A guide to opening your own deli

04 August 2023, 07:00 AM
  • Are you a café owner who wants to pivot to fine food retailing, or a keen foodie who wants to start your own business? Discover expert advice on how to open up a deli
A guide to opening your own deli

Whether you’ve started a business before, or are simply a passionate food lover who wants to share your appreciation for the finer things in life, it might be your dream to start a thriving local food store. Speciality Food speaks to two delicatessen owners who have done just that to learn their expert tips for opening up a deli in the UK.

Getting started

For many, the dream of setting up a deli takes years to come to fruition, but Simon Jones, owner of Forest Deli, knew when the time was right after years of working in the corporate world. “I was getting older and more jaded. I knew I needed to change. My wife was (and still is) a professional photographer, and I think she was quite shocked when I got home one day and declared I was leaving work. We had looked at buying a deli many years ago, so our thoughts soon moved to that idea.”

His best advice before you dive in? Find your niche in your location, and work with other small businesses. “We live in a small town that has two butchers, two bakers, a greengrocer, hardware shop and many more small businesses – the only thing missing was decent cheese!

“Once we had secured the premises, we spoke to all the other food shops in town, who we knew and shopped with, which was important to ensure that we were not looking to compete with the businesses in town, but to complement the existing offerings,” Jones says.

Take the time to visit as many other delis as you can, too. “There are a lot of similarities, but also each one has something different,” Jones says. “Do you want to make sandwiches, have a sit-down café, make coffee and more?”

For Simon Warren, owner of The East Street Deli, opening his shop in June 2020 – right in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown – was a leap of faith, but he calls it “the greatest experience of my working career”.

“We spent the first two months with a table at the door stopping customers from entering due to social distancing restrictions,” he says. But this challenging experience coincided with the most rewarding feeling he’s had since opening up a delicatessen. “Opening the doors in those first weeks to queues down the road was incredible.

“We have been so well supported by the people of Wimborne that it has been an incredible ride,” Warren says.

Developing your passion

What do you need to open a deli? “For me, the key in any business, especially in retail, is to have a genuine love and passion for what you do,” Jones says. “Our main business is cheese and associated lines, such as biscuits and chutneys, alongside a drive to sell as much local produce as possible. People buy from people, so having passion and knowledge is essential so you always give the customer the best experience every time they visit.”

Gaining customers, he says, is all about providing the best service. “Customers always have choices on where to shop, and making sure they always leave the shop happy and wanting to come back is the service we offer.”

Warren agrees that letting your people skills shine is a must. “Prior to opening, I used to think you had to be an expert on everything you sell, but whist that’s definitely a required skill for the job, I believe that enjoying working with people, both customers and staff, is the biggest asset you can have. 

“Making customers want to shop with you is so vital in the days of such a competitive marketplace,” he continues. “People feed off your passion. If you love the products on the shelf and love the place you trade in, then that will be clear to your customers.”

Experience in retail is helpful, but nothing can replace the passion for the food you sell and creating a great experience. “I have always worked in retail and spent 15 years working in the convenience store market. That experience has been vital and is used on a daily basis, but being good with people and loving what you do is the biggest thing,” Warren says.

Dealing with challenges

“Every single day is a learning experience, and we’ve just continued to figure things out as we’ve grown,” Warren says. Christmas is the toughest few weeks of the year, he says, and you’ll have to give up on making any social plans in December. But this busy period is a big highlight, too. “Seeing our little shop as busy as it is [during Christmas is] mind blowing. Exhausting, but mind blowing!” 

As a deli owner, Jones says issues come up daily, but the biggest he has faced is the Covid-19 lockdown, which began around two years after Forest Deli opened. 

Despite the distinct challenges, it opened new avenues for the business. “We stayed open throughout and became the central delivery business for the town and surrounding villages. We delivered from the greengrocer, bakers and butchers, and we also became close friends with many of our customers, as we were often the only person they saw some weeks,” he says. 

“While this was an incredibly stressful time, it was immensely rewarding as we knew we were doing the right thing and helping those who needed it,” he continued. “One customer started to bake us biscuits every week when we delivered to them, and they are still a regular customer – and still bring us fresh baked biscuits every Wednesday!”

Finding a work-life balance can also be a challenge, as many small business owners will know. “You never switch off; you’re always thinking about ideas and how to solve problems, but if it’s a passion then you’ll see it as a way of life rather than just a job or career,” Warren says. 

Trusting your gut and having fun

As a deli owner, there are many choices to be made, but at times it can be worth stepping away from the hard data and trusting your instincts. 

“I used to think that everything had to be pre-planned on spreadsheets and business plans. The reality has been quite different,” Warren says. “Obviously, you need to consider everything, and there’s a time and place for meticulously going through the numbers, but if you know your store and its customers then gut-feel and instinct is massively important,” he says.

And while there are many practical matters to sort out, don’t forget to make your deli a fun place to shop. “Make it an experience,” Warren says. “Plain old retail shops are disappearing, so it’s vital that you make it inviting and welcoming. Kerb appeal has always been important, but making sure The East Street Deli stands out from the crowd is a high priority for us.”

One straightforward way to do this is to make yourself – the owner – the face of the shop. “We’ve travelled to delis all over the UK and had some amazing experiences, and sadly a few memorable visits for the wrong reasons,” Jones says. “It’s your business, so make sure everyone who works for you understands exactly what to do and how to behave with customers. It’s all about the customer experience,” he says.

“Be prepared to constantly evolve and change, and become part of the local community as much as you can,” Jones adds.

4 practical tips for opening a deli

1. Take advantage of all the tools at your disposal, including social media. “We put a lot of time and effort into our social platforms, but we make sure that 100 percent of the content for The East Street Deli comes from us, which makes it authentic,” Warren says. “It’s been a huge learning curve, but we’ve embraced it and really see the benefits of it.”

2. Start small, and scale gradually. “We often wish we had a bigger shop, but it’s much easier to make a small shop look full and bursting with inviting products than get a big unit that you struggle to fill,” Warren says. “If you need to, make it smaller and then increase the square footage as the footfall and turnover grows.”

3. Learn when to say no. “The hardest thing to learn is that sometimes the right answer to the customer is ‘No’,” Jones says. “You can’t ever do everything for everyone – but what you can do is what you do very well, and always offer an alternative. The customer will still leave happy.”

4. “Have a good relationship with your landlord, keep on top of the bills, and don’t underestimate how many hours you will work!” Jones says.

If you’re starting a new deli, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch on social media, or via courtney.goldsmith@artichokehq.com.

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing