14 March 1996

Small is beautiful and a winner for poultry…

The customer is king for Bucks-based poultry outfit, M D How and Son. But a strong market-led approach was just one of the reasons why the firm took runners-up prize for smaller businesses in the Marks & Spencer/farmers weekly Added Value Award. Tim Relf reports

HENRY Slator likes poultry.

So much so, in fact, that he eats it at every available opportunity. His favourite is diced chicken – a surprisingly simple dish, really, for a man whose business produces 45 turkey products and more than a dozen chicken-based offerings.

Despite this large range, the Chesham-based firm, with a turnover of about £250,000, is small by todays standards.

The farm rears under 6000 turkeys and 3500 chickens, all of which are slaughtered and processed on the site.

"It would take us three-and-a-half years to process what Bernard Matthews does in one day," Henry says.

In an industry dominated by big producers, its unusual to hear someone extolling the philosophy that small is beautiful.

"We have never wanted to compete with the mass produced market. They view turkey merely as a weight in a bag; we see it as something else."

On this farm, small oven-readies are not large breeds killed at a young age. Different breeds are used for different requirements – six in all, which produce oven-ready birds from 8lbs to 31lb.

Raised in wire-fronted pole barns, the poultry is fed cereals grown on the familys surrounding arable farm. No antibiotics or growth promoters are used. Drinking water is pumped from their own bore holes. The arable land provides straw for bedding; and the manure ends up back on the land.

And, unlike most poultry, the birds are hung, enhancing flavour and texture.

Central to the added value ethos is the farm shop, Chessovale. Coming here, says Henry, is a "specialist" trip – and this is reflected in the average spend of £20 a visit.

Admittedly, theres no shortage of potential customers: Henrys research revealed there to be about 70,000 households within a seven-mile radius of the farm.

Its by no means just locals that are familiar with this poultry, however. People around the country have enjoyed Chessovale food. Among its more famous customers is prime minister, John Major.

"The key to a successful retail venture is getting repeat customers. For this, service is vital.

"If someone forgets their cheque book, we dont turn them away, we let them have the goods on account." (And to date, everyone has paid, Henry adds quickly.)

Marketing is important, too. The latest initiative is radio advertising, to complement the newsletter which goes out quarterly to 1700 customers. "Its time consuming, but well worth the effort, with sales typically turning up 15% in the period after the mailshots hit the doormats."

It contains information, recipes and new products. Not that theres ever any shortage of range on offer: A quick glance through the freezer cabinets shows products ranging in price from between about £1/kg to nearly £9/kg. The latest product introduced to the shop is chicken olives: Thighs which have been boned and then wrapped around an apple and pistachio stuffing. "Wonderful," declares Henry.

In the shop, however, youll see nothing but poultry or poultry products. Walk around and you wont see any wicker baskets, horse brasses or "Ive been to the countryside" stickers.

Situated in the green belt and an area of outstanding natural beauty, planning restrictions preclude virtually anything that hasnt been produced on the farm from being sold there.

You cant talk to a poultry farmer for long, however, without him mentioning the knock-on effect of the BSE crisis. "It was like 10 years of mailshots and advertising rolled into one," according to Henry.

In the Saturday morning after the scare hit the headlines, over £750 was taken in the shop, more than twice the usual amount. And sales throughout 1996 were up 40% on the previous year.

Turnover through the shop recently overtook sales to the trade. The vast majority passing through the shop is processed – and that means added-value.

"We could now survive comfortably if our remaining butchers cancelled all their Christmas orders with us." How many turkey farmers can say that?

&#8226 M D How and Son donated their £250 prize to FARM-Africa.n

Dicing, cutting, adding value…

Henry Slator knows the value of a bird in the hand.