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Artisan food is often synonymous with shopping local – picking up treats from a local deli, meat from your butcher, or bread from a bakery.
But some fine food retailers have built up such a reputation that they’ve become destinations in their own right – attracting people from across the country to experience what they offer.
Say Daylesford to any food lover and they’ll know what you’re talking about – they’ve probably made a pilgrimage there at some stage, or at least are planning to.
But while most retailers would welcome the chance to attract people from hundreds of miles away, it’s not always easy. Standing out from the crowd on a local level is hard enough, but becoming a ‘destination retailer’ is often the product of a jigsaw puzzle of different elements.
For Russell Allen, managing director of Aubrey Allen in Leamington Spa, it’s all about consistency. The business has built up a reputation as one of the best butchers in the country but also offers a deli and cheesemongers from its flagship store in Leamington, attracting people from far and wide.
Their longstanding reputation may help get people through the doors, but Allen advises less well-established businesses to ‘stick to your guns’ and focus on consistency.
“When you start out, you perhaps have lots of different ideas about the sort of products you want to put on,” he said. “You might be a butcher, you might be a deli, you might do sandwiches – you might do all of those things. It’s about deciding firstly what it is that you do and sticking to it.”
That includes ensuring that the broad choice and impressive array of products that’s showcased when you first open continues, rather than dwindling once the initial surge of footfall dies down. “I see a lot of shops start off well, they open up with a fanfare and have full stock and full fridges. And of course, when you’re the new person in town, everyone goes in to see you.
“But on a Wednesday in October, for example, you might not be selling anything so you end up putting less and less produce out. Then you don’t have the range so customers come in but you don’t have the products they want. So, I think it’s about sticking to your guns which is difficult when you start off because you need to have the budget to put a show out when there’s no custom. You have to be as good on a Wednesday as you are on a Saturday. The consistency of going ‘right, okay, it’s quiet, but we still have to have some product out there, even though it’s probably going to cost us or cause waste’.”
At Balgove Larder just outside St Andrews in Fife, ongoing efforts have seen it grow and expand to become a destination not just for people in Fife but visitors from further afield. “We started Balgove Larder to connect people with the farmers and fields that their food comes from and wherever possible we use home grown, home reared and local produce,” said co-founder Will Docker.
“We wanted to be a destination for the local people of Fife and visitors to the region alike. By converting former farm buildings on the Strathtyrum Estate in St Andrews, over the years we have expanded and our customers can now explore The Farm Shop, The Steak Barn, The Butchery, The Flower Shed, The Home Store, The Eat Out, The Pizza Box and The Café.
“We’ve had our head down and have been working hard at trying to create the type of place that we’d like to shop at and eat at and hope that customers come and share our passion for great local, traditional Scottish food.”
The added extra
Consistent produce may be key, but the consumer of 2022 often wants an extra cherry on the cake from their favourite retailers, especially those they have to travel to. In the world of fine food and drink, this is often about the experience.
Delis, farm shops and independent retailers are ten-a-penny, but those that stand out often offer more to lure customers in, from workshops and events to restaurants and other added extras.
At Balgove, the award-winning butchery team hosts workshops and classes throughout the year to show customers how to prepare their meat. “Our seasonal markets are also hugely popular as we’re introducing producers and buyers face to face as well as having street food and live music so there’s a real buzz in the air!”
Other examples include Daylesford, which hosts a variety of events as well as workshops focusing on organic growing, gardening, floristry and the floral arts, while The Farm in Snitterfield just outside Stratford-upon-Avon hosts everything from wellness workshops to makers’ markets.
For Allen, a major part of offering customers a one-off experience is the service they get when they walk through the doors. “It’s about getting people to try your product. People will walk into a fine food shop but they’re unsure of what things are or how to approach it so I think it’s about creating experts.
“Spend time educating your staff – if you’ve got someone on the cheese counter make sure you’re educating them on what they’re selling. They don’t even need to be an expert, they just need to be more expert than the shopper.”
If staff have that expertise, they can then help with the all-important job of educating the consumer – a process that often sees them coming back again and again for that extra-special service. “If you can educate your customers, they’re more likely to buy off you,” adds Allen. “So it’s about shouting about what you do a little bit.”
Providing service that stands out from the crowd is something Robert Hunningher, founder of London-based Humdingers Catering and Bakery, takes seriously as a way of ensuring they are on people’s radar. Humdingers, which provides catering for the likes of Amazon and Alexander McQueen, now has two cafés – one in Hornsey, north London, and Molly’s at the Museum of Home in Hoxton – all with a focus on community and helping others. “We’re competing with the buying power, infrastructure and supply chains of companies that have hundreds of outlets,” says Hunningher.
“This means we need to be nimble and creative and deliver a different, more personal and ultimately better experience for our customers. If that means we need to be at the fruit and veg market at 4 am to choose the best punnet – we’ll be there. We feel we stand out already and provide a unique service that really can’t be found in any other cafes.”
The next step, he adds, is to focus on staff wellbeing and staff empowerment – something that won’t just benefit those who work for the business, but ultimately contributes to it being able to stand out with unique ideas and offerings. “An example is our chef Oscar and his idea to launch our Tapas Kitchen (set to launch mid-August). He had the idea to bring a taste of Spain to Hoxton and to serve across lunch and dinner. It’s the first time we have explored actual dishes being available from the café and we are excited for future ideas to be shared from other team members.”
A focus on people doesn’t stop with staff, but extends to the community – something that’s not uncommon among destination retailers across the country, whether through working with other local businesses or doing something to help their community that makes them stand out and garners customer admiration. Humdingers’ community focus shone during the COVID pandemic, when its soup kitchen – funded by the bakery – hosted a festive roast.
The business has continued to look at what it can do to help others, including an app-based concept to feed paramedics when they’re too busy to stop for food.
“As a team, we are incredibly proud of how we have fully immersed ourselves into the community to create a safe and welcome space for all,” adds Hunningher. “ We know we have made a great start at creating a community hub for regulars and we often see the same faces swinging by for their morning coffee or afternoon pick-me-up. That’s down to our staff and team knowing how important it is to build trust and loyalty with our customers. We focus on employing locals to ensure we are always giving back to the community.”
On top of that, a constant effort to listen to feedback from both locals and regulars means they can make sure they really are at the heart of the community, ensuring they’re the go-to spot locally as well as for customers from further afield. “We are also priced well; to ensure inclusivity, we must ensure we are not pricing any individual out. Our arms are open wide and our team is ready to welcome all through the doors and this starts with the local community and ensuring we have created a unique space for all.”
For Allen, being part of the community not only ensures a strong local customer base but helps bring people to Aubrey Allen as a destination retailer. “Relationships with other retailers in the town are always good for that. If you’re not selling wine, make sure you have a partner that does and then cross-market together. I think those sorts of things work really well.”
Spread the word
The idea of marketing is an important piece of the puzzle for any destination retailer. People may know you locally, but without spreading the word on a wider scale it’s unlikely that you will attract customers from further afield. From old-fashioned advertising to the powers of social media, there are plenty of tools at artisan retailers’ disposal. But for many, regardless of the mechanism, getting the word out often relies on galvanising customers to help you.
For Hunningher, all the elements they have worked hard to cement – consistent delivery of high-quality produce, exemplary service and creating a team trained to put the customer’s needs first – all help to ensure customer loyalty. “We know Molly’s has a real blend of customers and there’s no one size that fits all when it comes to building loyalty amongst customers.
“Our team strives to listen to feedback, take it onboard and ensure it’s relayed back to the wider team to make changes and always create something better.”
In Allen’s view, turning customers into ‘disciples’ or brand ambassadors is another tool in helping spread the word – something they do by using events and one-offs. “For example, we might do a Christmas preview evening where we invite the top 40 or 50 customers along for free and really spoil and look after those top customers.
“And they then do the job for you [in spreading the word]. So really spoil your top customers with little exclusive events like a cheese tasting or things like that make them feel special.”