House of Fraser has just opened the doors to its first foodhall - in Birmingham. Elaine Watson reports

If you are after the best in speciality and fine food, and money is no object, your first port of call would probably be Selfridges, Harvey Nichols or a local specialist. This time next year, however, the fine food landscape could look very different, says House of Fraser food retail director Tony Sweet, the man charged with turning the business from a department store chain with a nice line in wines and confectionery to a major force in speciality food retail.

“House of Fraser was one of the big names in top quality groceries back in the 1960s, and we’re going back to our roots.”

The bid starts with a state-of-the-art 14,000 sq ft foodhall on the ground floor of the chain’s largest store in Corporation Street, Birmingham, just down the road from a brand new foodhall at arch rival Selfridges, which opened its fourth UK store this week at Birmingham’s revamped Bullring centre.

The centrepiece of a £30m refurbishment of its Birmingham store, the ‘World of Food’ foodhall at House of Fraser is the first of up to 15 sites in the pipeline as the chain launches an aggressive bid to move back to the forefront of fine food.

Limited space means fresh foods will be restricted to the foodhalls, says Sweet. However, a new range of packaged groceries, also under the World of Food brand, will get far wider distribution - potentially across the entire estate.

“Christmas ranges will go in to all 49 stores this year to test the market, but we are also introducing a broader ambient range into selected stores and trying to get more stores licensed in the run up to Christmas to take our new wine ranges.”

All this is good news for small producers, says cheese and fresh produce buyer Robert Tate, one of six buyers drafted in from companies including Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason to get World of Food off the ground. “We will stock about 260 cheeses, from local Montgomery cheddar and continental specialities to an Australian cheese we are hoping to have on board by March.

“We already have good contacts with local suppliers, but we are always looking for more and have been working closely with regional food bodies to identify new products and suppliers.”

Buyers have been asked to focus on premium quality and speciality lines, but basics such as cereals, bread and milk are also available for customers looking to do a fuller shop.

As for Selfridges, which opened its doors in Birmingham on the same day as World of Food, it will simply add some healthy competition to the market, says Sweet, who remains bullish about the project. “This isn’t a gamble, or something we’re doing by halves. After all, if this amount of fresh food [60% of the 4,500-strong product range] isn’t managed properly, you can lose a lot of money. My view is that we will complement each other. Selfridges is going for a more futuristic look, whereas World of Food is more accessible. “