Farming feature: Popular butcher celebrates 50 years in business
- Credit: Gregg Brown
A well-known and popular figure, both in north Essex where he runs a retail outlet and in Sudbury, west Suffolk, where has been a regular at the town market for decades, butcher John Coleman is celebrating a significant milestone.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of his business, which provides meat to many respected butchers, restaurants and pubs in the area, as well to hundreds of domestic customers who swear by the quality of his locally produced cuts.
But it could have been so different. In the early 1960s, John trained to be a plumber and it was only because he had all his tools stolen and was unable to work that he turned his hand to buying and selling rabbits and chickens with the help of a £100 loan from his mother. Fast forward to 2015 and today John employs over 30 people at his butcher’s and farm shop in Boxted near Colchester, some of who join him on his mobile shop, which visits Sudbury market on Thursdays and Saturdays.
There’s almost always a queue at John’s mobile shop – a proper traditional butcher’s stall where local game, such as pheasants, rabbits and pigeons can be seen hanging for sale during the winter months. It’s an incredibly popular part of the market and people travel from far and wide to buy his wares. It is a reputation he has built up over 44 years of being ever-present on market days.
“When I was first on the market it was thriving – they had all sorts of stalls selling things like buttons and cloth,” he says. “There were also five greengrocer stalls at that time because they were the days before supermarkets.”
Despite struggling at certain periods in recent memory, John believes the future of the Sudbury market is a good one, thanks to the support of the town council and the healthy balance of traders who sell a range of produce from fish and eggs to bakery items.
“People are coming back to the market because of the food scares we have had in recent years,” continues John. “I think the supermarkets are struggling because people want to know where their food has come from and it is difficult to trace when you are sourcing from a long way off and from abroad. I can say that 90% of the meat we sell comes from within a radius of 30 miles of here – no supermarkets can say that.”
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Some of this produce is sourced directly from John’s own herd of cattle, which numbers around 300 and is grazed on the water meadows at Boxted and Sudbury. The chickens he sells are raised by Diapers Poultry based in Haughley near Stowmarket while this Christmas he around 3,000 turkeys together with numerous ducks, pheasants and geese – all from farms in Essex and Suffolk.
It is not just the quality and local provenance of his meat that has made John a household name in Sudbury – it is the fact that he is always there, in his distinctive straw boater, greeting and serving customers, and brightening their day. He says in the 44 years he has been coming to the market twice a week, he and his team have only missed it a handful of times.
“We do what is required to make sure we are here because people are expecting us,” he says. “If snow or bad ice is predicted overnight we have been known to drive the trailer over on a Friday evening, the day before, because we know we won’t be able to pull it up the hill near Nayland once it has snowed.”
John adds: “There are quite a lot of people who I’ve been serving for more than 30 years who still come to the stall every week. Over the years I’ve served three generations of some families. People travel for miles – from Colchester and Woodbridge - to buy our meat on the market.
“I’ve a great team here and some are better butchers than I’ll ever be because they are fully trained and I never was. But they like to see me on the stall – I suppose because I represent tradition.”
When John isn’t on the stall the chances are he is away somewhere around the country judging cattle at shows and fairs - something he does on a regular basis.
Other parts of his business include outside catering for weddings and business functions where his hog roasts have become legendary. He also supplies many leading eateries in the region including Ufford Park, the Bulmer Fox and the Green Man at Six Mile Bottom near Newmarket, renowned for its steaks.
Now aged 70, John has worked hard over the years to make his business a success but says he may take his foot off the pedal after his 50th anniversary.
He adds: “For most of that time I have worked seven days a week - there is always something to do and you only get out what you put in. I’ve now moved to working five days a week and expect I’ll stay involved in the business for a long time to come.”