I spoke to John about The Art of Meat and the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on business.
There’s been a butcher shop in the court for as long as the court’s been here. But I bought this shop fifteen years ago this July.
At the time, I was working as a research scientist in a university, looking at hypermethylation in HOG1 mutant of Arabidopsis and coming to the end of a three-year academic contract. I was on an academic pay scale, working short term contracts [which were] very hard. You never knew where the next pay packet was coming from.
A friend of mine said his old business was up for sale and outlined what it was capable of. I’d worked in a butcher’s when I first left school and could still remember all my knife skills, so I thought I’d give it a go for a year or two. That was fifteen years ago!
That’s amazing! How many employees do you have?
We have two full-time and one part-time employees.
Yeah. I’ve put through two people through their apprenticeships. One who is subsequently left to become a policeman. He worked for me for thirteen years.
The other I put through his level two apprenticeship. He’s been with me for five years.
The other guy who works for me has 13 years of experience as a butcher. And my wife works here part-time. She does basic butchery skills but mainly focuses on the bookkeeping.
Where do you source your products, are they local?
Yeah. Everything is as local as possible. I like to have a relationship with the people that I deal with. So, for example, the beef comes from Norfolk via a company called HG Blakes. It’s all grass-fed from small farms. The Blakes themselves are farmers. They go out and buy the cattle. It’s got a low carbon footprint and low food miles.
I use Blythburgh Pork, which is a Suffolk company, and our chicken and lamb are also from Suffolk. I’ve got some beef in this week from Landbeach, which is about as close [to home] as I can get. It’s from a tenant farmer called Chris Peacock. We put that order in as a private kill. Chris is a lovely guy to deal with. He raises everything by hand.
My free-range chickens come from Leicestershire. That’s because they deliver in this area and have the longest life of any free-range chicken in the UK, I think. They’re really good chickens.
The reason I got into this is that I’m interested in food. So I tried to attract foodie customers from the word go. I’m interested in people who appreciate food and want to know about where the food they’re buying comes from, especially people who come in and offer us a bit of a challenge around creating or sourcing something interesting.
Because the Arbury area is such a diverse demographic, we have a diverse group of customers. But the main aim is to attract people who are interested in food and appreciate the journey from the farm gate to the shop.
What makes The Art of Meat different from its competitors?
One of the things is that we make everything from scratch. We don’t use packet mixes or standard sausage or burger mixes. All of the sausage recipes, I make myself.
We try to trade on quality and service and understanding our customer base. Oh, and having fun.
One of the main things I decided early on in the business was that if you can’t have fun, there’s no point in doing it. We do enjoy ourselves. And I try and keep a happy workforce. Good people are worth treating well to keep a hold of.
I was very concerned about how we were going to cope with it, whether the business would have to shut and whether any of my staff would get ill. Luckily, none of us has had a problem yet.
Because of the nature of the shop and the counter, we’re naturally six feet from customers. We’ve changed things so it’s one person [in the shop] at a time and we’re delivering to the elderly and those who have to be in lockdown.
We’ve also changed our working hours so we can cope with the number of customers we have. We’ve nearly doubled our turnover.
The main hit for us financially would have been through the loss of our main wholesale customer, Steak & Honour [an American-style burger restaurant in Cambridge]. Although, we’re doing bits with them now as they start to come out of the other side of lockdown.
For the first two to three weeks, there were serious issues with the supply chain because everyone from the slaughterhouse upwards was having problems with staffing levels, demand and transport. That’s settled down now. And because of restaurants closing there’s more stock available, which has gone through the retail shops.
The silver lining to all of it is that we’ve seen families coming in midweek. We know that families are eating a lot more together. And we know that people are taking the time to prepare and enjoy food. Hopefully, that will have a knock-on effect long term.
We value what we are doing, from bringing in the carcass to having a finished product on display. It’s nice to see people having the time to value it as well.
The county council have been brilliant in terms of advice. The government has also been a good source of advice. Like a lot of small businesses, I’ve been eligible for grants, so that’s been a big help and a big buffer. But to be honest, any profit we’ve made in this period is being put away in case of any problems in the future.
One thing about being in business for a reasonable length of time is that you learn to be prudent.
Have you experienced any negative impact due to Covid-19?
One small thing is that it’s sometimes difficult to communicate with people when they’re wearing face masks. I’m missing people’s smiles.
The wholesale side of things completely disappeared for a while. That was a bit hit. But luckily, the increase in customer footfall has sort of made up for it.
Mainly, the standard health and safety precautions, wearing and changing gloves regularly and reducing [the number of customers in the shop] to one person at a time. That’s had an effect on us. When you have three of four people in the shop you can clear them out in one go. With one person at a time coming in, it’s not unusual for us to have to work nine hours without a break. But that’s just how it is at the moment.
Have you seen any changes in the type of customers you’ve been serving in the last 12 weeks?
Yes, lots of people on furlough! We’ve had customers who we mainly see at weekends coming in more regularly and people who’ve heard about us through word of mouth or seen stuff on social media.
We’ve also had quite a big increase in Italian customers. We produce a very traditional type of Italian sausage. And word’s got round on that because a couple of the guys who we supply sausage meat to for pizzas have had people asking where the sausage is from.
We have a bespoke sausage making service for over two kilos, so people are coming in and asking for gluten-free sausage or other special requests.
I’m feeling positive at the moment. I really hope that people who’ve had the chance to use the more local independent retailers will appreciate what we do and what we do differently to the big multinationals enough to carry on using us. Whether we’ll need to make changes to working hours to keep on attracting that trade is something we see on the other side of this [pandemic].
I just hope that people come out of it with an increased or renewed appreciation for food, where it comes from and the food chain. And if we’re doing our job right, we should see more trade because of that.
You can find The Art of the Meat and sample their wonderful selection of gourmet meats at 45 Arbury Court in Arbury, Cambridge.
You can also find more about their business, products and butchery techniques at their website, artofmeat.co.uk.