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Hollow Trees Farm determined to turn things around – despite huge challenges

PUBLISHED: 04:00 28 June 2020 | UPDATED: 09:59 28 June 2020

Sally Bendall stocking shelves at Hollow Trees Farm Shop Picture: SHAN BENDALL

Sally Bendall stocking shelves at Hollow Trees Farm Shop Picture: SHAN BENDALL

S&R Bendall

A popular farm attraction business saw its turnover plummet by two thirds overnight after lockdown was imposed.

Louisa White of Hollow Trees Farm Shop taking a customer’s click and collect order to the car park. Louisa is part of our education team so has been redeployed into the new system   Picture: SHAN BENDALLLouisa White of Hollow Trees Farm Shop taking a customer’s click and collect order to the car park. Louisa is part of our education team so has been redeployed into the new system Picture: SHAN BENDALL

Hollow Trees Farm, in Semer, near Hadleigh, also fell just a fraction the wrong side of the £51k rateable value which would have unlocked government grant aid.

“We have not been eligible for any government grants at all to support the shop and in particular bespoke click and collect services we established,” explained Sally Bendall, who heads up the family farm diversification.

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The complicated £2.8m turnover “jigsaw” business – which employs 60 staff – faced huge challenges as it battled to keep afloat through the crisis.

It had to furlough its 15-strong café team after shutting its high margin areas to comply with the rules. It also had to cancel its events for the year and let go five of its student team.

Robert and Sally Bendalls with the newly-created safe shopping environment at Hollow Trees Farm Shop with screens and signage Picture: SHAN BENDALLRobert and Sally Bendalls with the newly-created safe shopping environment at Hollow Trees Farm Shop with screens and signage Picture: SHAN BENDALL

“With the closure of the farm trail and café we lost two thirds of our income overnight,” said Sally.

But from the start, the family was determined to keep the farm shop open – despite the temporary loss of some staff.

“This was non-negotiable. Friends and customers in our rural community and beyond depend upon us – as an essential food business we needed to stay open,” said Sally. “We felt – and still feel – we just needed to get on with it. We need to support our team in any way we can and face what comes and do the best we can in the circumstances.”

Some non-furloughed staff swapped roles to pack fruit and veg for customers. But the biggest concern was protecting customer-facing employees, she said.

As well as the café and farm shop and selling home grown and local produce, the business includes a butchery selling home produced beef, pork and lamb, a deli, a plant centre and an open farm attraction taking a route around the farm and livestock buildings. An on-site team delivers an all-year-round programme of ‘on farm’ education and events.

“The areas lost are our high margin areas and to be a standalone shop again in a small village is, in the long run not viable. However, at present it has become up to the farm shop to keep us afloat. We needed to adapt quickly and are still doing so,” said Sally.

The diversification of the small 54-acre farm began 34 years ago after Sally and Robert recognised their arable operation couldn’t make it alone.

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After lockdown, changes were made to the shop layout, with screens on the tills and butchery, and shelves moved to provide more social distance.

After an initial buying frenzy post-lockdown, the retail side has remained busy - with fewer customers but a bigger per-person spend.

“It was case of taking things a day at a time, even hour by hour as things were changing so rapidly and we were trying to set up new systems, deal with anxious team members and customers,” said Sally.

Managing customer flow to keep within government guidelines proved challenging, and coping with the new hygiene and distancing was difficult, she admitted. “We stood back and looked on in great sadness while all this happened. For over 30 years we have worked to make a friendly welcoming business but now the shop looked like a high security area.”

However, they have found ways to soften barriers with plants, and staff have adapted well. They increased break times for staff as serving behind a screen proved exhausting.

The click and collect orders have dropped off a bit as customers venture out and have more choice, but they remain a big part of the day.

Hollow Trees’ next plan now is to offer a takeaway menu as soon as possible.

“Social distancing on the farm trail will be a big challenge and we have already undertaken a lot of work to redirect paths and parking,” said Sally.

She estimates that if everything returned to normal tomorrow it would still take two years for the business to recover.

Despite the setbacks, she remains optimistic that with their “fantastic loyal customer base”, and “brilliant” team they will turn things around.

“We are coming out of the hungry gap and into a harvest time with of lots of lovely home grown and local produce which is always a pleasure to be part of so that will help to lift us and help motivate the team,” she said.

“Hollow Trees Farm will continue to adapt and change as needed but throughout that we will always retain our values of support and community.

“We are in a bit of a rural bubble where we have just got our heads down and carried on but we would not want to be anywhere else. We count ourselves very lucky to live where we do and be part of a fantastic community.”

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