Tour de force

Just a brief glance into the window display of Cheltenham butcher Robin Jenkins and you are hooked.

Homemade faggots and sausages vie with noisettes of Welsh lamb, free-range pork chops, steaks of Hereford beef and in-house chicken Kiev. His loyal customer catchment area stretches across the spa town into the surrounding Cotswolds, supplying households and local restaurants alike with his popular free-range Woodland pork, Welsh lamb bred in Abergavenny and Hereford beef all high-bred animals, sourced through Ensors in the Forest of Dean. He is, without doubt, a traditional English butcher with a capital T.

But proof of the pie is not just in the eating, but also the viewing in Robin Jenkins' shop; having been tempted into this emporium of meat, the eyes are drawn not to the counter, but a wall of photographs that greet your entry a veritable gallery of holiday pictures taken by Robin's customers while travelling the globe. Closer inspection reveals these are not your usual snaps as every image depicts the person or people in the frame holding, carrying, clutching or lifting aloft, a green 'bag for life' emblazoned with the logo 'Robin Jenkins Traditional Family Butcher'.

Robin says: "Some four years ago, I had specially designed 'bags for life' made up for our regular customers. One of the first to get a bag was Alex Gardner, a bit of a wag, who occasionally takes on clandestine military missions in some of the world's trouble spots. After one of his sorties, he presented me with a photo of a group of armed fighters in Afghanistan, including himself, holding not a gun, but a Robin Jenkins bag. Thinking it might amuse customers, I pinned it on the notice board and thought no more about it. But others saw the joke and joined in the caper. Soon, I was getting photos from China, Australia, the US, South Africa, France and Spain all portraying a person or people in some corner of the world jokingly displaying one of my bags. There is even one from under the Indian Ocean, showing one of my customers, Rod Burge, complete with diving gear carrying a rather damp Robin Jenkins bag."

Cheltenham-born Robin, now 65 years of age, started work at 15 as an apprentice chef in the town's famed Cavendish House store. During this time he gained valuable experience by moonlighting on evenings and weekends in various local hotels, including Cheltenham's premier establishment Queen's Hotel. He then decided to change trades and spent four years at college, learning the butchery business. "After college I joined the Baxter's group of butchers, who were recognised for their meat quality and high standards, and was proud to be a member of the staff. Then in 1992, I had the opportunity to buy the reputable and established Bath Road butchers, owned by Reg Pitt. We marked time for the first six months of business, then opened up the shop for six-day trading, which brought in more custom, and introduced our own kitchen-ready products such as stroganoff and goulash. In those early days, we also made our own pies, which were very popular, but the heat from the ovens made the shop very hot, so we now buy in bake-off products from the Cotswold Pudding Co."

Aside from the conventional butchery, the premises also boasts a game licence, allowing the four full-time staff to offer everything from dealer-dressed venison and pheasant to free-range partridge. Somehow, while building up his business, Robin also managed to find the time to teach meat trade affiliation NVQ Levels 1 and 2 for nine years to trainee butchers at a local college.

So after 44 years in the trade, what has changed over the years? "Not a lot," he says. "In some ways, tastes have become more sophisticated. Then again, offal and cheap cuts, such as skirt, have recently found a new lease of life, probably due to the recession. Naturally there is more red tape and paperwork, brought about through the need to consider health and safety and, of course, hygiene. But this is so important when dealing with food and the public. For me, the customer is king and, to this end, I'm in the shop at 5.30am each day; I like to make sure my customers will be happy one of the nice aspects of the business is the camaraderie and loyalty of satisfied customers, to me this means a lot and I believe this to be the basis for successful trading."

The fact that Robin Jenkins' customers can be bothered to pack one of his shop bags each time they go on vacation, then go to the trouble of posing with said bag against some exotic or famous background, says as much about his meat as their regard for him. Their comic actions could well turn these handy holdalls into a global fashion statement after all, Liz Hurley lives only a few miles away from his shop so watch out Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton, you have been warned.

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