Conquering Commerce

Becca Wilkins looks at the impact winning last year's Top Shop has had at the Yorkshire butchers

IN ORDER to meet an increase in product demand and to facilitate pork pie-related enquiries from outside Leeds, England's Best Butchers, Wilsons of Cross Gates, Leeds, is strongly considering investing in an on-line mail ordering service.

Brothers, John and Andrew Green, owners of Wilsons, said since winning the Journal's Top Shop Award 2005, (officially heralding them the best butcher shop in England) interest surrounding their products has escalated and sales risen.

John said enquiries have come from as far south as Brighton and from Cork in Ireland. The number of hits on the company's home-made website had risen from 100 to 1,000. He said a new, professionally designed website with a facility for mail order, was inevitable.

Although a banner proclaiming the words, 'Wilsons, Voted England's Best Butcher', is due to go up on the shop front in the next month, the brothers say they are not revelling in the media limelight following the win. The television cameras are something the pair of experienced butchers have found almost impossible to escape.

The high street shop has attracted attention from local BBC and ITV television stations, radio stations and local newspapers. Although being under the spotlight may not be the brothers' idea of a good time, it is something to which they have had to become accustomed.

John said: "It's all been very positive since we won Top Shop and we have had our best Christmas yet and best pre-Christmas period and takings have gone up generally. You have to put some of that down to the Top Shop Award."

Wilsons, established in 1928, is situated in the middle of the high street and has an atmosphere somewhat akin to the hustle and bustle of the busy town centre road outside. John and Andrew knew the location was perfect when they took over the business in 1985, aged 25 and 23 respectively.

A meeting with their accountant, who knew they were looking for a new business venture, led them to the shop and to then owners Harold Lunn and Sybil Wilson (the wife of George Wilson, the founder). The brothers, together with their father (who later retired) soon took over the business.

John said: "Andrew and I saw it was a busy shop and we being young, aspiring butchers saw there was a lot of potential to develop the business and we never looked back." Their approach to taking over an already well-run and established shop was done so with careful thought and planning and the brothers only changed things once trust from the local customers built up.

"The most important thing about running an independent butcher's shop is gaining your customer's trust. It's more important than anything else," John said.

The siblings point to the Guild of Q Butchers as the reason for much of their success, saying the honest communication and mutual support between members had meant their business could flourish. Three large supermarket chains are located within a two-mile radius of Wilsons but they have not affected trade. John said the media coverage they had received tended to remind people that quality products were worth that extra trip to the butcher's shop.

"The only thing the supermarkets have got on us is convenience, we can beat them on service and quality every time. One of our unique selling points is that we are very accessible to our customers."

A fresh and appetising range of traditional cuts of meat alongside an array of colourful contemporary prepared dishes are displayed in Wilsons food hall. There is a deli counter and a fresh sandwich service. Wilsons use abattoirs, Roland Argars in Ilkely and John Penny at Rawden, with most of the shop's meat coming from local auction markets as well as from local farms in Aberford and Cross Gates. The business uses family firm distributors WR Wrights in Liverpool, to supply sundries and ingredients from RAPS and Verstegen.

Recently the shop has been taking Ridings Reserve beef from the Dawn Group in Carnaby, something which has proved popular with customers.

Andrew said: "Supermarkets have given people what they thought they wanted which was lean meat and a lot of farmers have had to go down that route to sell that type of product and now they've ended up with a product that people don't like. But a steak from a Ridings Reserve animal is so much nicer - it's succulent and full of flavour. The more discerning customer who perhaps watches cooking programmes on TV want meat like this and come to us for it. Chefs like Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall and Gordon Ramsay are waking people up to the fact that there are better products available if they are looking for it. Anything that makes people value the quality of the food they are eating is good for us."

The brothers closed their own abattoir when running it became logistically and financially unviable. They converted a triple garage area into a carcase hanging room, fridge and a cutting room. Originally there were six staff on the books, now Wilsons employs 25, plus some Saturday staff.

The brothers, have worked their way up in the trade, starting at the age of 16 under the guidance of their father in his three shops in Bradford. They now intend to make the most of their new found title of the best butchers in England and will carry the logo on the side of a new delivery van and on the shop's plastic bags.

John said: "It feels great to be given the title, it's not often we think about it. The reaction from the customers has been great - a typical sound bite would be 'we always knew it, you deserve it.'"

John said he had noticed consumer trends in their shop had come full circle, from people wanting slow cooking meats to cuts that were quick to cook, back to slow cooking products becoming more popular again today. Free range pork has just been introduced in the shop which has found favour with the public, but what the business is perhaps best known for is its pork pies, with 10,000 being made by a team of five in the bakery on the first floor of the building. Two sisters, originally customers to Wilsons, pioneered the pie-making side of the business in a small room on the top floor of the building. After acquiring rooms above the launderette next door, the bakery has tripled in size. Interbake supplying the bakery equipment and Wilson's staff make the pastry.

Pork and ale sausages and steak and ale pies are also popular with customers and made at Wilsons using ale supplied by Keighly-based Timothy Taylors Brewery.

Andrew said: "Wilsons has always been known for its quality of meat but the pies are almost over shadowing the meat in some quarters, because pork pies are such a big thing in Yorkshire. The name of the pie travels further than the name of the meat."

Pie orders shot up after Christmas with people willing to travel on a bus from Halifax and Huddersfield to sample a taste.

Andrew said: "We are always looking at ways of developing the business and growing trade. If trade in pies grows any more we will have to open a new unit to make them in."

The brothers have supplied pork pies to celebrity chef Brian Turner and even made a pork pie wedding cake for the cook's son's wedding.

John puts the success of their home-made pies down to his father's original recipe which has not changed over the years.

"When you are on to a winning formula you don't want to change it too much do you?" He said.

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