From humble beginnings as a farm shop, Lancashire-based Huntley’s has grown to be a major business for locally produced food. Martin Pilkington takes a tour around the premise
Eddie Cowpe’s family has farmed in the Samlesbury area near Preston for over 800 years, but other than the arrival of the tractor, there can have been no change as huge as the one he has wrought on the business since 2001. What he started as a farm shop, selling meat from his largely dairy farm, cakes baked by local farmers’ wives, and tea and coffee, has now grown to a major outlet for locally produced food, employing 81 members of staff. And judging by the numbers buying on a wet Thursday afternoon, Huntley’s Farm Shop may have found a way to compete with the supermarkets.
Angie Webb, operations director for the business, explains the background before a tour of the recently expanded complex. “When BSE hit, Eddie decided that he needed to diversify, believing that farming was going to take a severe downturn for at least 10 years. He applied for planning permission and it took four years. We opened in February 2001, the day foot-and-mouth disease was announced. He started the ice-cream side using produce from the farm. People told him he was crazy to have an ice-cream counter next to a butcher’s!
“In the first seven days, he took £46.71p! He thought that was it and expected to go under, but then it started to get busy, especially with the lunchtime trade, so he started to develop the menus – potato pie, cottage pie, steak pie – and word got around.”
Huntley’s is located just off the A59 between Preston and Blackburn, serving both, and is just over the road from BAe’s huge Samlesbury plant, a ready market for the lunch crowd and discerning food shoppers among the workforce.
A tour of the site reveals that the enlarged restaurant, with seating for 200, re-opened only four weeks ago. A couple of days before MTJ’s visit, they had served 400 covers in one day. The bigger restaurant was phase two of Huntley’s three-phase expansion plan. The first, completed 12 weeks ago, was a smart new food hall. The next is a conference centre, where delegates can make use of the dining facilities.
As well as the restaurant and butchery, there is a pick-your-own fruit operation, bakery, and fruit and vegetable shop, and six tenants running concessions, including an independent vintner and a top-quality fishmonger.
“The businesses complement each other,” says Angie. “People sit in the restaurant and have their dinner and then think they might as well have a look at what we are selling over the way. The chutney used on sandwiches is sold in the food hall, the cheese we use is sold in the deli, and the sausages can be bought from the butcher’s.
“If the clothes shop [Cosgrove’s] has a fashion show, it gets the wine from Jane at Barrica Wines on-site, and the flowers from Stems [another franchise].”
Meat is still core to the offer. Regular Huntley’s customer Megan Myers says: “You know it is local, and top quality and the butchers – proper butchers – can suggest how to cook things. I buy my Christmas goose here every year and a lot of my meat.”
Head butcher Tony Davison explains: “We make all the sausages here; we do everything, such as curing our own bacon, hanging our own meat. The geese at Christmas are done to order, because of the price. Around that time, we also do a lot of game, which comes from Houghton Tower, locally.”
The butchery is supported by the restaurant. Angie explains: “We have a kitchen on-site so can do tasters of new kebabs and sausages, for example, and can put them out on the tables and let people try them. Our farm manager, David, is still rearing his own pigs, doing Middle Whites. We do a lot of our own beef and pork for the sausages,” Angie says.
After successive expansions and major investment, the business is finally
yielding profits, and looks to have the offer just right. “We are getting to the stage where people are seeing it as a place where they can do all their shopping,” says Angie.
The business made great use of farmers’ markets early on, selling ice cream from a freezer in the back of a van, and distributing thousands of leaflets to shoppers already convinced of the benefits of buying locally. “The idea for the food hall came from the farmers’ markets, too. We kept meeting all these great suppliers with fabulous products, but no platform to sell from,” says Angie.
So what started as a diversification may have hit upon a business model to compete in the food sector with supermarkets. Modern shoppers feel at home in a smart building with every food need catered for. With fuel costs rocketing, it makes economic sense to use local sources, and the food is fresh and meets the company motto: ‘Where Quality Matters’.
Most important, however, is that, all over the operation – at the cheese counter, the vintner and definitely the butcher’s – the staff are knowledgeable and they clearly care.
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