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British Food

It’s all change on the supermarket front. For years, their territories have been neatly carved out: Asda and Morrisons reigned supreme in the north, with Booths holding court in the north west, while Safeway, Tesco and Waitrose have long dominated the south.


But in February, Sainsbury began to move away from its traditional south eastern patch with the acquisition of 54 Bells convenience stores in the north east and 13 former Safeway supermarkets in the north.   


Like cats guarding their territory, the main protagonists have watched warily, claws sharpened but withdrawn. Now, though, they have pounced.


Waitrose has already marched into battle. On 24 June (2004), it opened its new Sandbach store (outside Crewe), taking the brand into the north for the first time. In July, new outlets in both Harrogate and Southport opened their doors to the public. September 2004 will see Waitrose in Otley and Lincoln, followed by Sheffield and Willoughby in October.


Waitrose's incursion has come about since snapping up 18 stores from Safeway on 25 March (2004) - the rest were taken over by Morrisons and other multiples. Its plan is to roll out its store openings at a rate of one a week from now until the end of October, following a rapid two-week refit under the Waitrose banner. By the year-end, it will have 163 outlets, representing a substantial 20 per cent increase in sales area.


The disposal of Safeway stores came about following their purchase by the northern supermarket group, Morrisons. Under OFT competition regulations, Morrisons were forced to offload 52 Safeway stores.


These incursions have been observed with mounting trepidation by the family-owned firm of Booths, ironically dubbed the ‘Waitrose of the North.’ Established since 1847, with 25 stores serving Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, it is girding its loins against the invasion of its real namesake on its home territory. Booths’ outlets likely to be most immediately threatened are Ilkley and Knutsford.


Of course, the million-dollar question is whether Waitrose is likely to put Booths out of business by invading their patch, given that both supermarkets’ shoppers have a virtually identical profile. But of course, Booths has been around for the past 150 years, so it won’t be plain sailing. Additionally, it’s a moot point whether Waitrose can woo Booths’ customers by offering better value for money, given that a spokesman has confirmed its prices will remain the same nationally, despite the lower cost of living in the north west.


Keen to win the loyalty of the locals, Waitrose have launched a Locally Produced Initiative, whereby small producers wishing to supply a multiple retailer, but unable to support a whole store network, can now do so. Waitrose’s six new stores in the Booths territory are aiming to respond to customers’ desire for high quality local products by featuring distinctive foods with local provenance, traceability, integrity and, in many cases, tradition. Underpinning this initiative is their Small Producers Charter, which provides a network of support, guidance and a guaranteed market for the smaller producer, even if it is only able to supply one branch. .


There is another cogent reason for ensuring small producers’ survival. Their purchasers have traditionally been independent grocers, which have shrunk in Britain from 62,000 in 1977 to 23,960 in 2001. If this trend continues, small producers will dwindle with them.


Joanna Blythman, in her brilliant appraisal of the situation in Shopped: the Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, asserts that ‘the question of scale is paramount. Supermarkets must be able to co-exist with independent shops, and giant superstores that have a neutron-bomb effect on all retail life around them cannot do this.’


She goes on to quote Bill Grimsey, chief executive officer of the retail and wholesale Big Food Group: ‘Allowing the already dominant multiples to bring their strength back into the high street and local neighbourhoods, eventually works against the interests of shoppers, suppliers and livelihoods of the smaller independents…They will also, in the long-term, limit consumer choice and potentially lead to higher prices as competition eventually diminishes.’

Booths stores, however, are different from your average supermarket. Much smaller, they’re a cross between a grocer and corner shop - their cosy ambience owing much to the longevity of their employees, many of whom have been with the company for several decades.        


But this highly respected and much loved local brand - founder Edwin Henry Booth’s aim was to ‘sell the best goods available, in attractive stores, staffed with first class assistants’ - is refusing simply to lie down and expose its underbelly to the super-enemy.


Current chairman Edwin Booth, a fifth generation member of the family, sees Waitrose’s presence in the north west as more of a challenge than a threat. He aims to confront this by “ratcheting up the pace of acquisition” and expanding into new areas in north Yorkshire and the Scottish borders. 


On the shop floor, Booths plan to emphasise the differences between themselves and Waitrose. “Our customers perceive us as a large deli or self-service grocery store, so we’re differentiating ourselves by re-engineering the brand to express ‘the human touch,’ “ explains Booth. “We are dropping the word supermarket from the logo, modernising the type face and making it colourful.”


Waitrose has many more own-label products than their rival, which will be differently positioned. “We’re going to take Booths own-label products upmarket because that’s where our customers think we should be,” he adds. “The free-thinkers within our business are constantly innovating and introducing new ideas and as long as we do that, we’ll survive. We intend to be the best food and drink self-service store in the UK.”


Fresh produce manager & buyer Chris Treble shares this view: “Personally, I’m not worried about Waitrose’s presence,” he insists. “I’m more concerned about making Booths better than we are now.” That route, he asserts, will lie in offering quality products at the best possible price, choice, variety, exclusivity and a range of specialist foods, including ingredients that cannot easily be found elsewhere.


“We want people to feel they’re walking into a specialist greengrocer’s but with the convenience and comfort zone of being a supermarket too,” he adds. “We want their senses to be knocked back by the colour, choice, different textures and the rich smell of the earth from the loose potatoes banked up on the shelf. It’s retailing on a human scale.”


Even more important is the company’s long-term relationship with local producers whose food is spanking fresh, transport of which cuts down on food miles and doesn’t clog up the roads. Around 25 per cent of its stock is locally sourced.


‘Food miles,’ the distance that food has to travel to its destination, has the environmental drawback of contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases through the vast use of fossil fuels consumed by aeroplanes and international freighters shuttling foods from international shores to Britain.


The gastronomic argument is equally cogent. British chefs enthusiastically support buying and cooking with locally sourced British produce - in season, whenever possible. None more so than Shaun Hill, chef/patron of the acclaimed Merchant House in Ludlow, Shropshire: “When you are importing fruit and vegetables thousands of miles, they have to be picked unripe for transporting and fruit especially, simply tastes bland. It also loses its texture. It just doesn’t compare with how different, local seasonal produce tastes.” Hill maintains that, “from a culinary standpoint as well, you have to do less to the food to achieve the best results and it’s nutritionally superior.”


Supporting local farmers and reducing food miles are issues which Booths’ loyal customer base, 78 per cent of whom are over 45, feel strongly about. Indeed, many are related to the farmers and growers. “The emotional side is key. Shoppers want to be connected to the provenance of their food,” asserts Treble, “and there’s no question that many would go out of business if they couldn’t supply us.”


The retailer is small enough to be able to operate flexibly with hundreds of local, small suppliers. But Treble emphasises that its choice of supplier is not just based on geographical proximity but because they are the best of the regional growers.


He illustrates the nature of this relationship with arable farmer and vegetable grower Peter Ascroft of Worthingtons Farm, near Tarleton. “Take cauliflowers, they are very flighty. The weather dictates whether they’re scarce or there’s a glut. Peter let us know that he had a huge number maturing at once, so we organised a special fortnight’s promotion to shift his stock,” recounts Treble. “We are able to be market-led and react very quickly. The quality of the cauliflowers was top notch, they were pitched at a good price and there was plenty of volume. They literally flew off the shelves and were so fresh that people returned for repeat purchases. So everybody wins – the customers get a good deal, we increase our sales and the grower’s crop doesn’t go to waste.”


Cauliflowers may be mundane as far as vegetables go but Booths is also aiming to score on product diversity. A fortnight ago, it introduced samphire, harvested from mud flats on the local estuaries. Perfect as an accompaniment to fish, it will stay on sale until the season ends in September. And currently, wild bilberries are on offer for pies.


Unusual products available in the longer-term include organic multi-coloured eggs supplied by The Chicken Came First. They are laid by speckled hybrid and rare breed hens, such as Bard Plymouth Rock, Gold Legbars and Araucana. Owner Clare Draper and her aptly named partner Tony Chick supplied Booths’ supermarkets for the first time at Easter  - delivering 80 half-dozen boxes a week directly into their Knutsford store, just 38 miles away from their Newport, Shropshire smallholding. Each box might include chocolate brown, snowy white, china blue and even olive green-coloured eggs of varying sizes.


Their premium price of 1.79 for six does not seem to deter customers from snapping them up. More often than not, the lunchtime delivery will be sold out the same day. In his Guide to the Food Heroes of Britain, gourmet TV chef Rick Stein praises the couple for the way they look after their flock and their diet of organic mixed grains in summer and hot organic porridge with apple and sultanas for breakfast in winter.


“The pens have got hills and bushes and long grass for their 250 chickens to roam around in. They’re like the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the hen world, belting around, almost flying. You’ve never seen anything like it!” enthuses Booths’ fresh and chilled food buyer Phil Godwin, who has been with the company for 28 years. “When you picture other hens in intensive units, stuck in cages and when you see these, it’s just unbelievable. It’s quite fantastic.”


Another way in which Booths is able to steal a march on their competitors is through exclusivity.


Since July, the Holker Hall estate is supplying only Booths supermarkets with its rare salt marsh lamb. Some 2,500 lambs graze on the natural salt marsh vegetation on the 15,000-acre estate owned by Lord and Lady Cavendish on the Cartmel peninsula in Cumbria. The special breed lambs are reared by tenant farmers on the estate. “The meat is leaner, denser in texture and sweeter in taste than conventional lamb,” explains managing agent Dickon Knight.


Likewise, Leagram Organic Cheese supplies five varieties from its prize-winning range of 18 cheeses exclusively to Booths. “Bob Kitching has neither the capacity nor inclination to supply the Tescos or Asdas of this world,” explains Godwin. “We just suit his needs. And that’s great because it is beautiful cheese.”


Kitching acknowledges the supermarket’s support: “Without Booths, I wouldn’t exist - they’re my bread and butter. They don’t tie me down with red tape and they don’t chase me all the time. All my cheeses are handmade, so if I need to have a break and take time off, they’re prepared to wait until I’m ready to supply them again.”


Godwin agrees. “We don’t frighten our suppliers into supplying huge volumes, nor do we get involved in pressure tactics like threatening to de-list a product if they don’t bring the price down,” he emphasises. “I never beat them up over prices because I believe that the customer is quite happy to pay for a quality line. We want them to develop and stay in business, so we allow them to set their own prices. It’s counter-productive to get involved in these roll-back pricing wars.”


Kitching drops his delivery off to another cheese supplier, Dew-Lay, just 10 miles down the road, before both are transported the final six miles to Booths’ central depot in Preston. “We try to reduce food miles in this way,” points out Godwin.


With all the current weapons in its armoury that it can muster, Booths is determined to stand its ground. This summer, it launched the first festival of northern food. And in November, the company will be opening its biggest supermarket to date, a 20,000 sq ft food emporium, in Kendal in the Lake District, with a 50-cover gourmet restaurant and local speciality food stalls on the lower ground floor. The idea is that customers can sample the best of local and regional food from a seasonally orientated menu and then take it home with them afterwards.


“We put a lot of effort into pleasing our customers,” asserts Chris Treble. “So we’re confident we can hold our own. But you can’t ever take them for granted. After all, they can vote with their feet.”



Susan Wolk - published in The Guardian G2, 2004