Regional food, particularly speciality food, has long been thought of as the preserve of the farm shops. It wasn't until last year, when I got behind the British Food Fortnight campaign for the first time, that I realised that I, as a small independent retailer, could provide producers with a greater access to the market. British Food Fortnight gives us the vehicle to do this.
Since MBL is a key sponsor of British Food Fortnight, and I'm a Londis retailer, I really wanted to support the campaign. I liked the reasoning behind it, giving people greater access to the delicious and diverse range of food that Britain has to offer. And I really liked the idea of more small, independent retailers getting involved. After all, we - the independent retailers - are best placed to sell products made by small, local producers.
My only sticking point was that, when I considered my range in store, no regional foods sprang to mind. My store is in Harefield, on the outskirts of Uxbridge. It's not a rural location. I imagined shelves stocked with exciting British cheeses, local meats and tasty locally produced condiments. But I had none.
It wasn't until I was discussing this with my team of staff that I noticed a locally produced ice cream - Moolicious - that we'd just started stocking. The ice cream is made by a local farmer who has been supplying our milk for a long time.
It was then that my eyes were opened to the opportunities that had been right in front of my nose all the time and I suddenly realised how much regional food I stocked - fresh fruit pies and food for baps were existing stock that I hadn't previously promoted for their localness. But now was my chance.
We pulled out all the stops to promote the Moolicious ice cream for the fortnight. Tastings and a bogof offer, posters in the window, stickers to hand out and a press release to the local newspaper were all set up. We even persuaded two children to dress up as a pantomime cow to highlight the promotion. The local newspaper seized that as a great photo opportunity. And the customers came flooding in.
Encouraged by the success of the local ice cream, we began promoting our locally-produced fruit pies too and started baking British breakfast baps.
Sales increased by a phenomenal £900 a week during the fortnight and haven't dropped back since.
We sold more Moolicious ice cream during the fortnight than during the whole of the summer. The reaction of the customers was phenomenal and so was the press coverage in the local paper. The event helped us to establish an excellent working relationship with the local press.
I'm already in negotiations with more local suppliers for this year's British Food Fortnight.
Speciality food most definitely need not be the preserve of the farm shop and delicatessens. The success of last year's campaign in my store highlighted to me what I've been reading about in the trade press for a while, that the British consumers want to buy local and regional food. And they want to buy more of it.
While there's something quite charming and passionate about the authenticity of food that you find in farm shops, that image need not be restricted to farm shops alone. British Food Fortnight is the chance for us to inject some passion and pride into our stores, the authenticity of our products and the links with our local producers and communities.
I, for one, will be making the most of British Food Fortnight this year (23 September - 8 October 2006).