Andrew, Oliver and Robert Paul
Suffolk Food Hall, Ipswich, Suffolk
Red Poll cattle are once again grazing on the Paul family’s fields in Suffolk.
The presence of this traditional breed highlights how Andrew, Oliver and Robert Paul are combining a sense of tradition (they’re fifth generation farmers) with modern thinking to create an impressive big business.
The Suffolk Food Hall, run in conjunction with two farms totalling just over 4,000 acres, is a high-profile diversification, with this entrepreneurial trio at its heart.
Since it opened in May 2007, its offering has consistently grown, pushing sales over the £2m-mark and taking the number of people working on-site to more than 50.
It now includes a butcher’s shop, greengrocer, artisan baker, fish counter, deli, wine and beer merchant, restaurant and garden centre.
The original vision was for it to be a collaboration of businesses to spread the risk but, as it’s grown, the family now operate more areas within the hall themselves.
“As farmers, we were frustrated that it was becoming more difficult to distribute our products to the local marketplace – and only too aware what great talent Suffolk was nurturing in the food and drink industry,” says Oliver. They had a farmyard just off a main road to Ipswich, close to the A14 and A12, which “screamed out” as the best venue. And so the plan evolved.
They visited parallel offerings, rural and urban, across the country and overseas and sought advice and criticism from “compatriots” within the farm shop world.
No strangers to diversification, they brought the lessons from previous ventures – such as barn conversions to offices – to bear.
Aware they had to have an edge on the multiples, they went firmly down the “quality” route in terms of product offering. “If you do something well, there is always a demand for it,” says Robert. “When times get tough, there’s a flight for quality.”
They describe their customers as people of all backgrounds who like good food. It isn’t, they say, an elitist concept. “It’s like if you’re into classic cars, whatever your socio-economic group, you enjoy them. If may be a classic Capri or a classic Bugatti, but you value quality and have that in common,” says Robert.
They discounted the idea of starting small and slowly expanding. “That wouldn’t have been convenient for customers. We didn’t want to have to start building again after two years.”
Never were their talents more needed than in early 2010 when a fire broke out, destroying part of the building – and calling for some exemplary crisis management.
They’d been away in Shropshire when they got the call. It was early in the morning.
They were still on a high from winning the Best On-Farm Butchery in Britain by the national farm shop association, FARMA.
“We were stuck in the car for five hours getting back – all we could do was plan. We were in a confined space with a mobile plan so at least we could arrange things.”
The loss adjustor described the speed with which they re-opened as “almost miraculous”.
The Food Hall is entering another phase of its development and has secured a RDPE grant to develop another farm building on the site into ‘the cookhouse’ with eight bespoke production units and enabling the restaurant to be relocated.
“In any business, you’ve got to have tenacity and courage,” says Oliver. “The strength in our brand will grow by sticking to our principles. We’ve got a story to tell.”
And a key part of their story is the Red Poll, traditionally associated with this area – and low input therefore freeing up the Pauls’ time to concentrate on the food hall.
What would their great-grandfather think, the Ipswich merchant who had himself kept this breed?
“He would like what we’re doing. He had a real passion for breeding animals,” says Oliver.
He’d also approve of the way this busy and bustling centre of local and regional food excellence has brought new employment to the area.
“Not so much diversification; more, reversification,” says Oliver.
* Wherstead, Ipswich
* Opened May 2007
* Brings together food and drink specialists under one roof
The judges liked
* Unique blend of traditional and modern
* Ambition and drive
* Constant desire to improve
2011 Farmers Weekly Awards