02 February 2021, 08:33 AM
  • Not only did farm shops and delis maintain their business in 2020, but many retailers also had cause to pursue business expansions and refurbishments
Covid-19 isn’t holding the fine food sector back – here’s why

While much of Britain’s retail sector was in crisis mode throughout 2020, independent fine food shops found ways to survive – and even thrive – throughout the pandemic.

In fact, Rob Copley, chairman of the Farm Retail Association (FRA) and owner of Farmer Copleys farm shop in Pontefract, says that Covid-19 has made Britain’s network of independent farm shops more attractive than ever to both longtime and new customers. “With reliable access to abundant, fresh, seasonal produce, as well as a ‘safe’ and friendly welcome, farm shops have shone during the past few months,” he explains.

Expand and diversify

Because they were able to trade throughout the pandemic, farm shops and delis were able to make the most of consumers’ growing desire for authenticity and provenance in their food – something that the pandemic has intensified.

“Covid has taught us that in times of crises, access to local, fresh food really is essential and a basic human need,” explains Rob. “Farm shops have responded innovatively to the situation, with many planning new developments or pushing ahead full force with plans for expansion that were in place pre-pandemic.”

Indeed, one business that has continuously expanded throughout the pandemic is Minskip Farm Shop, run by Emma Mosey. In July, when Covid restrictions were eased, the shop opened an on-site egg restaurant, where business boomed until another lockdown forced it to close.

But during the lockdown periods, Emma sought to boost the shop’s offering in response to extremely high demand. The team expanded the farm shop into its café space, doubling its retail offering for customers. The shop has also doubled the size of its car park due to increased footfall and had a new cold store built.

While the café business has certainly suffered, Emma says that overall Covid-19 has positively impacted the business. “We are still trading at double what we were last year through the farm shop, even without the café open. During the first lockdown, our trading figures tripled due to more customers shopping local, and we were doing a huge number of local deliveries. This allowed us to significantly increase our team, and to offer the customers a greater product range at lower risk.” The team at Minskip Farm Shop has gone from seven to 35 during the pandemic.

Elsewhere, farm shops have sought to diversify into more Covid-friendly means of retailing. Betty’s Farm, run by John Bowler, has plans to open a fully automated vending shop early this year.

“We wanted to create an environment that’s as safe and Covid-secure for our customers as possible,” explains Lucie Bowler, John’s daughter.

“The automated vending system will reduce the amount of physical contact that customers to our shop have with staff, but at the same time they will still be able to meet and talk to our team about the food we sell and the animals on the farm,” she continues. While the pandemic has delayed the project slightly due to supply issues with materials, Lucie says it is now back on track.

As well as selling the farm’s free-range eggs, the vending shop will offer locally reared meat, dairy products, vegetables, deli items, preserves and sweet treats. “We are in many ways quite lucky with the timing of Covid, as it’s given us a chance to assess how we think the future of retail will look and create our farm shop around that vision,” Lucie says.

2021 is likely to see even more farm shop expansions, according to Mark Ellis of diversification specialist Appetite Me. Mark assisted with a number of new shop openings last year, including Forage Farm Shop in Wales, which ploughed through Covid disruption to hold a “very, very successful opening” in 2020.

“What we found this year is a lot of farm shops have realised demand has escalated, but in order for you to expand you need to get planning permission. Those are going through at the moment,” he explains. Planning systems have slowed down due to the pandemic, as well as the fact that more people are entering the farm shop market than previously.

Taking the leap

The opening of new farm shops and delis has been a regular occurrence throughout the Covid-19 crisis, as keen entrepreneurs who are passionate about good food use the disruption of the pandemic to reflect on their career.

Steven Goodrum opened Broomvale Organic Farm Shop after losing his job because of Covid-19. “I knew I was likely to be made redundant, so I set some plans in motion to invest any redundancy money into the shop,” he explains. “The response has been great from the community, with new people coming in each day, and we are now seeing some returning customers becoming regulars.”

Kate Southern and her husband Steve also took the leap, leaving their jobs to open Load Street Deli in Bewdley last year. “Opening a local delicatessen business in our hometown had been a dream for my husband and I for many years. We decided to do it this year as the ideal premises became available, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” Kate says.

But although they signed the lease just two weeks before lockdown, they weren’t put off by the pandemic. “It slowed us down a little, which gave us more time to refurbish the shop to the high-end look we wanted and we had more time to source the quality products,” she explains.

The response from the local community has been “overwhelming,” Kate says. “Everyone has been extremely positive and welcoming. We continually get told that it’s so good to have a deli back in the town.” The pair are already working on expansion plans for a new dining and entertainment area, too, once it is safe enough to open.

Charlie Hodson, a chef and restaurateur, was running a pub in the countryside when Covid hit. “I sort of knew in the back of my head, that that was it for us, really,” he says. But he found a new way to keep his passion for food alive by opening Hodson & Co Cheese Room and Deli in Norfolk, a result of his 10 years of working as a champion for Norfolk and Suffolk producers.

“My dream was always ‘could I gather all those I’ve met and worked with, chutney and jam wizards, millers of Norfolk grains, apple squeezing cider-pressers, grape growers and bubbly wine makers, spirit of the county distillers, blade forging magicians, foundry pan makers and chef’s apparel providers. The list is simply endless with, of course, cheese churning scientists last but never ever least,” he says.

Getting started

For farm shops currently considering how to make the most of the space available to them and assessing what additional space can be created, Rob suggests working with specialists who can look at existing layouts and find ways to make the space work harder.

“By working with companies who are specialists in their field, farm shops can feel confident in the decisions they are making for their business, as well as ensuring they are taking all the right steps when it comes to the current situation,” Rob says.

Although construction projects were put on hold during the first wave of the Covid-19 crisis in early 2020, the sector is now going full steam ahead, and Mark of Appetite Me says he has in excess of a dozen new projects planned in the next 12 months across the UK, including Marshall’s Farm Shop in Aberdeenshire, which is set to expand by about 10 times next year.

“Looking to the future, farm shops that are considering adding new space will require planning submissions and extensive plans being drawn up. Considering the finer details when planning any new development is key, in order to provide a seamless experience for both existing and new customers,” Mark advises.

“When it comes to refurbishments or new developments, work should be completed out of business hours so as not to disrupt trade and to limit any issues during the day,” he adds.

2020 was a significant year for Britain’s farm shops and delis, with many opportunities for businesses to grow despite the circumstances – and these trends are likely to continue in 2021 with even more expansions and refurbishments on the cards. “We are hopeful that shopping habits forged as a reaction to coronavirus will last long beyond the pandemic,” Rob says.

“Farm shops have clearly demonstrated how to adapt in an ever-changing environment with speed and efficiency,” Mark adds, “meeting the needs of their customers whilst future proofing their business”.

Digital expansion

Business expansions weren’t limited to physical spaces in 2020; many farm shops took their trade online for the first time or significantly boosted their digital offering. “Farm shops adapted quickly at the start of the pandemic, adding online retail for customers who were isolating or felt unsafe leaving their homes,” Rob says.

“79% of farm retailers polled by the FRA said they had introduced a click and collect service because of coronavirus, including in the form of completely contactless drive-thrus. Another 67% said they had introduced home deliveries,” he added.

The East Anglian family-run butchers Powters, for instance, has sought to capitalise on rising demand for quality meat with a new online shop. “We’ve been working on developing our online shop for some time, but the current timing for our launch couldn’t be better,” says Tristan Powter. The new service will include nationwide delivery.

“People are now shopping online more than ever before and want to support independent businesses for a better quality product and service,” continues Tristan. Combined, these factors create a significant opportunity for local shops to boost their profile in their communities and further afield – all without the need for planning permission.

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