Simon Osborne and Chris Green haven’t had much to smile about in recent years.
It’s been a tough time for independently-owned butchers with supermarkets quashing the opposition. An estimated 200 are closing every week across the UK.
Small retailers like Simon, who runs the butchery department at the acclaimed Blagdon Farm Shop, near Seaton Burn, and Chris, of R Green and Son of Longframlington, whose family launched the award-winning business 126 years ago, have faced tough trading times.
But both men are finding plenty to be happy about at the moment.
For a start the professional rivals’ businesses are among top foodie names in the running for regional honours in this year’s Countryside Alliance Awards.
Both Blagdon and R Green and Son are competing for the top spot in the butchery category – a title Chris’s shop has won twice to go on to the national finals.
It’s the first time Blagdon has been nominated for this particular award, although the farm shop as a whole has been successful in the local food category.
As contenders are put forward by the public, it is especially pleasing. But that’s not the only reason the trading gloom has lifted for Simon and Chris.
They are among many UK independent food traders who, 12 months on, are still reaping the benefits of the horsemeat scandal.
The story made headlines last year for weeks as high street stores and suppliers were dragged into the ever-widening net. Sales of frozen burgers and ready meals plunged and consumer confidence was shaken.
Consumers began questioning where there food was coming from, who was handling it and what was being done to it.
Ironically, after decades of trying to fight off competition from the supermarkets in an increasingly bitter battle, it was the independent butchers who found themselves filling the consumer void.
Both the butchery department at Blagdon and R Green and Son benefited with a phenomenal rise in year-on-year sales. Beef sales leapt 72% at Blagdon with lamb rising 12%. Overall sales at Green’s went up 40%.
Both Simon and Chris knew it would be a challenge to sustain this but, fortunately for them, this is one bad news story that refuses to go away.
Simon and Chris aren’t feeling sorry for the multiples, though. December proved a gift of a month for both men as consumers shopped local for their Christmas food, while year-on-year sales have remained buoyant.
Trade in the butchery department at Blagdon is around 30% up on this time last year, with December seeing an 18% increase in sales over the same month in 2012.
A few miles north at Longframlington Chris says after the initial spike in sales on the back of horsemeat, “we’re still 20% up on this time last year with December 2013 20% up on December 2012.
“It’s good. All right, we haven’t maintained the 40% rise we saw at the height of the horsemeat scandal last spring, but we have managed to sustain sales, and it’s not just us. I know from talking to other independent butchers in the area that it’s a similar story.
“In the run-up to Christmas we were taking orders from people in Rothbury, Alnwick, Morpeth and as far away as Berwick.
“People know we source our meat locally and they recognise we have high standards. Customers are asking about provenance now and I think there is a general trend towards people wanting to shop locally. I would like to think that people will continue to do that.
“Pubs and restaurants too are noticing that diners want to know where their meat is coming from.”
It’s the cheaper meat products like mince, burgers, sausages and stewing steak that have seen the biggest sales increases.
Over at Blagdon, which opened 11 years ago, Simon is hoping to employ another two people on the back of the business boost.
New customers attracted by the farm shop’s reputation have remained loyal. Simon has noticed many more shopping there in the 35 to 45 age bracket too.
“I think that bond of trust between the supermarkets and the customer has been broken and I am not sure if it will ever be repaired.
“It has annoyed me the way the blame for horsemeat has been shifted. I am responsible for what I sell. If the horsemeat scandal had happened here at Blagdon then we would have gone out of business.
“As it is, we have seen sales jump and, as a consequence of that, there has been a positive knock-on for the rest of the shop too.
“It’s not just the high quality of what we are selling, there’s the provenance issue too. Traceability has always been important to independent butchers and when we set the shop up we made a conscious decision to buy locally first, regionally second and only go national if we really had to.”
The Blagdon butchery supplies the Sir John Fitzgerald group which runs 21 real ale and good food outlets – including Newcastle’s Café Royal – across the North East. Simon has seen sales to the family-run leisure business increase in the past 12 months and says: “That is on the back of horsemeat.”
As independents, Chris and Simon know they offer more than the supermarkets. “We have direct contact with the farmers,” Chris says. “We know where our meat has come from and what it is.”
For a generation of shoppers used to the ‘grab and go’ supermarket approach, stepping over the threshold of a butcher’s shop for the first time can be a daunting experience. Many are also understandably worried about price.
But Simon says: “I think most have been pleasantly surprised. The quality is better and when you look at what you are getting, which includes full traceability, our prices are competitive. People are voting with their feet.”
But while Simon and Chris have sustained sales, will horsemeat provide a lasting bonus?
Chris gives a deep sigh. “Permanently? I would like to say yes, but when you are a small independent retailer there are always factors going against you. But I think as long as we continue to look at what the customer wants, move with the times and remain competitive on price, then there has to be hope.
“I believe that here in Longframlington the locals do appreciate the facilities we have, and not just Green’s but the pub and general store.
“They recognise what we put into the community, and that I believe is reflected in the Countryside Alliance award we’ve been nominated for.”
Simon and Chris hope that as more people become used to visiting their local butcher the supermarket habit will be broken.
In the meantime, they’re happy the horsemeat story is refusing to lie low. And when it does pass into history? “There is bound to be another scare,” says Simon. “Something else will happen.”
Blagdon Farm Shop, Unit 16-18, Milkhope Centre, Berwick Hill Road, Seaton Burn, NE13 6DA, www.theblagdonfarmshop.co.uk; R Green and Sons, Front Street, Longframlington, Northumberland, NE65 8DR, www.greenbutcher.co.uk