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Bowhouse first opened its doors in the summer of 2017. Based on Fife’s Balcaskie Estate, it is a place for artisan food and drink producers to transform local raw ingredients. We have makers here that range from Scotland the Bread, a flour mill that specialises in wholemeal flours made from the specially selected nutritious grains we grow, to Futtle, an organic brewery and taproom. We have vegetable growers and shellfish producers as well as a butchery, café and fitness centre.
From the outset, Bowhouse allowed these producers to work together creatively and share distribution networks. And so it was that we launched our Market Weekends. These monthly events allowed the Bowhouse producers to open their doors, sell their produce and quite literally, test the market. With a dedicated street food area, live music and hands-on food workshops, each Market Weekend drew a crowd around 4,500 food-curious people to the East Neuk of Fife.
We had never imagined these events would be so popular! We tend to pause the events over January and February to allow producers and customers to recover after the festive period. And so on the weekend of March 14th - 15th, we held our first Market Weekend of 2020.
As many people will remember this was a real period of unknown and it was incredibly difficult to know what was the right thing to do in a rapidly changing environment. We installed hand sanitiser stations at the entrances and had extra cleaning throughout the day. We viewed Bowhouse as being more akin to an artisan supermarket, where people had come to shop rather than an event and gathering. When it came to it, we saw only a small decrease in numbers.
With our next market scheduled for early April, it was quickly apparent that we wouldn’t be able to run more events. The question then arose of how we would ensure that the producers based at Bowhouse, as well as others who relied on income from food markets, could continue to trade and remain afloat.
From the outset, Bowhouse had been created as a way of reworking local supply chains. We’d been so busy with the thriving markets that we had never found time to prioritise a local distribution route beyond this.
There are many examples of online shopping platforms, so we took the time to research what could realistically manage. By early April (around the time our next market would have taken place), we’d set up Bowhouse Link. We chose the Open Food Network because it was a not-for-profit channel that feeds profits back into the development of the site.
Bowhouse Link offers produce from a range of makers: from essentials like eggs and milk, to fresh vegetables and meat from the estate; locally ground coffee, to beer and spirits from the brewery. We had planned to launch our new butchery shop (which enables us to produce organic and wild meat from the estate) at this time. In the event, this has had to open as a purely online shop within Bowhouse Link and as a separate trader on the Open Food Network.
Bowhouse Link’s online shop opens every Monday morning and is available for orders until Wednesday afternoon. On Thursdays and Fridays the orders are produced and packed ready for delivery across the East Neuk of Fife and collection on Saturday. We also offer free delivery for local NHS staff and if customers are able, we are asking for donations that will go to our local food bank in Anstruther - something that has proved popular at a time when people want to ‘give something back’.
We were keen to start off on a small scale so we could be sure the system worked. Our first week’s trading picked up 34 orders: all delivered. This rose to 75 in the second week and now (in our sixth week) we have processed over 370 orders to date and enable 18 small producers to continue to reach their customers. Going forward we’ll expand this, working with producers to develop mini hubs for collection/delivery to broaden our geographic reach.
Although Bowhouse Link is truly a lifeline for the producers we’re working with, we are selling to a more limited customer base than we were at our markets - only those within the local delivery area - so our volumes will naturally be smaller. It’s been a way of engaging with different people in the community and showing other groups the food that’s produced on their doorsteps. Whereas our customers at the markets were a mixture of people, some of whom were coming along for the ‘day out’ aspect of it, our Bowhouse Link customers are undoubtedly those who are prioritising the quality of produce and are looking for raw ingredients to cook with. We don’t have as many sweet treats or the street food now. Over 50% of the customers who came to Market Weekends were from outside Fife, with 40% coming from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. Our Bowhouse Link customers are all from within a 12-mile radius and as three sides of our boundary are sea – we are delighted. This is truly a local service, demonstrating the resilience of short supply chains.
Bowhouse Link isn’t just here for the duration of lockdown though. It’s something we’ll continue to expand, adding new producers as we would at the Market Weekends. I really think that by demonstrating the quality of local produce, we’ll be able to change people’s buying habits so that they continue to shop in this way.