Early rising helps Leathley’s local sourcing says Anne Bruce

Every year The Grocer Top 50 independent chain Leathley’s Quality Fare buys the prize bull at the Wensleydale Agricultural Show. Customers can order cuts from it via the chain’s six butchery counters.
Buying the bull is good PR with local farmers who are still recovering from foot and mouth, explains MD Ian Leathley. All meat on sale at Leathley’s is sourced at neighbouring auctions and sent off to local abattoirs. The chain, ranked number 28 in The Grocer’s Top 50 list with a £29.2m turnover, could never be accused of paying lipservice to local sourcing.
It is also one of the biggest customers of Gateshead market, where it buys an impressive range of fruit and vegetables, from pomegranates to Seville oranges.
The company started as a travelling shop. Ian Leathley remembers setting off in his van at 8.30am and finishing his round after midnight. The family decided it was easier to have customers come to them, opening its first shop in 1970 in Leyburn.
Leathley took over from his father in 1975 and started expanding the business steadily.
Today, his two sons work the unsociable hours. They get up at 3am four times a week to go to market. The chain rents premises there so they can get in with the traders, rather than when the market opens, to get
the pick of the day’s wares. Purchases arrive in stores within three hours, delivered in refrigerated vehicles via Leathley’s depot in Colburn. Leathley’s prides itself on its fresh range at even the smallest of its 19 stores. These range from 1,500 sq ft to 12,000 sq ft, with eight over 6,000 sq ft.
The rest of the stock, apart from local produced speciality lines like cakes, biscuits and ice cream, comes via Nisa.
The estate is spread across the north east, through North Yorkshire and into Tyne & Wear and Northumberland in ex-mining villages, council estates and rural locations.
Leathley explains a particular strength is
market towns, where larger stores mainly cater for farmers - and former farmers.
He says: “Foot and mouth disease had a devastating effect in this area. Farmers stopped keeping beasts and diversified.”
As well as former farmers, politicians, actors and landed gentry also shop at Leathley’s stores - William Hague, Sir Leon Brittan, the Duke of Norfolk and the cast of Heartbeat are customers. Many customers at the 10,000 sq ft flagship Bedale store have been shopping there since a time when Leathley’s father ran the chain.
The company joined Nisa in 1981 and follows its promotional schedule of distributing 100,000 leaflets locally once every three weeks. “Without Nisa, independents would be nowhere,” he says. Nisa was behind Leathley’s decision to introduce Voiteq voice-picking systems at its depot two years ago. It was only the second company in the UK to install the technology which has eliminated paperwork from the warehouse. Pickers follow instructions delivered through headsets.
The range includes an authoritative licensed offer. Here, Leathley’s claims its stores can beat Tesco on range and price. Rows of wines make an impressive display at the Bedale store. That store also carries non-food including kitchen utensils, duvets, toasters, towels and books.
Leathley says his ideal size for a store is 10,000 sq ft to fit in a 20,000 SKU range. The chain also features 11 instore delis, three bake-offs, a scratch bakery as well as two post offices in larger stores. But opportunities to acquire new sites big enough to accommodate those facilities are rare. Leathley’s had a long planning battle to get permission to convert its most recent acquisition, a 6,500 sq ft former petrol station in Tow Law, Weardale due to open as its 20th store in mid-2004.
Leathley has not heard anything on the strong local grapevine about other stores he
can bid for. “Things change slowly round here, ” he says.
Market conditions have not been made any easier by the multiples, which are threatening the livelihood of many independents says Leathley. But tradition stands for a lot in this part of the world. And Leathley is confident that with Nisa’s help, turnover this year will be 13% up on last year. This chain is staying in the bull ring.