Our Ones to Watch feature highlights four specialist chains that could well be going places. This year we present four operators that have impressed us with their innovation, imagination and sheer ambition. Weeton’s has won acclaim under its enterprising young MD, Andrew Loftus; The Whisky Shop is in a class of its own; Bill’s Produce Store provides a fresh take on food retailing; and Kishor Patel shows what a good independent can achieve

>>EST. 2005
TYPE OF OPERATION: Farm shop/delicatessen
BASED: North Yorkshire
TURNOVER: £1.25m (projected)
Andrew Loftus quit life as a BP oil trader in London to fulfil two missions: to get people to buy more local food and to make shopping for food as pleasurable as eating it. It may not seem like an obvious career move, but his Harrogate farm shop, Weeton’s, is certainly a slick operation.
Weeton’s, which uses a modern retail format to update the farm shop concept, beat 700 retailers to be named Britain’s Best Rural Retailer. Estimated turnover for the first year is £1.25m and plans are already in place for new stores in and around Yorkshire. Such is the confidence that Weeton’s is also establishing a brand through own label lines.
Loftus says the key to his success is his passion for local food. More than 35 local farmers make up 50% of the store’s stock, with the aim to increase this to 75% as fruit and veg become available in the spring. “We aim to offer our customers the best quality locally produced foods with all the variety and flavours demanded by the modern palate. Local food is about far more than the apple pies your granny makes!”
He names the majors as his competition, not other farm shops. “The combined turnover of Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in Harrogate is more than £1m a week. I only need a very small share of their trade to have a very profitable business.”
He thinks the formula at Weeton’s will achieve that. “Our customer feedback indicates that after the products themselves, the ambience in Weeton’s is the main reason for visiting. People want to enjoy buying and very few enjoy going to a supermarket.”

The Whisky Shop
>>EST. 1990
TYPE OF OPERATION: Whisky retailer
BASED: Scotland and N.England
Ian Bankier’s fortunes seemed to take a turn for the worse in 2004 when he was forced to leave his post as CEO of CL World Brands, the East Kilbride-based drinks company, after a power struggle for control of the firm between himself and executive chairman Lawrence Duprey.
As the entrepreneurial type, Bankier turned the bad into the good and took the chance to buy The Whisky Shop chain of six shops from Hector Russell, the kilt maker. Ever since, things have been on the up. The six stores quickly became 12 (ten in Scotland and two in England), turnover is now £5m and there are plans to accelerate this growth in the near future.
“The optimum number of shops will be 20 to 30 within two to three years,” Bankier says, “and most of the new ones will be predominantly in England. I want to be able to say to my suppliers I have national distribution.”
Despite consumer spend on whisky being slow and what Bankier calls “decadence in the supply chain”, where big suppliers are chasing volume at the expense of value, The Whisky Shop’s positioning gives it a niche that will work in its favour.
“No one else specialises in whisky like us. Our peers are the independents but none of them has a chain and a national strategy, and Oddbins has a wide range, but we’re too small to compete with them. We’re in a class of our own.”
Customers can also choose from a stock of 500 whiskies, which come from all over the world including India, Japan and the US, through the company’s web site.

Bill’s Produce Store
>>EST. 2001
TYPE OF OPERATION: Produce store/café
BASED: Lewes/Brighton
TURNOVER: £2.9m (projected)
Any café that gives hot water bottles to customers to keep out the winter chills has got to have service high on the agenda. Bill’s Produce Store, operating two outlets in Lewes and Brighton, does that every year. “Customer service is massive for us,” says Tania Webb, director and co-founder. “When Bill had his original store he had jazz playing and it looked spectacular. The other fruit and veg shops closed when the supermarkets came, but Bill kept on growing.”
A talking point can certainly help you stand out, but a little luck along the way also helps. Although disastrous for many, the floods in Lewes in 2000 meant the owners of the café next door sold up and left, allowing the shop to up its floor area three-fold. With some help from Webb and other family members, Bill’s Produce Store was born. The Brighton store opened in October last year, and there are plans to open one new store every year for the next five years. Hove is the next town being targeted.
Each store combines a café, which makes up 55% of sales, with a fresh produce section, contributing 35% of sales, and other retail items such as sandwiches and cakes, made on site by a team of eight chefs, making up 10% of sales.
“The key is there is very little waste,” says Webb. “Whatever produce doesn’t sell one day becomes tomorrow’s soup. We’re also reasonably priced, cheaper than our specialist competitors, and we can compete with supermarkets’ prices for produce too.”
Future initiatives include a staff share scheme so they benefit from company growth to minimise staff turnover.

Houghton Trading
>>EST. 1985
TYPE OF OPERATION: Convenience stores
BASED: South East
TURNOVER: £4.5m (projected)
Kishor Patel is an outspoken figure among independents. As director of Houghton Trading, he has three Nisa Locals turning over £86,000 a week, with a fourth to open soon, but his work ethic is unsatisfied.
He is working hard, through his place on Nisa Today’s CDS board as well as directorships at Skillsmart and ACS Direct, to “develop a format for a store where customers want to shop rather than have to shop” that he can share with the whole sector. This takes up a lot of his time, so one of his priorities is to recruit a team that can hold the fort while he is away.
He’ll need one, because he has big plans for his business that started more than 20 years ago with one shop selling £4,000 of stock a week.
He aims to triple the number of c-stores under his control in the next five years and to improve their image. The latest acquisition back home is aimed at an upmarket demographic. “The new store is in an affluent village, so this store will focus on whole foods, organic produce and fresh lines,” says Patel.
Fresh and healthy lines are key today, he says, but this means communication with customers about the products is vital. To that end he recently organised a number of local paper and radio adverts to highlight the ranges of all 14 Nisa Local stores in the area.“I want people to recognise us as a brand, not just a corner shop. We are already on a par with Tesco Express.”
He even has international plans. “It’s under wraps at the moment,” he says, “but in 12 to 24 months we’ll be looking at international opportunities.”
Watch this space.