Artisanal food champions in Gloucester

A food supply chain providing locally produced British food to the Westmorland Family’s latest motorway service area in Gloucestershire was the inspirational focus of a recent Farmers Club tour. Charles Abel reports

A great selection of photos from this Event can be viewed and downloaded from the Farmers Club Photo Gallery within the Library section of the website at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/farmersclublondon/albums/72157683507926213

 

 

CONNECTING local farmers, food producers and a major retail outlet with its own roots set deep in the farming industry has huge appeal. So the chance to see how the Dunning family’s tremendously successful model from Cumbria is faring in Gloucestershire was an opportunity not to be missed.

 

The visit stretched pre-conceived ideas about food production, supply chain profitability and rural enterprise, with all three businesses fully committed to local food with a story to tell, to seize growing market share from shoppers prepared to pay a price premium for quality, authentic food.

 

Centred on the lovely Hatherley Manor Hotel, just outside Gloucester, the tour included visits to Godsells Cheese run by Liz Godsell and Brian Clements at Leonard Stanley in the foothills of the Cotswolds and Cinderhill Farm Pie House run by Deborah and Neil Flint in the Wye Valley, both supplying the Dunning family’s thriving Gloucester Services area on the M5 motorway.

 

The Dunning family have been Cumbrian hill farmers since time immemorial, so when John Dunning took on a 60 acre dairy farm in 1955 few could have foreseen the phenomenal success of the farm-fresh motorway services concept the family now manages as the Westmorland Family business.

 

Recognising that upland farming would become ever more disadvantaged John and wife Barbara set about diversifying, initially converting redundant farmsteads into holiday lets. He admits to having being shocked by visits to the EU Mountainous Areas group, which saw great potential for rural businesses to develop upland tourism and recreation, while the UK thwarted upland development.

 

The ‘game-changing’ arrival of the M6 motorway in Cumbria was grabbed with both hands and Tebay Services was created in 1972. Breaking into such a closed industry was tough, but their distinctive model worked and is a rural Cumbrian powerhouse employing 600 staff today. 

 

Gloucester Services

 

In 2005 daughter Sarah returned to the business after time in London with Rothschilds corporate finance and the business’s transition to the second generation started. Tebay was working well, so testing the model elsewhere at another location had appeal. Seven years of hard work later, after competitors forced a judicial review and appeal, the £45m north- and south-bound services were opened by HRH Prince of Wales.

 

A key challenge was keeping the family values and culture of the Cumbrian business, whilst reinventing the model for Gloucester. Three themes ensured that happened.

 

First, planning required building and landscaping in a sensitive area, hence the grassed roof and ‘contemporary vernacular’ design. Inside the atmosphere is more ski chalet than motorway services, a building of beauty for 4 million visitors a year, bringing an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects, raising several eyebrows at the time.

 

Second, the goal is to be a quality food business that happens to be on a motorway, not a motorway business that offers food. “We are a food business before being a motorway business, so our focus is the food, whereas for competitors it is property and finance,” says Sarah.

 

“All the food served in the café is made by us – the cakes, soups, lasagne and sandwiches it is all simple, freshly prepared, well-sourced food, while our farm shop works with fabulous small producers, ideally locally.

 

“Gloucestershire is more populated than Cumbria, supporting a greater number of food producers – so here we’re able to source from 130 small craft food producers within 30 miles and another 70 across the south-west.

 

“Matching those businesses with a scale business is the intersection we need to get right, matching often small, unique businesses, which are doing something really interesting, with our demanding customers, 24/7 and 365 days a year. 

 

It’s a very symbiotic relationship. “Uniquely we work with them on marketing, delivery, pricing and support, and a lot of product development. Deborah and Liz are good examples of people that help us develop our business, as much as we have a positive impact on their businesses. We can’t do without them, and they can’t do without us.”

 

The third factor linking the new business to Tebay was a strong sense of social purpose. Gloucester has some of the UK’s most socially deprived estates, into which social regeneration expert Mark Gale invests £0.5m of Gloucester Services funds. The business also employs 400 staff in an area of up to 65% unemployment. It all makes for a very positive social footprint.

 

And what of the future? “It’s very difficult to win new sites, because the competition is very aggressive,” admits Sarah. “But I am sure we will do something else, some time. It has to be the right thing, and not growth for growth’s sake, for risk of losing the family business’s unique selling point.”

 

Godsells Cheeses

 

At Gloucester Services supplier Godsells Cheeses we enjoyed tasting some of 12 fine cheeses they now produce, including a traditional Double Gloucester, a cloth-bound Single Gloucester protected by PDO (protected designation of origin) status – a little piece of Gloucestershire to take home – and Three Virgins, a  creamy, sharp, crumbly Cheshire-type white cheese. 

 

The Godsells have farmed here for over 200 years, but a disastrous 16p/litre milk price in 2000 forced a rethink. “We went on a cheese-making course at Bridgwater College and fortunately what we made was edible,” recalls Liz Godsell. The 200-cow herd was replaced to yield more butter fat and protein from grass and 15% of all that is produced now goes into their cheeses, 10 litres being required for each 1kg of cheese.

 

Good marketing has been vital. “The provenance model means thinking about generating new business, with new cheeses and new stories, rather than expecting a supermarket to do all the selling. I have a bit of empathy with Dairy Crest now, it’s hard work selling.”

 

TB is a big problem, already removing 24 cows from the herd in 2017. But new cheese-making facilities are planned. “Gloucester Services has been fantastic for us.” 

 

After a look round the cheese rooms, where a batch of mozzarella was just entering the system, it was down the M5 to the old Severn Bridge and up the Wye Valley, past stunning scenery around Tintern Abbey, only marginally impaired by inclement weather.

 

Cinderhill Farm Pie House

 

Arriving at our second Gloucester Services supplier, Cinderhill Farm Pie House, challenged our coach driver somewhat, the small farm being well named, positioned on a steep slope below the old village of St Briavels, from where cinders were tipped during arrowhead-making for King John’s army.

 

Here we learned about foggies, the Forest of Dean equivalent of Cornish oggies (pasties), meaty Gloucester Old Spot sausage rolls, and their stronger-flavoured Ridge-Back Wild Boar cousins. All are made in the on-site pie house by husband and wife team Deborah and Neil Flint, and an enthusiastic team of eight regular staff and up to 13 in summer.

 

With a background in global fundraising for a major Christian charity, responsible for income of over £120m/year, Deborah is a lady with a huge drive to champion community-based food production. “I’ve sat with the richest US senators, and the poorest of the poor in slums in Brazil and the Phillippines, and the poorest were truly inspirational, with their ability to keep entire families on a very small piece of land. We’re doing that now, and we’re keeping quite a few local people in employment too. That is very different from the average British farm making a £5,000/year loss after subsidy. We get no subsidy.”

 

But why such huge sausage rolls? “When we started we had lots of sausage meat, but bought the pastry, so the product reflected that. People liked it that way, so it stayed

 

Today the 155 Gloucester Old Spot pigs are reared on a farm near Chippenham and the wild boar shot locally in the Forest of Dean. The 8 acres surrounding the Cinderhill pie house, which recently had a £150,000 up-grade, serves as an educational facility for schoolchildren. 

 

Around 6,000 items are produced each week, with the vast majority going to Gloucester Services. “We get enquiries every day from people wanting to sell our products, and we could produce a lot more, especially if we moved into a factory unit. But that isn’t our goal. A big part of what we have is the story. People come to see us on the farm, to meet the family. If we worked from a factory in Cinderford people wouldn’t be interested. The story is what it is all about.”

 

Rather than driving the business through capital investment the aim is to harness the skills, knowledge and creativity of a community, instilling the belief that it can succeed, just as communities do all around the world.

 

“We want to hold to our ethos of being hands-on, producing food in the community and employing locally,” says Deborah. “Gloucester Services is an embodiment of that and we’re seeking more businesses like that to work with.” Franchising the approach is on the cards too.

 

This fascinating tour gave Farmers Club members much to reflect on, giving an alternative view of the scope for local food to take a greater – and more importantly more profitable – share of the UK food market. 

 

Brexit food chain boost

 

Brexit is an opportunity to provide something extraordinary, something the UK hasn’t seen for a long time, says John Dunning, who believes the time is right for smaller food producers to take a greater share of the market.

 

“The UK is full of smaller, artisan food producers, so why are we dominated by the corporate sector,” he asks. “We could produce food that the nation would fall for, just as they do here. Artisan food producers could provide these wonderful things and create another revolution in agriculture.”

 

Supermarkets recognise the UK can and should produce more food itself, he notes. “We won’t capture it all, because the corporates are very powerful, but artisan food compares so well, we could take the country by storm.”

 

www.gloucesterservices.com

www.godsellscheese.com

www.cinderhillfarm.com

 

 

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