Arch House Deli has just been voted Britain’s top food emporium
Jane Wheatley discovers the deli’s trade secrets - 8/9/11
When David Greenman first walked into Bristol’s Arch House Deli, on the hunt for a business to buy, the thing that struck him most about the long-established deli was the stale fairy cakes being sold off at half price. “It wasn’t a good look,” he says, “but it did indicate there was potential to grow the business.”
Greenman and his wife Debbie had sold their successful computer software company and were looking for a different kind of enterprise. A deal was struck and in late 2009 the couple took over the graceful old building on the edge of a Georgian square in leafy, lofty Clifton.
Now Debbie, a keen cook, turns day-old cake into tiffin with dried fruit and melted chocolate, uses up unsold croissants in bread-and-butter pudding and puts ends of charcuterie and cheeses in savoury tartlets. “One day I had a heel of Parma ham which I made into meatballs with fennel,” she says, “now people ask for them.”
The Greenmans had no experience in food retail but this leap of faith in recessionary times was rewarded on Monday night when they were named Deli of the Year at the Great Taste Awards 2011.
Arch House was one of three finalists, all of them young enterprises. But you do wonder why anyone would think it was a sound idea to open a deli, now that supermarkets are all middle class and we can one-stop shop for 12-year-old balsamic vinegar, posh olives and a wedge of artisan cheese along with the loo roll and Whiskas. Eleanor Thomson did because she longed for a local deli that she could shop at herself and thought her neighbours would too. Each evening during her years as a City high-flyer, Thomson would alight from her commuter train at Ladywell in southeast London, survey the familiar row of high street shops and sigh. “It was such a food desert,” she says, “I’d lived here for 20 years and kept expecting someone to see the obvious and open a really good deli. Eventually I got bored waiting and decided I’d have to do it myself.”
Less than a year after opening, El’s Kitchen was a runner-up at the deli awards, founded by Giles Henschel whose company Olives et Al supplies the trade.
Opening a deli is, he says, a classic middle-class fantasy. “It’s a chance to get out of the corporate rat race, to live a bucolic lifestyle. A friend says over dinner, ‘You’re such a great foodie, you should run a deli,’ and you see yourself sourcing wonderful charcuterie, arranging your breads and cheeses, chatting over the counter with friendly customers. Energy and enthusiasm carries you along for a bit, then in the second year you find you’re still tired, still working seven days a week. No one invites you to dinner any more, not even the guy who gave you the idea. People don’t realise how hard it is.”
Debbie Greenman agrees, admitting to a certain “naivety” in taking on Arch House: “We bought it in November and were immediately flat out with the run-up to Christmas, it was physically exhausting.” But the experience of building up their previous company stood them in good stead. “Between us we had a lot of the skills – bookkeeping, payroll, management, building the website – and we have systems for everything.”
David says that it was hard at first to adapt to a different income – “not having one basically” – and they made a loss in the first two years, but thinks that they will break even this year, in line with Henschel’s theory that if you can get through your first three years in the business relatively unscathed, then “you have a good chance of succeeding”.
These days Arch House is like a well stocked and rather glamorous larder: many of the products are locally sourced, including jams and jellies made by a neighbour living in the square. An alcove contains olive oils and fruit vinegars, which can be decanted into customers’ own bottles; an old wooden grocer’s chest has tiny drawers full of spices.
“Early on, people would come in with a long list of ingredients for an Ottolenghi recipe,” says Debbie, “some of them quite recherché such as sumac. So we started keeping spices loose in bulk so customers could buy just the amount they need. We use them all in the kitchen too, so turnover is not a problem.” Trying out new ideas and responding to customers’ needs is, she says, what keeps life interesting.
Stocking from popular recipe books was the guiding principle for Theo and Sarah Fraser Steele when they opened the Deli Downstairs in Hackney, East London, also a runner-up at the award ceremony. “We based it on what we cooked ourselves,” Theo tells me on the phone from Norfolk where they are having their first holiday for three years. “We literally went through the larder lists in our favourite books – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Ottolenghi, Moro – and stocked what we couldn’t buy locally.”
The couple were actors in their twenties and early thirties but when they had children they discovered that TV and film work couldn’t easily sustain family life. Theo got a job as assistant chef at the Marquess Tavern in Islington, North London, with no professional training. “I acted as if I could do it,” he says. “Then we won best gastro pub and it all went mad. I was working ridiculous hours, not seeing the children, so I went to The Ginger Pig [Hackney] and ran their deli in the basement.”
They bought the business by borrowing against their house and a year later moved to their current site, a former Threshers off-licence in an up-and-coming area off Victoria Park in Hackney. “We’re building a bit of a foodie hub already,” says Theo. “I persuaded a friend of mine to open a fishmonger’s two doors away and the neighbouring shops have benefited already. It’s really mixed here – from fashionistas to original East Enders with a range of nationalities – and we try to appeal to everyone: after all customer service is the only thing we have over the supermarkets.”
When I visit the shop the next day, a handwritten quote in the window reads: “I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of summer . . .” which is lovely if a little ironic on a cool and cloudy August afternoon. Inside I meet Jen Vass, holding the fort while her bosses are away. “We try to source as locally as possible,” she says, pointing to a heavenly looking raised chicken and ham pie from Eat My Pies in Hackney, granola made in London Fields and Kernel Brewery beer from Bermondsey, southeast London .
While I nose around the shelves a young man comes in asking for blood pudding to make sausage rolls for a TV crew. Vass sells him her last three packs and when he asks for quinces, which she hasn’t got, suggests where else he might try.
At the other end of town, El’s Kitchen occupies a corner of Ladywell’s busy main road, next door to a bookmakers and opposite the railway station. There is a basket of greengages on a table outside and a warm waft of cheese and spinach muffins just out of the oven; a young woman is delivering jars of honey from hives a couple of miles away, a neighbour brings apples from her garden and is paid in cheese. Thomson’s stepdaughter makes the cakes each day. It is all delightfully homely but there is, I discover, a shrewd business brain behind it.
Thomson spent months on market research — “harassing people in the street with my clipboard” — to confirm that the area would deliver the footfall to sustain the business. She joined the Guild of Fine Food, put herself through several of its courses and “secret shopped” delis all over the South East.
Only then did she take the plunge, opting for voluntary redundancy from her job as a brand manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers and persuading the owners of the Cheeseboard in Greenwich to take her on for a spell: “I said I’d work for nothing if they would teach me everything I needed to know about cheese.”
What seems to unite the finalists — each quite individual — is the sort of friendly, collaborative enthusiasm that makes shopping for food a pleasure. And exactly what Henschel and his panel of judges were looking for:
“We ask them to describe their attitude, business plan, staff involvement, customer engagement and sourcing policy, and give us five tips on what they do to bring customers back in.”
It seems curious, though, given Henschel’s three-year survival rule, that all the finalists are newcomers to the trade. He says that owners of older delis do enter, “but running a deli is often a second, third or even final career move, there is quite a high turnover and enthusiasm and energy tends to be at its peak in the early years”.
I catch up with the Greenmans the morning after the awards: “We’ve got big grins all over our faces,” says Debbie, “and it’s such a boost to read some of the lovely comments from people who voted for us: it makes it all worthwhile.”
The Greenmans’ prize includes a day spent behind the scenes at Fortnum & Mason and a trip to Spain to take part in an olive harvest by moonlight. On Tuesday they were engaged in a little light espionage at La Fromagerie and other iconic purveyors, before heading back to Bristol with their rather splendid olive leaf trophy.
Source - The Times - 8th September 2011