as bacon ribs – we sell a hell of a lot of them, but we put our own spin on them.” Since taking on the shop, their slow and steady pace has seen them boost customer spend from £3 a visit to around £5.50. And all that hard work has now been recognised after the shop took the title of UK Butcher’s Shop of the Year in MTJ’s awards, building on its success the previous year when it won the top accolade for the North of England. As Martin points out, they were in the competition to win it: “The award was something we went for. We didn’t just enter and hope for the best, we really wanted to win it.”
He adds that they studied previous winners, such as Simon Howie, to improve their chances. “We firmly believed we could do it, and we could see the sales impact if we did. However, we were still shell-shocked to win, given where we’d come from.”Ian says that, in some ways, their experience with Kwik Save has helped. “The one good thing that came out of the Kwik Save business was the marketing skills we learnt – it was great training.”