Fodder turns 5

Fodder, the innovative and unique farm shop which revolutionised the relationship between consumers and Yorkshire agriculture, while at the same time giving all its profits to charity, is celebrating their 5th anniversary. The café and shop, which is located at Harrogate’s Great Yorkshire Showground, first opened its doors on the 17th June 2009 and from that day went from strength to strength. Fodder is now on track to hit the milestone £10m turnover mark, and have exciting plans for their future.

Thanks to Fodder showcasing the best produce the county has to offer, a whole new relationship has sprung up between shoppers and the farmers of Yorkshire as they have proved it is affordable for consumer to both support local agriculture and buy food which has been locally sourced.

Its success is providing a model for how innovative thinking can help farmers and artisan food producers find new markets – and its example is being followed by farm shops not just from around Britain but across the world.
People who run farm shops elsewhere in the country – as well as from as far away as Canada and Australia – have visited to find out how it’s done.

Fodder was set up by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, the charity that champions the county’s farming and rural communities as well as running the Great Yorkshire Show.
Every penny of profit that Fodder makes goes to support the society’s work – and all food that is no longer fit to sell but fine to eat goes to the homeless.

Now, as Fodder celebrates its fifth anniversary it is looking to the future. A range of ready meals – made from the same locally-sourced food it sells – is being developed, and there are plans to extend its cafe, as well as set up an outside food ‘grab and go’ offer.
And it’s possible that there will be a second Fodder opened somewhere in Yorkshire over the coming years. Fodder’s success, its growing number of customers and optimism for the future make it easy to forget that its roots lay in one of the darkest hours for Yorkshire farming – the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic that saw the mass slaughter of animals.

Heather Parry, Deputy Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (YAS), said that the crisis prompted the society to plan a centre that would bring everybody involved in agriculture together, creating a focus for farming all year round, just as the Great Yorkshire Show becomes its focus for three days every July.

The £5.1m Regional Agricultural Centre at the showground was the result, and in keeping with the Society’s ethos of listening to farmers, it took heed of a suggestion they had to make. Their produce sold very well at the Great Yorkshire’s food hall every July, so would it be possible to create a shop to showcase it all year round?

Heather said: “We thought, ‘It can’t be that difficult, we can do that’. A lot of farms don’t have the right infrastructure, the right building, the right location to have a shop. We were building anyway, and it was just a matter of making it bigger.
“Because the GYS food hall is so busy and because foot and mouth had such a massive effect, we wanted to do more tangible things all year round to help the farming community.”
She and Fodder’s head chef embarked on an intensive tour of farms and producers to decide what the shop should sell, making 12 visits a day.

“We knew what we wanted,” said Heather. “We were very passionate that what we did here was a celebration of absolutely the best of Yorkshire, and the only way to do that was to go and see people and understand what they were making, and how they were making it, where it was from.

“Seeing them gave us a real insight, so we could be real, passionate champions of everything we sell.”
Fodder’s mission was to support Yorkshire producers, whilst demonstrating that locally-sourced food was affordable. It struck a chord with shoppers increasingly keen on knowing where their food comes from.
Heather said: “The beauty about Fodder is that it helps the suppliers and all profits go to help the charity while making local accessible to people.

“There’s a real surge of interest in local food and it’s about people knowing where to get it, and also about making it affordable. There was a perception it was very expensive, and actually it shouldn’t be any more expensive.”
But in that summer of 2009, trade got off to a slow start.
“When we first opened, people thought it was so nice, it looked like Harrods and they wouldn’t be able to afford anything, and that played against us in some ways,” said Heather.

“What happened was that the cafe started to take off, because people thought they could afford a coffee, and that’s what brought people in. The cafe was great, but initially the shop was slow to get going.”
Everything about Fodder was innovative, even down to the building itself, which was the most eco-friendly in Yorkshire. Timber-framed, with solar panels and insulated with the wool of 1,500 sheep, it won awards for its design and commitment to sustainability.

Running it was a learning curve. “It was very difficult getting the right mix of stuff and the right amount of stuff. Being a retailer was more complicated than we’d thought,” said Heather.
“We re-thought things every day. We never planned to have a gift area, but we were buying game from a gamekeeper whose wife made cushions and suddenly we’ve got the area we called ‘Giftland’, because there are lots of lovely crafts and gifts in Yorkshire that we want to celebrate as well.”

Customer demand took Fodder in some unexpected directions – like selling pasta, added Heather. “When we started selling pasta, meat sales went up hugely because people want to come in and buy everything they need for a meal, so we’re actually helping more farmers locally by selling pasta. It was those sorts of things – you set off with these golden ambitions, but to achieve the ambitions, you have to refine the route.”
And it was customer demand for food they could trust that sent beef sales soaring by 47 per cent last year when the scandal over horsemeat in supermarket ready meals broke.
All meat sold by Fodder is fully traceable back to Yorkshire farms, where livestock has been kept to the highest standards of welfare.
Butchery saes are still growing overall, but Heather and Fodder’s General Manager, Jane Thornber, have noticed that some customers have returned to supermarket ready meals.
Heather said: “We’ve got a lot of customers from that period who still come, but a lot have slipped back into going to the supermarkets and that’s interesting. We won’t be the cheapest, but we will be the best and at a reasonable price.”
Feedback from both customers and suppliers is vital for Fodder. Mystery shops are carried out monthly, and research has been done with both regular and new customers.
Fodder’s rapport with its suppliers is vital for both the shop and those who produce its food. Jane said: “Not many shops deal with 327 suppliers, they will just go to a couple of wholesalers, so a lot of our time is spent dealing directly with our suppliers, we are talking to them all the time.”
Heather added: “We’ve never got complacent. Like any business, you’ve got to keep growing and keep listening. We’re passionate and the suppliers are passionate, and we have them in for the evening and give them food and drink. We want to hear how they’re doing, and they want to know how we’re doing, what our top 10 products are in each area, what profit we’re making for charity, what are we going to do next.”

Fodder continues to lead the way for farm shops both nationally and internationally. Heather and Jane welcome visits from shops eager to tap into Fodder’s experience to build their own businesses, and are happy to share everything that has been learned along the way. Heather said: “They started coming round undercover, but we said, ‘Don’t be undercover, tell us, we’ll show you round the back, we’ll show you the mistakes we’ve made’.

“We are very helpful, we’re very welcoming. We’re here to help farming, to help local food. The supermarkets are very strong, and we’re as strong by working together as a team of people.
“Working with the community of farm shops, not just in Yorkshire but nationally and worldwide, it’s a nice group of people and we can learn from each other.”

It’s not yet certain when or where a second Fodder will open its doors. Heather said: “If we can help more suppliers by doing more in different areas, it’s all to play for, and I think in the next couple of years there’ll be another one, but we need to be very careful because we don’t want to damage any independent shops or farm shops in another area.
“It’s been quite a journey. When I show people round, I always say it’s the best thing I’ve done, but also the hardest thing I’ve done.”