Any good butcher's shop should be at the heart of its community. If a butcher doesn't know at least a few of his customers' names, then something has probably gone wrong. A butcher and his staff may be good for gossip and a chance for the customer to get something off their chest. But for one group of residents in Ipswich, their butcher can actually do something about a complaint. George Debman is a borough councillor in the busy Suffolk town and says he has three traits that make him notably different from many national and local politicians: firstly, he is not a careerist and has not been chasing a job in politics; secondly, he lives in the real world; and thirdly, he has actually run something in his life and been very successful at that, to boot.
George got into local politics after a perceived injustice made his blood boil. "We used to do a street fair out here, which was very successful and, one year, the council wanted to charge us £400 to shut the road off. The local councillor at the time said, 'Leave it with me, I'll sort it out, you won't have to pay £400.' And then he came up to me the day before the election and about two days before the street fair and said, 'You've got to pay £400.' So I put on my notice board: 'Would you vote for a council that wants to charge £400 to shut the road off?'
"After the election, that councillor actually phoned me up and threatened me over the phone because his candidate, or the Labour councillor, only got in by one vote because this ward has always been Labour."
When the seat was up again for re-election, George decided to stand as an independent shopkeeper; he got 500 votes, but missed out on being elected by 100 votes. But the whole experience opened George's eyes and, when asked by the Conservatives if he would like to stand for them next time round, he accepted. "I wasn't really bothered about getting in, but the fact that customers were taking the trouble to vote for me meant that when I was asked if I would stand as a councillor, I thought yes, I'll do it."
When the three seats of the ward were up, George stood as a Conservative candidate and finished top of the pile. He has now been a councillor for seven years and it keeps him busy with causes he is interested in. "There's a big issue going on in Ipswich at the moment about traffic, which I am opposed to. There is a big Tesco going up in town, too, which I'm actually going to speak against - but not as a councillor, as a business. If I hadn't been a councillor, I wouldn't have known that information and I wouldn't really have known how to go about it."
Expansion on wheels
The council work keeps George busy, but he is a butcher at heart and it is his number one priority. His parents bought the current shop in 1963 and George has seen many changes. One of the recent extra assets to shop takings is his mobile hog roasts and barbecue service, marketed and carried out in his company van, and trade has been phenomenal, says George. It all started when he gave a friend help with carving pig roasts and, when he worked on a barbecue job for a caterer, George thought he could do this himself. "I hired all the equipment, costed it all and, at the end of the day, they paid me straight away and, I thought, this was the way to go.
"My friend gave me a pig roasting machine, which I'm obviously grateful for, and we've never looked back. We've had two incredible summers. Our shop trade with barbecue stuff this past two summers has been nothing special at all, but our outside work with pig roasts and barbecues has been phenomenal. Our last pig roast for the year last year was on about 13 December."
George's own car took a bit of battering, with all the travelling it entailed, so he invested in a van, sign-written with 'BBQ with George', the name he advertises the service under, rather than George Debman Butchers. "It has proved to be a really good investment. We've had half a dozen bookings that I know of for a fact since we've had the van done like that."
Getting involved in the local community is also important to George and, this year, he worked with Britannia Primary School and Nursery to celebrate St George's Day. "We've been supplying them for about 18 months and I'm always suggesting different ideas or promotions that the school can tap into, because they've obviously got to sell meals and one thing and another. I said to them, 'Why don't you do a St George's Day?' We got the mayor to come along and it was really terrific.
"So the mayor and I went for the St George's Day meal with the kids at lunchtime and it was really good. The school council greeted us and they did a top table, which was fantastic. Then, in the evening, they had a charity St George's mayoral meal, for which we supplied the beef and that went down well."
George is Britannia School's adopted butcher and he has made visits to show children how to make sausages. At parents' evenings, the parents eat at the school to taste George's meat, which has meant many more new customers coming through the door. George reckons the trade has now gone full circle, from the times when the industry as a whole looked quite bleak. He sees new faces appearing every day. With all the activity he undertakes, George's shop should still be on the Cliff Lane shopping precinct for some time to come.