FOR years the supermarkets have been chipping away at Britain’s once thriving high streets.
Communities that boasted a healthy mix of independent, family-owned butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers, bakers, delicatessens and general food stores have withered and died as the supermarkets with their gleaming glass and steel out of-town stores, massive car parks and pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap attitude, have moved in and quashed the opposition.Related content
Now even modest towns that might have boasted half a dozen butchers and bakers apiece, are full of boarded up and decaying buildings and charity shops. Small retailers have seen their livelihoods wiped out by the multiples.
Across the UK there are now less than 7,000 butchers and an estimated 200 are closing every week. A decade ago there were more than 9,000.
There are fewer than 1,000 fishmongers, 4,000 greengrocers and 3,000 bakeries. The supermarkets now account for a staggering 97% of all food sold. But that could be about to change thanks to that most noble of animals, the horse.
The ongoing horse meat fiasco has understandably shaken UK consumers’ confidence in their food: where it comes from, who is handling it and, perhaps most importantly of all, what is being done to it before it reaches shop shelves.
And that is proving to be very good news indeed for Britain’s stand-alone food stores. Ironically, after decades of fighting off the supermarkets and their relentless push into every corner of our consciousness, it is those same food giants who have come under fire for not knowing what was going into their burgers, pies and ready meals, which are handing business back on a plate to traditional family butchers.
The Q Guild of Butchers – which represents the UK’s highest quality independent meat retailers – says its members have seen a 20% increase in trade since the horsemeat scandal broke, with sales of freshly prepared products like beef burgers and meatballs up 30%.
This is borne out in the North East. Blagdon Farm Shop near Newcastle, for example, has seen a 20% rise in sales over this time last year.
The outlet just off the A1 which sells everything from bread and homemade pies and ready meals to cakes and vegetables and boasts its own butchery department, has witnessed a phenomenal 72% increase in beef sales and a 12% rise in lamb.
Meanwhile R Green and Son of Longframlington – which recently won the butcher’s category for the North East in the prestigious Countryside Alliance Awards 2012 – has seen sales year-on-year leap by around 40%.
Owner Chris Green – whose family started the Northumberland-based business in 1888 – says many new faces have been coming into the shop which stands in the heart of the village adjacent to the main A697.
“Times have been hard for butchers – that is no secret. But since January our business has picked up significantly and we have seen a lot of new customers coming in.
“They are concerned about what is happening with the supermarkets and big food manufacturers and have been encouraged to come back to an independent like us because they know we source all our meat locally and have full traceability. It gives them peace of mind.
“If we label a cut as beef then you can guarantee it won’t just be 100% British beef but 100% Northumbrian beef born and bred within a matter of miles of this shop.”
Beef mince, stewing steak, homemade burgers, pork chops and sausages have been among the biggest sellers.
Chris hopes the renewed interest will turn into a long-term revival of his industry’s fortunes. But that will rely on the likes of R Green and Son, Blagdon Farm Shop and the scores of other top quality, independent meat businesses scattered across the region, capitalising on the unexpected boost.
Simon Osborne, butchery manager at Blagdon Farm Shop – also a 2012 Countryside Alliance Award winner in the local food category – admits: “It will be a challenge. This isn’t the first food scare that has pushed people our way.
“A similar sort of thing happened when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted the plight of chickens, and then it pulled back.”
But he says this time does feel different.
“We have had people who have said they definitely won’t be going back to the supermarkets. People have been asking what is in our burgers and making a joke of it, except no one thinks it’s funny.”
Shop manager Jo Celerier adds: “We had a chap in the other day who said he had bought a packet of supermarket beef mince, had looked at the label and seen in the small print that it contained both fresh and frozen meat. He asked how that could be, and then noticed it was actually Irish.
“It knocks consumer confidence. But we produce some of the best meat in the world up here and we hope our meat will taste so good that people will want to keep coming back. A lot of supermarket meat is so bland. We say we sell meat the way it used to taste.”
One hurdle is that many consumers have become so divorced from the food chain because of the way the supermarkets now serve up groceries ready prepared, packaged and even cooked, that they don’t know how to choose without the aid of a label.
They are ignorant of what to ask for when they go into a butcher’s or fishmonger’s and are often too embarrassed to admit their shortcomings and ask for help.
An added problem is that because of the uniform standard of meat being offered up by the supermarkets, many shoppers are also unfamiliar with what constitutes a top quality cut when they venture into an independent butcher’s ... or indeed, whether that retailer is actually worth their patronage.
Let’s face it, they’re not all cast from the same cheery mould as the loveable Lance-Corporal Jack Jones who ran Walmington-on-Sea’s butcher’s shop in the hit BBC wartime comedy Dad’s Army – a fact acknowledged by both Chris Green and Simon Osborne.
Many consumers will have stories to tell about nightmare dealings with smug, sanctimonious and often downright rude shop assistants (and we’re not talking about those employed by the major players) or being trapped into buying something they didn’t want because they were played for a fool.
Luckily, such characters’ are few and far between now, says Chris.
“Unfortunately, while we are a diminishing number that does mean that each independent out there has a good reputation. It tends to be the bad ones that go first either because of poor meat quality or bad service.
“I’m not aware of any bad butchers in the North East, and I can say that as I know most of them. We are all passionate about what we do, pride ourselves on good customer service, and take satisfaction in knowing the provenance of what we sell and the route taken from farm to fork.”
But for those who are nervous about stepping over the threshold of a traditional butcher’s shop for the first time, Chris and Simon have some timely advice on how to ensure they – and you – cut the mustard.
Word of mouth. “That is as effective as anything,” Simon maintains. “A good butcher will have a good reputation.”
First impressions. Chris says: “A good butcher will take pride in his shop. No shop looks good if it has peeling paint and looks scruffy.”
Scores on the doors. “A good butcher should be advertising any awards they have, trade membership and hygiene certificates.”
Simon says. “The place should look clean and smell good. Fresh meat has a smell, but it certainly shouldn’t be rank.”
Window display. The meat should look fresh and be attractively displayed. “Mince is a good indicator,” Chris says. “It is one of the few products that is put through a mechanical process. Fresh mince will always be red. If it is going dry or brown-looking then you know it’s old. Mince always sells fast and anyone who has it hanging around that long isn’t doing good business.”
Going the extra mile. Home cured bacon, a variety of sausages and homemade pies show the butcher is thinking of its customers.
It’s not just sell, sell, sell. A good butcher should be welcoming, passionate about their business, keen to offer advice and chat – and not just about meat. Chris says: “It’s not just about selling. We regard ourselves as being part of the community and feel privileged that people want to chat to us about what’s going on. We recognise that for many people, especially the elderly, coming to visit us may be one of the few times they get out.”
Simon adds: “I went to a Q Guild seminar a couple of years ago and they had asked a customer at a Leeds butcher to write down the things that worried her about going into a butcher’s shop and she said it was the ‘fear of the white coat,’ that the person behind the counter knew more than her and was going to make her feel inadequate. That’s not how it should be.”
Jack of all trades. A good butcher should be able to offer cooking advice, be aware of a customer’s budget, introduce you to new cuts, and treat every shopper the same no matter how big or small their spend.
Mince always sells fast and anyone who has it hanging around that long isn’t doing good business
Where their meat comes from: Butchers such as Chris and Simon know the provenance of all the meat in their shops and are proud to impart this knowledge to customers.
About the different cuts of meat: There is no shame in asking. The butcher is the expert and should be happy to discuss what all the cuts are and where they come from on the animal.
How the meat should be cooked: “If a customer cooks the meat in the wrong way and it turns out awful then that could affect our reputation, so we are always happy to offer cooking suggestions and recipes,” Chris says.
How to make the best of your purchase: Meat isn’t cheap and it behoves us all to make the most of what we buy. Unfortunately, many don’t.
But a whole chicken, for instance, can make a roast meal, be turned into a risotto or warm salad and the carcass cooked down to make stock or a soup.
Your butcher will be able to offer lots more advice if you ask.
What’s on offer: Don’t be afraid to say if you’re on a budget. The butcher may have a specific cut on special or be able to come up with a solution.
If they can point you in the right direction: Many customers are unsure of what they want and need some ideas.
A good butcher will be only too pleased to help you through what can seem a mind-boggling array of choices to ensure you spend your money on the right thing.