Lancashire food producers band together to fight for the future of small businesses

Fears that Covid-19 could kill off some of Lancashire’s finest food producers have prompted urgent calls for a “Shop Local” campaign to keep our struggling businesses alive.

Friday, 15th May 2020, 7:19 am
Updated Friday, 15th May 2020, 7:22 am

And as the UK is beginning to take its first tentative steps out of lockdown, the county’s artisan bakers, butchers and brewers are praying that, with public support, rescue from the crisis could be just around the corner.

While the major supermarkets have been busy, hundreds of local producers have been feeling the pinch during two months of restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

To survive, many have been forced to make drastic changes to the way they sell their food and drink, with home delivery the key to keeping their heads above water.

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Graham Kirkham of Mrs Kirkham's Farmhouse Cheese of Goosnargh

Now customers are being urged not to turn their backs on local firms once things get back to anything approaching normality.

“If we are to ensure the existence of these incredible producers, who were there when we needed them most, then we must continue to shop local and to support Lancashire businesses when we return to a more ‘normal’ way of life,” said Rachel McQueen, chief executive of Marketing Lancashire.

“The convenience, quality and personalised service provided by these local producers, often traditional Lancashire family businesses, has educated us in a way of shopping which I hope will continue in the future.”

Out of the worst crisis in Britain for 75 years has come innovation, with local companies thinking outside the box to remain solvent.

Matthew Hall and Beth Hayes-Bosson of Butlers Larder with their foodboxes and (right) Graham Kirkham

Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses from Longridge has been ahead of the pack when it comes to helping itself and other small artisan businesses to increase supply chains to compensate for the closure of some of their markets.

The fourth generation firm, famous for its Blacksticks Blue cheese, came up with the idea of a Butlers Larder, bringing together two dozen specially selected producers in the North West offering anything from meat and fish to vegetables, crisps, chocolate and gin.

Customers can order produce boxes to be delivered to their doorsteps.

Matthew Hall said the idea was spawned at the North West Family Business Awards on March 6 in Manchester where Butlers won a top honour to add to its collection.

Graham Kirkham of Mrs Kirkham's Farmhouse Cheese of Goosnargh

“We have always said we want to support local producers, but in reality we haven’t got around to doing it,” he told the Post.

“We felt that if there was a way we could bring together other family businesses into one easy to shop location for the customer it would be great.

“As the full impact of Covid moved quickly through March, it moved the creation of the Larder on very quickly.

“We already have an online platform for our cheese, but selling meat and pasta on a cheese website would not have made sense, so we built a brand and a website very quickly to bring all of the producers’ stories and products together.

“It’s a difficult time for many small businesses and we have found a way for them to continue doing what they do best, knowing that they can get their products to people in their own homes.

“Customers can safely get the products that they need from a central place and enjoy the best and most exciting artisans, all while supporting local small businesses when they really need it.

“These small businesses power local economies and we are so pleased to be able to support them.”

Another local cheesemaker, Mrs Kirkham’s Farmhouse Cheese of Goosnargh, experienced a frightening slump in sales when Covid-19 first hit the UK.

In the first week of lockdown the business saw a dramatic drop from selling 120 10Kg cheeses to just nine.

Boss Graham Kirkham said much of his business, supplying specialist food outlets, disappeared overnight.

“It’s only when something like that happens you realise how vulnerable you are,” he said. “It’s not just me. When I speak it’s on behalf of all artisan farmer/cheesemakers.”

But Graham has fought back - opening his own farm shop, arranging postal deliveries and calling for public support for his produce and that of similar artisan food producers.

“There’s a lot of history and heritage and we don’t want it to disappear.”

Now his shop doesn’t only sell cheese. Graham has been stocking other local foodstuffs from small family suppliers such as olives, bread from Bleasdale, specialist bacon and cured meats from a Cumbrian farm and coffee from a Keswick supplier.

Nationally TV chef Jamie Oliver highlighted the need to keep firms like Mrs Kirkham’s in business and since then sales have shown an improvement.

And traditional cheese outlets such as Neal’s Yard in London’s Covent Garden and The Courtyard at Settle, both of which the company supplies, have encouraged customers to keep on ordering.

He said: “If we don’t support these amazing companies and delis and keep buying from them then they will disappear and we’ll have nowhere to sell to. We have to keep this chain going.”

Matthew Hall agreed, saying: “As a fourth generation family business we have great links with makers, producers and artisans across the North.

“We put passion, care and innovation into everything that we do, and we want to work with partners who share our values so that together, we can reach as many homes as possible with exciting brands and delicious fresh produce.

“There is something in the Lancashire supply base that means we could do this and I’ve gained such energy and learnt such a lot by talking to so many like-minded businesses.

“Because we have given the shopper a platform to support these producers, as well as the products to do a full grocery shop with the convenience of home delivery, I do hope they will want to keep using the Larder when the Covid crisis is over.

“From the feedback we are receiving, customers love the convenience and quality as much as supporting small businesses from Lancashire and across the North.

“We are all in a position right now where we are thinking carefully about how we spend our time and where we spend our money.

“Combine this with seeing the news daily on the economic impact of this crisis, I believe people are considering what behaviours they will continue as we come out of the crisis - and supporting those smaller businesses who are at the heart of, and powering local economies, is one I hope to see continue.”

Marketing Lancashire’s Rachel McQueen added: “Throughout these challenging times we have nevertheless been able to feed and care for ourselves and our families, thanks to the producers and retailers who have continued to work while the majority of us have remained at home.

“For many of us the last few months have re-introduced us to the breadth and quality of producers on our doorstep, as we’ve looked for home delivery options and small neighbourhood shops to reduce our need to travel.”