Regional chain sets store by its local producers

Darsham Hamper preview - Fiona and Alaistaire Brice - hen tries out the playground

Darsham Hamper preview - Fiona and Alaistaire Brice - hen tries out the playground - Credit: Archant

When the East of England Co-operative Society decided about seven years ago it was time to launch a ‘Sourced Locally’ range championing its local suppliers, it had little idea that it would become such a phenomenon.

On Thursday, it will open a new flagship store on the site of a former Little Chef restaurant on the A12. It will showcase the many food and drink products to come out of this fruitful collaboration with local producers which have seen sales soar, year on year, within the range.

Around 80% of products stocked at Darsham Hamper, near Yoxford, will be supplied direct from farmers, growers and producers in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk.

The store incorporates a Coffeelink cafe serving food and drink run by Ipswich-based coffee entrepreneur and Sourced Locally supplier Azzouz El-Mahraoui following on from the success of a similar venture at its Leiston store, as well as an outside seating area and a play area for children. Azzouz says he plans to incorporate local produce from within the store into his dishes.

The idea is to create an East Anglian food and drink showcase for the many visitors from outside the region to the east coast. It will also serve as a useful focal point for villagers and local shoppers, as the ‘farm shop’ style store will be a one-stop food shop catering equally for everyday shoppers keen to support local producers or to sample some of the growing array of products grown, and now processed, on our doorsteps.

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Buoyed by strong sales of its Sourced Locally range, the Co-op has invested more than £600,000 in the purchase of the half-acre site and the refurbishment of the 213m sq store.

In line with the store’s ethos, the East of England Co-op has used local contractors to carry out the works - Draper & Nichols of Norwich, Ceetech of Ipswich and Sapphire Cooling of Grundisburgh. They’ve created a light and airy space which includes a quarry tiled floor, energy efficient lighting, air conditioning and rustic style wooden shelving. The outside of the building has been clad with black weatherboards to give it a traditional Suffolk barn look.

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The excitement among the Sourced Locally suppliers whose goods will be stocked in store is palpable.

The society’s latest Producer of the Year winner Ian Whitehead, pig farmer and creator of Suffolk Salami was one of the chain’s early crop of local suppliers. He now employs about nine staff and expects to see that increase shortly to about 12 to 14.

“We are creating jobs. It all helps. Certainly we have seen an increase in sales on the back of the award,” he says.

“I think we were probably one of the very first local suppliers. We began trading with the Co-op back in 1998. They took over local grocery stores called Henry Abbott’s in Eye, Debenham and Framlingham, and kept us on as a supplier. That’s where it all started from and we have grown with the Co-op over the years really - they have been good to work with,” he says. “It’s a very exciting initiative. I think it also demonstrates the strength there is in local food in Suffolk.”

Katherine Manning of Marybelle, Rendham, which supplies milk and dairy products, has seen her family dairy business expand to employ about 17 staff. She welcomes the store launch.

“The Co-op is a brand that people trust,” she says.

“It would be nice to think other larger names could take a leaf out of the Co-op’s book in other parts of the country. It’s a good model to take on. We have got to support what food we have in this country.”

Alastaire Brice of Havensfield Eggs at Hoxne says he has been supplying the East of England Co-op for four years. This has given him stability, exposure and allowed him to grow the business, which now employs 17 staff.

Store manager Adam Herbert says he is “excited” by the challenge of running an untested business model.

“It’s definitely uncharted territory. It will be a lot of trial and error - see what works and what doesn’t work,” he says.

The societ’s food operations controller John Clarke says the store will cater for many different markets.

“We have got the local population that we look to serve and provide essentially a village store for. We have also got the road users, because it’s a busy trunk road.

“There might be people stopping off for a break or a coffee and, of course, you have got your tourist business. We are on a major tourist route here. We are looking to service some of the day trippers and holidaymarkets going into Southwold and Walberswick and very much the day time trade with parents with children.

“We are hoping it will be become a meeting point as well for families in the area.”

The East of England Co-op has been using various media to get the message out about the store opening, and has had “some really favourable responses”, says John.

Despite the obvious advantage of being on the tourist trail, the chain is determined the store should provide good value products for shoppers.

“We don’t want it to be just a gift shop. We want to supply a meal solution either for local families or people on a picnic or a weekender,” he says. “It’s being able to offer local products as the major constituent of a shopping basket but still be able to provide a full meal package.”

As an added bonus, the society has also been able to upgrade what had become a dilapidated site.

John, one of the first to look at the building after a colleague earmarked it as a possibility, recalls visiting what at that point still looked like “a Little Chef time capsule”. “I couldn’t believe it when I walked in to see the transformation,” he says.

In the coffee shop, staff are beavering away to transform their area, while co-op staff beginning stocking up shelves.

“It has been fantastic working with the guys from the Co-op,” says Azzouz. But he added: “There’s so much to get right, as you can see.”

The doors of Darsham Hamper open to the public for the first time on Thursday, April 17, at 10 am. Everyone is welcome along to enjoy a morning of celebrations for all the family, which includes live music from the East of England Co-op brass band, an appearance from the Easter bunny, Easter cooking fun for children, competitions and prize draws, local food tastings and goody bags for East of England Co-op members.

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