Guerrilla gardening, mentorships, free Wi-Fi, pop-up shops, town rebranding the ideas for luring shoppers back into Mary Portas’s pilot towns range from the sublime to the ridiculous. In well-to-do Petworth, West Sussex, there’s another idea: give them bread: posh bread. And as much quality local produce as their reusable carryalls can hold. Oh, and a fresh latte on the way home.
The idea such things alone could revive Britain’s struggling town centres might seem nuttier than any proposal from Portas’s pilots, but this is new business Market Town Foods’ claim. The operator of the Hungry Guest - a grocery store, a café and an artisan bakery - says it is well on its way to doing just that in Petworth. Now the team behind this small start-up reckon they can wrestle back trade from out-of-town hypermarkets and save other towns across the South East.
These grand ambitions should not be dismissed, for this small business has a very powerful backer. One of Market Town Foods’ directors is Khalid Mohamed Mahdi Al Tadjir, son of the Emirati owner of Highland Spring mineral water Mahdi Al Tadjir, who was named Scotland’s richest resident in the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated personal wealth of £1.6bn.
Such financial muscle may come in handy, given the fights the company is picking. “The supermarkets are selling pre-fabricated rubbish,” says Market Town Foods’ other director and baker Troels Bendix. “We can’t compete with them in terms of pricing on mass-produced products so we are competing with them on quality. We sell produce you’d never find in a Tesco.”
In Petworth at least, this model seems to be working. The Hungry Guest says sales will hit £1.5m this year. Not bad, considering it only opened its 3,000 sq ft grocery store - housed in one of Petworth’s oldest buildings, dating back to 1400 - last November (the nearby Hungry Guest café opened a few weeks later). The bakery, in nearby Goodwood, supplies the Petworth store and indies across Sussex with artisan loaves.
This has helped establish Petworth as a “food destination”, according to co-founder Nicola Jones. “There’s nothing more depressing for a town to see lots and lots of vehicles passing you by,” she says. “There are 140,000 visitors a year to Petworth House [a National Trust property in the town] and by and large they stay there and move on. Increasing footfall in the town is critical. We’re helping to achieve that.”
But Petworth is peculiar. And this is to the Hungry Guest’s advantage. It’s isolated, with no mainline station for its population of about 5,000. Its affluence makes it a prime market for the goodies on sale at the store’s bread counter, butchery (80% of the meat on sale is local) and atmospherically controlled cheese room. There’s a distinct lack of competition. The closest Tesco or Sainsbury’s is four miles away in Pulborough. The Co-op is the only other national grocer in town.
However, Jones insists the business could thrive in other towns within reach of its existing supply chain, even if the competition there is fiercer. “We’re looking at other market towns in the South East,” she says. “Another site we are looking at has a Tesco Express right in front of it. The town is not as affluent and it has 23 eateries but I think we can compete.”
One national player could throw a spanner in the works of the company’s expansion plans, however. The area Hungry Guest is looking to expand into is Waitrose heartland and with the retailer looking to have opened 300 of its Little Waitrose convenience format stores by 2020, the two are bound to clash at some point. Jones says they’ll compete by tailoring its offer to suit local tastes - something national retailers struggle to do - and continuing to focus on quality, fresh and local products. “We’re not looking at doing a cookie-cutter chain of cafés and food shops,” she says. “The only thing we would be looking to replicate is the standards and the quality. We feel very strongly about the increasing homogeneity of our high streets. We want to create something more individualistic.”
Trouble is, with them all looking to stock more locally sourced goods, so do the mults. And they’re not going to give up a slice of Little England without a fight. Khalid Mohamed Mahdi Al Tadjir may soon have to put more of his money where his business’s mouth is.