20 Jul 2012

Retail therapy: the local food heroes creating new jobs

What does it take to produce one of Britain’s top 50 foods? Sublime taste, impeccable standards, and a passion for perfection. But championing local producers can help the economy, too.

great taste award judging

It is not a bad way to spend a Tuesday morning: debating the merits of some of Britain’s very finest foods. More than 50 judges, including well-known food writers, chefs, and the heads of some of the country’s finest food halls, munched their way thoughtfully through the finalists in this year’s Great Taste Awards.

From an initial 8,800 entries, just over 100 were put forward for a coveted three-star gold award. From this, the 50 best had to be selected. And what a list: there were beers and brownies, kippers and chocolates, potted wild boar, and a north African style Berber cake – all made by small, artisan producers from the length of Britain and Ireland.

But the Great Taste Awards do not just reflect the huge range of British creativity and talent. They are also a vital part of sustaining local businesses, which in turn create jobs, revive struggling high streets, and reconnect consumers with the countryside, and their own communities.

George McCartney, a family butcher from Moira in Northern Ireland, is a case in point. Last year his corned beef was named the Great Taste Supreme Champion, an experience which he says has proved truly transformative.

A business transformed

He attracted more publicity than he could ever have imagined: “I got phone calls from Canada, France and Belgium,” he says. “We even got headlines in Sweden!” All that helped generate a huge amount of new sales, tripling the size of his business.

He is now expanding into premises next door to his shop, creating seven new jobs. Not only that: three shops in his local high street which had been empty, are now filled, thanks in part to the increase in the number of people making a special visit to his shop to snap up that award-winning corned beef.

Patrick More, who runs More? The Artisan Bakery in the Lake District, agrees. His amazingly gooey brownie was named Supreme Champion in 2009, and since then his feet have barely touched the ground. “Prior to winning, there was just myself and a part-time guy – it was a bit of a one-mand band.” But the huge coverage which stemmed from the award changed his business almost overnight.

“At our busiest, there were 21 of us”, he says, “But we’re still a family. We all get on well, and we employ entirely from the surrounding area.” Like George McCartney, he too has seen a knock-on effect for the local community. The mill yard where he is based has changed from a rather derilict group of semi-industrial buildings to a thriving hub of food, drink, and buzzing office space.

From field to fork

“We use the beer from the brewery next door, and they use our bread in exchange,” he says. “And we use meat in our cafe from the butchers’ down the road: everything links into the mix. And that’s how I think things should be – you try to do business with the people on your doorstep, where you can.”

Job creation is not just confined to the few producers who have won a three-star gold award. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has carried out extensive research among local retailers and suppliers, which shows that local food networks are vital for a thriving economy.

Their report, Field to Fork, surveyed 800 local retailers and more than 1,700 producers across England, and found they typically kept money and work within the immediate community.

chocolate brownies (getty)

They estimate that aroud 61,000 jobs across England could be attributed to local food sales. In cash terms, those sales could be as high as £2.7bn a year. And because that money is circulated directly back into the local economy, the CPRE says it could contribute a total value of £6.75bn.

Break that down in hard money terms, and smaller independent retailers support one job for every £46,000 of annual turnover, whereas it takes between £138,000 and £144,000 to support a job at the three national supermarket chains which they investigated.

Bob Farrand, from the Guild of Fine Food, says his own research came to exactly the same conclusion. He found that although supermarkets often make claims about job creation when they apply to build new stores, many of those are promotions from within, while up to two-thirds of the rest are part time. There are few truly skilled jobs.

Virtuous cycle

“If people are buying local food, that supports other jobs,” he says. “George McCartney buys his beef from a local farmer, who buys cattle feed from a local supplier – it all helps to keep that economy going.”

At a time when many rural communities around the country are struggling to survive, it would appear that local food networks are a way of generating a much-needed boost to the economy. A virtuous circle, if you like.

The huge revival of interest in Britain’s food scene is also generating some exceptional creativity and innovation from producers who have the confidence to launch their own artisan businesses, the like of which can be seen on that list of Britain’s best 50 foods. You can find traditionally smoked Arbroath smokies from Angus, a lamb carpaccio from Monmouth, Lithuanian scalded rye bread baked in east London, and a gooseberry and elderflower ice cream from Gloucestershire.

All made in Britain, by local communities and from local communities. Proof that you can indulge your appetite, plus help generate new jobs, and boost the economy, at the same time.

Felicity Spector writes about food issues for Channel 4 News