It’s like a scene from a bygone era. On an icy Saturday morning in South-East London’s Forest Hill, dozens of shoppers are queuing up to buy meat from their local independent butcher, quizzing staff over the best cuts to buy for their Sunday roasts and placing orders for their Christmas dinners.
It is hard to believe that, only days earlier, the same bustling shop had been vacant - left empty for the past three months after its previous tenant, a Caribbean restaurant, closed.
The transformation is down to funding from the Portas Pilots - the high street regeneration scheme fronted by retail ‘guru’ Mary Portas - which has allowed wholesale butcher Nathan Mills to dip his toe into retail by running a pop-up store throughout December. The Butchery SE23 - named after the Forest Hill postcode - is one of a number of Portas-backed initiatives running in Forest Hill and neighbouring Kirkdale and Sydenham over the next four weeks.
Forest Hill local Mills - who runs a successful business selling meat to some of London’s top restaurants from his base in Bermondsey - has long dreamed of opening his own shop, so when the council won funding to regenerate the local high street as part of Portas’ scheme, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“There has been a lot of excitement about us opening here - we’ll see how sales hold up once that’s died down”
“We’d been showing interest in opening up a shop here, even before the funding came through, but this really accelerated things,” he says. “It gives us a chance to test what does and doesn’t work before having to make a commitment to opening a shop permanently.”
Creating a viable independent butcher’s in the current economic climate will not be easy, especially if you are selling the kinds of high-end, rare breed meats Mills specialises in. But he says feedback from local residents has so far been “extremely encouraging”.
“The nearest independent butcher at the moment is two miles away and we know people really like the idea of having a butcher’s back on their local high street, but we also realise we’re going to have to work hard and offer something extra to maintain interest,” he says.
To maximise footfall Mills has teamed up with other traders, who will be running smaller ‘pop-ups within a pop-up’ over the next month, including South London greengrocer Franklin’s, which will be selling fresh organic fruit and veg from the store, and a number of street food vendors.
To better compete with the supermarkets - there’s a Sainsbury’s superstore across the road from The Butchery SE23 - Mills is keeping his shop open until 7pm during the week to catch commuters on their way home, in addition to offering a local delivery service.
Whether these extras will be enough to propel the shop from pop-up to permanent high street fixture remains to be seen. Mills has the option to take on a full-term lease with attractive terms in the new year, but the shop will need to generate sales of between £3,000 and £4,000 every week to be viable in the long term.
Judging by the queues on opening day, Mills is on the right track. He’s not counting his chickens yet, though. “There’s been a lot of excitement about us opening here and the response has been great, but we need to see how sales hold up once the excitement of opening day dies down,” he cautions. “We’re certainly hopeful.”
The coming weeks will prove if the residents of Forest Hill have been persuaded that a local butcher’s is worth having all year round - and not just for Christmas.