From grab and go grub to hearty local food – the story of how one Cumbrian hill farming family has transformed the image of service stations and put local food at the core. Sarah Alderton reports.

It’s not often you take pleasure visiting a motorway services. Normally it is just a case of parking up, using the facilities, grabbing some food from one of the big-name franchises and hitting the road.

But in a couple of pockets of the UK, the motorway service experience has been revolutionised to have locally produced, and well-sourced artisan food at their heart.

So why are the service stations at Tebay, Cumbria, and more recently Gloucester so different? The reason- because they are privately owned by a hill-farming family.

Ever since John Dunning and his wife Barbara won the bid to build a service station on the north bound carriageway of the M6, in 1972, local food has been core to what they were doing.

At the time, they were dairy farmers and sold some of their milk in the service station shop. There was also a small 30-seat café serving home-cooked, locally sourced food made out of a kitchen no bigger than that found in a typical farmhouse.

Forty years on, they are now feeding millions of hungry motorists a year, but their approach to food has not changed. They still make as much of the food as possible every day, albeit in slightly larger kitchen than your average farm house and have farm shops serving some of the best produce from the local Lake District hills.

Even the look and feel of the service station is unique and is a far cry from the concrete jungle that awaits you at most services. Fitting in with its local surroundings, the Westmorland services at Tebay are built using local stone from the Lake District and boast incredible views of the surrounding Lakeland countryside.

Fertile Minds

Fertile MindsSarah and her dad John, will be sharing their story of farming, diversification, brand building and working together as a family to run a business at this year’s Fertile Minds Conference, taking place on 27 November at Rheged Centre, Penrith. If you are a young farmer and are looking for some business inspiration, then this conference is for you. Go to our Fertile Minds page to find out more and register for the event. Registration closes on 10 October and space is limited to 150, so sign up now.

And it’s this uniqueness that has allowed the business at Tebay to grow organically, with most people planning a stop at the service station as part of their journey. Demand is so high they even offer a click and collect service for people wishing to order food to take back home or for their holiday.

Four decades on and produce from the Dunning’s own family farm is still gracing the shelves at Tebay. Nearly all of the beef and lamb served in the restaurant, and in the two farm shops, comes direct from their family farm. They have a hanging and cutting room at the southbound service station and kill about three of their Galloway cattle and 15 of their Texel sheep a week.

Sarah Dunning, the daughter of John and Barbara, is now chief executive of the business and says what her parents created by using local food was just ‘instinctive to them”.

“Mum and dad are very rooted to the area and they created something of the region. So we have never left those roots. They always knew that they would have to diversify their hill farm to survive, but they didn’t follow the industry, instead they built a business that was of the place it was in.”

Sarah and John Dunning

So the food offering starts with who the growing community are – sourcing food locally and working outwards. At Tebay they have 70 local producers supplying them within a 30 mile radius.

“We have a buyer who really understands what we are looking for. We want quality food in the best of its class, which is artisan led,” explains Sarah. “We also want it to be interesting, so not just following the market. So we have some recognisable names, but also producers that people have never heard of.”

“Mum and dad are very rooted to the area and they created something of the region. So we have never left those roots. They always knew that they would have to diversify their hill farm to survive, but they didn’t follow the industry, instead they built a business that was of the place it was in.”
Sarah Dunning

And of the 130 local producers supplying the new Gloucester service station on the M5, which opened earlier this year, there are certainly some interesting suppliers. A local sushi maker in Cheltenham graces the shelves alongside well-known cheese maker Charles Martell, producer of one of the smelliest cheeses the Stinking Bishop.

Sarah says the increased knowledge of where food comes from means there is a demand for this quality food offering. “Expectations are higher now and people are more interested in food, so you have to make yourself stand out. We believe in supplying proper food, even though we are catering for the masses.”

Sarah plans to keep local, artisan food at the heart of their service stations. Next year they will have a service station opening on the southbound carriage way of the M5 in Gloucester, part of a £40m investment.