We’d like to introduce Bob Farrand, long-time champion of the independent sector and Chairman of the Dorset-based GUILD OF FINE FOOD. The Guild has more than 1300 members who are retailers and producers of fine food (including our very own Pear Tree Deli in Sherborne); it also organises The Great Taste Awards and The World Cheese Awards as well as publishing the trade magazine Fine Food Digest.
The feature below was published in the Blackmore Vale Magazine on 18th January 2013: Bob pulls no punches when it comes to supermarkets and he offers us interesting food for thought on everything from potato farmers and vodka to Tesco and Sherborne…
You’ve probably never heard of William Chase. He’s a Herefordshire potato farmer who got fed up scratching a living selling potatoes to supermarkets so he invented a brand of upmarket chips (that’s crisps to you and me) called Tyrrells. He sold his crisps exclusively through delicatessens, farm shops and in Waitrose stores. He refused to do business with other supermarkets.
In 2006, he hit the headlines by threatening to sue Tesco because they were stocking Tyrrells crisps without his permission. The giant supermarket group had managed to source them through what is known in the trade as ‘the grey market’ and was undercutting everyone on price. Mr Chase claimed that “Tesco had ruined us as a potato farmer which was why we moved into the speciality crisp trade. If we allowed Tesco to sell our crisps cheaper than everyone else, the delicatessens and farm shops would stop stocking them.” He won his battle, Tesco backed down and his business grew rapidly off the back of the publicity – although it should be said his crisps were pretty good, picking up gold in the Great Taste Awards four years on the trot. In 2010, he cashed in his chips selling the business for a cool £30 million and immediately took up making vodka – from potatoes, of course.
In the wake of his much-publicised spat with Tesco, I was more than a little surprised to read in the business press that he is currently negotiating the sale of a piece of land he owns in Tenbury Wells to Tesco for a reported £3m to £3.5m. It’s a strange ethic that permits a man to wallow in the warm glow of self-satisfaction supporting local delicatessens and farm shops by refusing to sell crisps to the country’s largest supermarket while feeling equally comfortable selling a chunk of land for a fat wedge of cash to enable Tesco to open another giant store to threaten the survival of the small shops in Tenbury Wells High Street.
All of which brings me to Sherborne and the proposal to build a Tesco superstore on land currently occupied by the Sherborne Hotel. The campaign to stop this development has gained considerable momentum but I fear it’s the start of a long and expensive battle. Tesco’s pockets are deeper than any local authority. One comment ventured to suggest “it would be a different story if it were a Waitrose. Everyone would welcome that.” That might well be the case. A new Tesco would mostly steal customers from the other two supermarkets, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op. Waitrose tends to attract a different type of consumer, one who currently shops in the local butcher, baker, greengrocer or in Anni Partridge’s glorious deli at the bottom of the town. How many of her customers would migrate to pushing a trolley around a giant Tesco? Not too many, I fancy although they might possibly find a Waitrose a more convincing alternative.
Some would switch but not all as not everyone is completely convinced by the soft-talking sales messages peddled by supermarkets, including Waitrose about the quality, freshness and origin of their ‘local’ meat, fish, cheese or the number of additional jobs their giant new stores create. Almost every supermarket planning application nowadays defies any sort of logic simply because there are few if any parts of the country that are not within a ten minute drive of at least a couple of stores. Applications continue to be granted not because of public demand but mostly due to the relentless perseverance by Tesco, Sainsbury’s and the rest in their long drawn out appeals procedures which local authorities eventually give into because they run out of funds to defend them.
If Tesco is so sure a new store in Sherborne will prove beneficial to the town and its people, they need to be set some very specific criteria to guarantee they’re right. Firstly, no free parking – or if it is free, the rest of the parking in the town must also be free and Tesco must fund it all. Secondly, we need hard evidence on exactly how many full-time and part-time jobs are created and first priority must be given to candidates who are currently unemployed. An audit should be carried out exactly a year after the store opens and each following year and any shortfall in the number of staff employed compared with the promises made during the planning application should result in fines equivalent to the salaries that would have been earned. And the fines generated should go into the local community coffers not to central government. Lastly, the day before the new store opens, the high street should be audited – for the number of empty shops and the existing type of shops and every time a business closes, for whatever reason, Tesco must fund the rent, business rates and employment costs of a new store until it moves into profit. That’s the only way to force giant supermarket groups to come to terms with the frightening ability they hold to decimate high streets. And lets face it, if they’re happy to pay William Chase £3.5 million for a slab of land for a new supermarket in Tenbury Wells, underpinning the survival of Sherborne High Street is a drop in the ocean.