22 October 1999

MEAT CENTRE AT HEART OF COMMUNITY

George Bolam buys local, sells wholesale

and retail and provides his customers

with a bargain lunch as well.

Robin Cradock tells his meaty story

A FACTORY unit on the edge of an industrial estate in Sedgefield, County Durham, may seem an unlikely setting for a thriving butchery business.

But the business, G Bolam Foods, is even more unlikely than its setting with most customers using supermarket trolleys to carry their purchases, a mixture of self service and personal service.

George Bolam moved to the present site 10 years ago from a small, terraced street shop in Ferryhill Station, there he had just five staff, so moving to a 14,000sq ft unit and increasing to 20 staff was by his own admission "a bit of a gamble."

But it has been a gamble that has paid off. Today the factory covers 35,000 sq ft, with a lairage, abattoir, cutting and boning plants, shop and restaurant all under one roof. All this has created 60 full and part-time jobs.

"We like to think we are unique in what we do here, every animal is sourced locally, we have our own state of the art abattoir, and the cutting rooms and chill rooms are on view to our customers.

"That is what our customers like, we buy locally, and are completely open in all our activities."

Today in a typical week Mr Bolam will sell 69 cattle, 172 sheep and 161 pigs – he produces all his own sausages and burgers – a staggering three or four tonnes a week.

Stock is bought through the local auctions, using his buyer Robert Oxley. Mr Oxley will be at Ponteland on a Monday, Stokesley or Northallerton on a Tuesday, Bishop Auckland on a Wednesday, and Darlington on a Thursday. The furthest he travels from Sedgefield is to Thirsk which is visited mainly for pigs as there are not sufficient at the more northern marts. Only heifers are purchased for beef.

After purchase, stock are moved to a holding farm to be rested before being moved to the lairage at Sedgefield. Slaught-ering takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the carcasses are then subject to a slow chill for between 12 and 24 hours, and beef will be hung for a minimum of 14 days before it is sold. Bacon is also cured on site.

As Mr Bolam explains "by doing everything ourselves we control our own destiny. We have 10 boning-out stations, do our own cutting, make our own sausages, burgers, pies and bread."

Mr Bolam takes his "doing everything" a stage further each lunchtime when he personally carves the roasts in the Full Monty restaurant, this has 98 covers and is full between 11:30am and 1:30pm as customers enjoy a roast, two Yorkshire puddings, three vegetables and a home made sweet for £2.95. As an alternative mince and dumplings is available at £2.50.

Mr Bolams background could hardly be further away from the thriving business he runs today. He is the son of a miner, another George, and at 16 started to train as a motor mechanic, but when that did not work out he went to Crook as an apprentice butcher. He then joined the Co-operative Wholesale Society in Bishop Auckland as a van driver and journeyman butcher before joining Ralph Clark and his brother at Ferryhill Station, taking over the business when they retired in 1969, staying there until the move to Sedgefield.

Everything was going well until fire destroyed the premises in 1996 causing a complete closure for a month, and operating out of temporary premises in Shildon for two years. A mark of his quality, and the loyalty of his customers is shown by the fact that despite being out of business for a month, once he opened up in those temporary premises he had 95% of his wholesale trade back.

"When you are out of business as a wholesaler your customers have to go somewhere else to keep their businesses trading so for them to come straight back to us was quite remarkable."

Then after two years closure to get re-building complete the retail customers have been beating a path to his door.

Re-building has undoubtedly led to modernisation and improvements on already rigorous hygiene routines, for example there is a ring main carrying steam around the unit, cleaning down with a steam lance makes the process easy and therefore it will be done and done thoroughly.

&#42 Assurance

Quality assurance is followed from the purchase of only Assured stock, specifically FABBL for beef and lamb, and the firm has its own hygiene and safety procedures, all policies drawn up by George and his staff. As he says "Its no good just buying a manual or set of guidelines, and hoping people will read them, by drawing up our own standards we have ownership, we know people will follow them and that is vital."

Visiting George Bolam is an experience, he, his sons Andrew, 27 and David 25, and manager Paul Cockburn, seem to know every customer and walking around is a constant round of greetings.

Bolams may be on the edge of the village, but it is at the heart of the community, and here in the North East – certainly in the farming community – gives Sedgefield more status than its other current claim to fame, that it happens to be the Prime Ministers constituency!