opportunity in adversity
Penn Commercial, a local letting agent, talked to Oliver to understand how our business has been learning and adapting throughout COVID and how he sees the future of retail development. We thought you'd be interested to read a few of his insights.
How do you describe the Food Hall?
We are a comprehensive farm shop with a restaurant and a café, and a lettings business offering ancillary health and well-being services; set within the stunning Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty along the River Orwell.
Food is at the heart of what we do, and we pride ourselves on being able to tell our customers the whole story - from beast to feast, as it were. As Suffolk farmers, we strive to retain our crown as the 'Champion of Champions for local food'.
We are a consumer business and so listening to our customers, staff and suppliers is key. As a smaller, niche independent retailer we are always thinking about how we can add to the experience that we offer, increasing people's interest and, by association, their spend potential.
How have you been finding the past two years?
The COVID trading period has taught us all a great deal; as owners, colleagues and also customers. Customers have come to value independent retailers, and to understand the point of difference that we offer versus the multiples. It is easier for us, as a small independent business, to adapt quickly. We are more reliable, resilient and inspiring, and we are re-enforcing the message that there is more to food than just its price.
We have had a good upturn in turnover, and we have seen a healthy increase in our margins - albeit this has to be set within the context of all challenges, that staff, suppliers and customers have faced. Many people have discovered us during this time have liked what they have found and have kept coming back.
What would you describe as the lessons learnt during this time?
Our team has learnt that things can be done in different innovative ways and adversity gives you an opportunity to do that. We have been able to challenge the norm and to bring about significant business transformation and cultural change, with many tangible benefits - sales by labour hour have increased significantly, for instance.
Our team dynamic is now much stronger, as adversity has brought everyone closer together. For example, during the lockdowns, the hospitality business closed but we were able to redeploy staff partially to the retail areas, to counter fatigue and increase the amount of cross-training and job interest.
We are always looking at how we can be better with what we already have, with greater efficiencies and cleverer ways of working. We need to create a long-term sustainable seven-day-a-week business model, and we need a strong, committed team to help drive that forward.
It is important for the team to be in the vanguard, and involve the team in every step of the decision-making process. At Suffolk Food Hall, effectively Managers lead OpCo and the Directors deal with the PropCo. We all rely heavily on everyone's commitment and expertise in the day-to-day running of our business and so we need to regularly recognise this and be grateful.
Managers have to know the numbers, through strong financial stewardship, and decisions need to be challenged, agreed and then receive wholehearted commitment. Interrogate ideas, understand the bigger picture and support those charged with implementation.
What would you say is the key ingredient for a good venue?
- Proximity to chimneypots - a threshold of people.
- Road access and connectivity.
- Something special about the location.
We are blessed where we are, just south of 140k people with sweeping views of the Orwell estuary, minutes from the A14/A12 junction. And we are clear on what we are and who we are trying to attract. We are not going for the bulk of grocery spend, rather we act as an extension of people's recreational activity.
We need to enable customers to spend money on something that is good and different, rather than simply clicking on something that is cheap and often disposable. To achieve this, businesses need the right space. And the right mindset to have a different offering that is in line with the core values of the business.
How long has Suffolk Food Hall been working with Penn Commercial?
Since we started in 2007, we have only ever used Penn Commercial to find other businesses that subscribe to our proposition.
Whilst Suffolk Food Hall focuses on food as its core offering, there are sixteen other compatriots operating across our site, including two beauty salons, three fitness operations and a number of catering and food production companies. We continue to welcome further complementary businesses to the collaboration.
We appointed Penn because of their pragmatic and determined approach. They take the time to gain a broader understanding of our site and strategic goals, and they put forward unsolicited and imaginative ideas to further the business' outreach.
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