By Vince Bamford 24 August 2022 The Grocer Magazine
It’s clear from Chris Wildman’s passion for his shop, and the food it sells, that retailing is in his blood.
A fifth-generation shopkeeper and butcher, Wildman has – with the help of his family – built Town End Farm Shop in Airton, North Yorkshire, into an award-winning operation.
Town End was established nearly 20 years ago by the original owners, who were looking for a means of diversifying their farm business following the 2001 foot and mouth disease crisis. When the owners retired nine years ago, they approached Wildman, who was then running a butchery business supplying Town End Farm Shop with meat from his family’s farm.
“They wanted someone else to run it so they asked me, the local meat supplier,” he explains. “It’s a small community and my family and their family go back quite a long way.”
Town End is very much a family affair. Wildman works alongside his wife Jen, who is herself a farmer’s daughter. His son looks after the Craven Longhorn cattle on the family farm, while his niece works in the farm shop. Wildman’s brother, who is also a butcher, helps with the butchery and charcuterie side of the business, which includes popular courses in butchery, salumi and charcuterie.
There is also a clear focus on sustainability – and its efforts in this area helped secure the business a
Farm Shop & Deli Show Retailer Award this year. Wildman says this is because it makes sense, rather than because he sees himself as an eco-warrior.
“Plastic and oil-based products and driving around in cars and on aeroplanes its unsustainable –and are bigger problems than cows and methane,” he says.
Reusable containers are one area of focus for Wildman. The business sells rapeseed oil in Kilner bottles that can be returned to the shop for refilling. “We’ve been doing this for years, since before it was trendy,” he explains. “It works out cheaper and happens to have the benefits of a reuse culture, which is far better than recycling or even having biodegradable and compostable materials. If you can reuse the same bottle 10 times that’s a massive difference.” The reuse philosophy extends beyond packaging, with Wildman curing meat using botanicals discarded by local distiller Otterbeck.
“I use bay, juniper and other flavours, and gin distillers are doing the same thing,” he explains. “I asked the distillers what they do with the botanicals after they’ve made their gin and they said they just fish them out the bottom and throw them away.” Wildman now collects the gin-steeped botanicals, freezes them, and when he’s doing a cure, he adds some to his own herbs and spices. “It works brilliantly, it’s a collaboration with another local business and is a reuse of the essential ingredients. What’s not to like?”
Talking to Wildman about the food and drink he sells, it’s clear that the people supplying the products are as important to him as the product themselves. He can tell a story about each one.
His suppliers include other award-winning businesses such as Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy, who also sells some of Wildman’s charcuterie.
Town End has two local bakery suppliers. One is the Craven Bakery in Skipton, which also delivers pork pies from Skipton butchers Drake & Macefield. The other is Dan Nemeth’s Seasons Bakery in Ingleton
, which was a winner of a Farm Shop & Deli Show Retailer Award in 2021. Both Swinscoe and Nemeth set up shop at around the same time as Wildman. “We’re very lucky as we have got some amazing suppliers and we kind of thrive together – we’re all lucky that we’ve got each other,” he says. “When someone asks which products are local, I can say they are all local. I can tell the story behind them, and I’ve probably visited the manufacturer to make sure they do it how they say they’re doing it.”
It was this ability to tell the stories of his suppliers that impressed the production team behind BBC show Top of the Shop, hosted by Tom Kerridge. It is one of a string of TV appearances for Town End, which has been used for a number of other shows including Paul Hollywood’s Pies & Puds.
The Top of the Shop filming had the added bonus of the production team giving the shop a partial refit that included new fridges and shelving. It turned out not to the the only transformation for Town End, which had to temporarily adapt when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
While the shop remained open throughout, providing an essential lifeline to locals, the café had to shut due to Covid restrictions. The café area became a warehouse and packing line for local deliveries, while Wildman’s wife Jen distributed orders in the shop’s van. Another change was the opening of a post office in the shop, and Wildman adding the role of postmaster to his duties. “We opened the post office because the one in nearby Malham had shut down and, especially in a lockdown situation, people need a post office,” he explains. “It was a bit radical but we’re trying to support the community.”
With restrictions lifted, Town End has been busy going back to a more traditional farm shop operation, though it is now facing challenges of a different sort. Town End won a Farm Shop & Deli Show Retailer Award this year.
Rising costs, in energy in particular, are a big concern and Wildman has had to raise retail prices as a result. “We worry whether we are getting the equilibrium right between the rising costs and the rising prices without harming the customer and the footfall,” he says. And, as so many businesses have found, recruitment is proving difficult. “You can advertise a position and get four or five people enquire but when you ring them back they say they have already got a job and aren’t interested.”
Wildman has increased hourly rates of pay at the shop, partly to attract new staff but particularly to retain the valued existing workers who performed so well during the pandemic.
Wildman says that, after all their hard work, winning the Farm Shop & Deli Show Retailer Award
was welcome recognition. “Winning was fantastic, particularly because of Covid and the lockdowns,” he explains. “The staff have been brilliant. Everyone just got on with doing different jobs when they had to and everyone was willing to be flexible and work really hard. “We didn’t expect to win as we were up against some much bigger businesses. We’re small but we work hard to do things properly.”