“The rhyme of the ancient mariner”

25 August 2017, 04:51 am
Expert Eye by John Shepherd

As I have recently entered my seventh decade of existence on this planet (61 and a half years to be precise), I was interested to read the observations about the age of our main political party leaders. It has widely been reported that Britain is going to have its oldest group of party leaders in the House of Commons since 1955, with an average age (if Vince Cable is elected leader of the Lib Dems) of 67 years. This has been called by some the rise of the gerontocracy, which in turn got me thinking about food businesses and the average age of the people who run them

A common misconception is that food businesses are run by younger people, and this is probably based on the evidence that cafés, street food stalls, restaurant chains and startups provide. The average age of a McDonald’s worker, for example, is 20. However, surprisingly, the average age for entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom is 47 according to research from Sandler Training, and the average age for a person working in a speciality food store in the US is nearly double that of McDonald’s at 39, according to the US Office of Labor Statistics. I then wondered what the situation was in our own shop.

Partridges currently has 67 employees including full and part-timers. Our oldest male employee is 77, our oldest female employee is 73 and our youngest employee (work experience excluded) is 19. The average age of all employees is 39 years and four months. This means that most were born well after Partridges opened its doors for the first time in 1972 and that our experience conforms to the pattern recorded in the United States. The total length of service at Partridges is 405 years and the average length of service for employees is just over six years, which includes several in our café who have less than six months of service.

Our longest-serving employee, apart from my good self of course, has worked for us for 28 years (may the Lord have mercy) and we have in total 10 employees who have worked for us for over 20 years. This is a common feature of family businesses – as I learned among a lot other things from that great organisation Family Business United, which has been created and run tirelessly by Paul Andrews for many years and to great acclaim. A family business, as so many in the speciality food world are, tends to provide a feeling of connection and identity for employees and promotes a culture of commitment and purpose that may be lacking in other organisations. As a result staff turnover is generally several percentage points less than national averages.

There are, of course, so many plusses to running a family business and retaining long-standing staff. In particular, speciality food shop staff, by dint of their age, generally have a greater level of experience and maturity and undoubtedly show fortitude under great duress when required e.g. Christmas or stocktaking. They have to develop into natural multitaskers and customer service is greatly improved due to the different staff connections that are made with customers. However there are, as in all things, drawbacks too. It is often difficult to introduce new people into what can be an idiosyncratic culture, tried and trusted ways of doing things are difficult to change, and finding the right sanction if under-performance becomes an issue for a long-term employee is difficult.

It is not only in our shop that the average age of people involved in selling food is around 39. We run a number of markets around London, and from a very unscientific analysis the same pattern seems to emerge – that those nascent family business members involved will soon be entering their fifth decade. We have also been dealing with a number of our suppliers for many years and lots of them have been going for many years. Twinings for eleven generations, Baxters Potted Shrimps for six and Taittinger Champagne for five, just as an example. Congratulations by the way to Thatchers, the fifth-generation cider maker, who recently won the Family Business of the Year Award. So many of our best-selling products would far exceed the average age of our staff.

It just goes to show that perseverance is nearly everything in speciality food.

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