11 December 1998

LONDON SHOP MAY PROVE CAPITAL IDEA

The food group A Taste of the South East has pulled off

quite a coup by opening a farm shop in London. Tessa Gates

went to Syon Park to find out what it had to offer

LONDONERS now have a genuine farm shop to visit for quality produce, thanks to 15 speciality food producers from the 90-member regional food group A Taste of the South East. They have raised £130,000 share capital between them to get the project underway in a 15th century barn at Syon Park, Brentford, an oasis of parkland just a few miles from the heart of the city.

A London outlet for farm foods has been in the minds of some of the groups producers ever since they saw the public response to their products at the Festival of Food and Farming in Hyde Park in 1992. Finding the right premises, however, was another matter.

"We got to hear that the Monastery Barn at Syon Park was available and through contacts with the Duke of Northumberlands estate, it became clear he would like a farm shop here," says ATOSE director and poultry farmer Peter Barton, whose family business Grassington Rangers has seven free range and organic poultry farms in East Sussex.

"We raised the share capital and went to the Duke and put our proposal to him and had to start in two months. The company only formed in August and we opened on Oct 19."

&#42 Something different

Consultants have been retained to find British speciality foods that cannot be supplied by ATOSE members and the shop will eventually carry around 2000 lines, most of them unavailable in super-markets. "We are trying to offer something different," says Peter. Customers are also likely to find a farmer on site ready to give information about how the foods were produced. They might well find one behind the till too, as staffing the shop, which is open seven days a week, has been a real problem.

"There are 2000 officially unemployed people within a few miles radius of here yet we cant get staff – and it is nothing to do with the wages offered. We have got the local paper on to it and the article has brought some response and we are arranging interviews now," says Peter, who has been at the shop every other day since it opened.

What staff they have got have mostly been recruited from customers, like Hazel, a real food enthusiast who, when she serves on the cheese counter, encourages customers to try before they buy. "I came in to buy and stayed," she says.

The shops general manager is Vic May, who travels to London daily from Sussex. He has been working a seven day week since he started. He had his own business until Sept and is an experienced butcher. "All the meat and game is going very well and there is a good demand for free range chickens," says Vic, who can tell customers exactly which farm the meat comes from and how it was reared.

Part of the philosphy behind the shop is trying to establish the link between farm producers and customers. In Peter Bartonsª case, this means adding a little information card to each carton of eggs he supplies detailing where and how the flock is managed and when the eggs were laid and packed.

&#42 Portents are good

It is early days yet to estimate the success of the shop but the portents are good.

There has been no specific advertising done and customers are finding the shop by chance, located as it is behind the garden centre at Syon. "People still dont know we are here so when they find us they impulse buy," says Peter, who has seen people spend £100-£150 at a time.

The shop is not in the groups Fine Food and Drink Trail guide yet, but the booklets are on the counters and will no doubt encourage Londoners to visit some of the farms which supply the produce that is delivered daily to "the smoke".