Sussex Success

03 April, 2009

Eastbourne’s J Heath & Sons has just walked off with the Sussex Butcher of the Year title for the second time running. Carina Perkins went to find out what makes this business tick

Nestled in a parade of shops in the heat of Eastbourne’s Old Town, with an unassuming blue and white frontage,

J Heath & Son does not rely on glitz and glamour to draw in customers. A passer-by could be forgiven for doing exactly that – pass by – without ever realising the treasures that lie behind its modest exterior. If they were to look a bit closer, however, they might notice the small sign that points out that this is officially the best butcher in Sussex.

Hailed for its “tradition, friendly approach and unique combination of local produce”, this third-generation family butcher’s has won the butcher category of the Sussex Food and Drink Awards for two years running. Specialising in locally sourced meats, sausages and home-cooked hams, the shop attracts customers from across the county, the surrounding area and even from London.

J Heath & Son started life in a sleepy Sussex hamlet. “My granddad set up the business in Horam back in the 1940s and passed it on to my father,” explains Nigel Heath, the current proprietor. After moving to a bigger premises on Albert Parade, Nigel’s father, Clifford, ran the business successfully for many years until illness forced him to bow out and let his son take over. “We had been planning the transition anyway, but his illness sped up the process,” says Nigel, who was initially nervous about taking the reins. “I was worried about taking over from my dad. When you go into such a well-run business, you question whether you can live up to that,” he admits.

Keen to put his own edge on the business and build on his father’s successful model, Nigel has made a point of entering awards to raise the shop’s profile in the local community. He has had stunning success, with a number of awards in sausage competitions and, of course, the title of Sussex Butcher of the Year. “I honestly didn’t expect to win it again!” laughs Nigel, who was nominated for the award by loyal customers. “The first time round, I was pretty confident because the judge actually came back and bought some meat after she interviewed us, but I thought they would pass the mantle on to someone else this year.”

Although Nigel is surprised at his second victory, a quick look at his produce list confirms that he is worthy of the title. When it comes to local meat, you would be hard-pressed to beat his impressive stock of locally reared lamb, free-range pork, in-season game and hand-picked, pure-bred Sussex beef.

“We have always specialised in locally-reared meats. When I started working in the shop, I didn’t realise how important it was, but now I am older and wiser, I realise the value of local supply,” says Nigel. “The public’s awareness of what they are buying and where it comes from is a lot better than it used to be. People are moving away from supermarkets and back to butchers, especially those who offer knowledgable service and locally-sourced produce.”

Nigel’s suppliers have come to him through a combination of luck and long-standing relationships, built up through the family business. “We buy our Sussex beef from a local farmer called Mike Hickman, who started working with my grandfather nearly 30 years ago,” he explains. “If he doesn’t have the beef on his farm or his son’s farm, he will source it for us from other local farmers and Hailsham market.” The pork is free-range and comes from Tottingworth farm in nearby Heathfield. “The meat has to be free-range. It’s vital for the animal’s welfare,” says Nigel.

The shop’s locally-sourced lamb is actually organic, but Nigel does not sell it as such. In his eyes, the only important thing is that it was bought from a local producer with good welfare standards and full traceability. “We got lucky with our lamb supplier, he just walked through the door three years ago on the off-chance and asked if I would be interested in buying his lambs. I said yes and we went from there. We are now the biggest butcher he deals with.”

Nigel appreciates that it is not always easy for butchers to find good-quality local supply, and he is currently struggling to find a local poultry supplier. “There don’t seem to be many places you can turn to for help. We have had some assistance from Plumpton College in the past, but other than that, we have had to rely on contacts through other farms.” As well as fresh meat, J Heath & Son offers a range of award-winning homemade sausages, made from a recipe handed down from Nigel’s grandfather. Variations include Honeyroast pork, Kentish hop ’n’ ale, Pork, Orange and Ginger, and Venison and Red Wine. Reluctant to give away too much about his “secret” recipe, Nigel comments that “we make them quite coarse, with a medium rusk”. They certainly proved popular at the Brighton & Hove Food & Drink Festival, where over 100 Sussex food and drink business leaders, led by celebrity chef Aldo Zilli, voted them the best sausages in Sussex.

Home-cooked ham, steak pies, a range of specially selected cheeses and home-made pork & apple, lamb & mint and beefburgers are also available through the shop. “We don’t do a lot of deli produce, but if I were going to branch out, I would hire another member of staff and have a cooked meats side to the shop,” says Nigel, who is aware that, to stay successful, butchers need to keep looking forward.

Yet Nigel does not feel he has anything to fear from the supermarkets. “Any good butcher who does the job properly can compete against a supermarket quite easily – just by hanging it right and doing it all the traditional way.”

Although his efforts are concentrated on the shop, Nigel has built up a small catering sideline supplying meat to local pubs. “We are mainly a customer-based shop and that is where our bread and butter is,” he says. “But we do deal with quite a few surrounding pubs, which are a good niche for us.”

The shop currently has five full-time staff, including Nigel, with his dad on hand to help out when things get very busy. “I don’t think the shop is big enough to carry many more staff, although I am looking at extending. I would love to be able to buy the shop next door,” he adds.

Nigel’s staff are a friendly bunch and he reckons the key to staffing success is to have a couple of older butchers working alongside younger staff. “The customers like a fresh face – that is something I get a lot of comments about in my shop,” he explains. “But you need the older staff too, for their experience.”

Nigel now has set his sights on the Butcher’s Shop of the Year Awards. “I’m not too fussed about individual sausage awards – they are really fiddly and there are a lot of butchers that specialise in them,” he says. “But I would like to have a go at the national butcher’s award to keep our profile up.”

With numerous awards and booming trade, the Eastbourne butcher can finally stop worrying about living up to his father. “My biggest worry now is living up to the benchmark we have set ourselves,” he laughs.

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