Musing: Delicatessen Magazine (Sep 2018)

After a meeting with Chris McNeill – editor of The Delicatessen Magazine – in the margins of January’s Scottish Speciality Food Show in Glasgow, Mr Deli was excited to be asked to write a regular column for this increasingly influential independent trade publication.

In the second of his regular columns, Mr Deli explores what it takes to go the extra mile and to source directly with producers (read Mr Deli’s first column here)


Getting Out From Behind the Cheese Counter

Small business is time-consuming. However idyllic the Instagram feed looks, the life of a delicatessen owner isn’t all wine-tasting and that fun crowd in the ‘secret garden’ finishing up and filling a £50 basket of food treats to take home. In fact, there’s a whole host of cardboard flattening, deep cleaning, shelf stacking, small talk, glass washing, floor mopping and light bulb changing which fills each and every day … and a mezzanine level in the diary if you can find one. The temptation is to hunker down and find ways to make life as easy as possible. Not least, there’s an attraction to reaching for a distributor’s catalogue to top up the shelves after a busy few days.

But there is an alternative. 

When we started our little high street delicatessen, time was of the essence. Flash to bang we had just over 6 weeks to get our act together. 6 WEEKS! What the heck were we thinking?

Here’s the confession for this Issue’s column … we mostly shopped from a catalogue for that ‘Day One’ look. We made a few guesses, tried to imagine what folk would want, summoned up memories of delis we’d loved and the stock they’d tempted us with and we slapped in an electronic order or two.

The result?

You’ve guessed … a pretty generic offering. Why wouldn’t it be? If we all shop from the same places, we’re all going to look the same.

Then what ..?

Some things sold. Customers were caught up in the novelty of this new high street arrival; curiosity overcame the paucity of imagination behind the stock choices. Baskets were filled and shelves started to need replenished. But some stock refused to move. We puzzled and questioned ourselves … we imagined that customers would soon fall for the pretty range of pasta choices, the gluten-free twists, the coloured ones – come on, folk, just look at the amazing cook-in sauces we’ve chosen to go with them!

There never was one blinding moment of realisation. But it was obvious that we weren’t half as good as we thought we were going to be. Sure, the shelves looked tidy; we switched things around to create a different emphasis. We moved some stock on – bargain bag, anyone? But there was still something missing … it was all just a little bit same’y. There was nothing making us stand out. We didn’t have any compelling stories to tell, no producers to really get behind. We had labels to read but no real knowledge of what it took to bring the products to our customers. We had to do something different.

We decided to get out from behind the cheese counter. We chose to head out on the road to discover a ‘handpicked’ collection of our own choices. It was time to reach out and find the stories, to curate our selections into a ‘look and feel’ that said something about why the produce had made it into our deli.

It’s not easy.

It adds to the list of small business tasks that need to be done.

It means that – for a small owner-run business like ours – we need to shut the shop, absorb the loss of takings and get ourselves out and about, working alongside special producers.

But surely that’s the point of what we do.

We’re a simple shop … a delicatessen on a high street. What makes us a venue of choice, a place where people choose to buy the things they didn’t know they wanted until they saw them, is the range of delights we put before them. What our customers want is a value proposition put to them. They want to know what is hand-foraged … they need to understand the variations in taste and consistency that the seasons throw at cheese-makers, bee keepers and wine producers. Our responsibility is to seek out the farmer’s son who is adding value to the farm by turning beef into biltong … we have to find the farm which nurtures its veal calves so that an expert charcuterie maker can produce high quality rose veal salami and sausages (we need to know that that same farm creates a raw milk double cloth bound cheddar which makes it a pleasure for us to step back behind the cheese counter we temporarily escaped from). Our job as delicatessen owners is to celebrate food and the way it is sourced, prepared and turned into great tastes.

We have to be story-tellers.

Sure, we can read the website copy or the carefully chosen words in catalogues. But there cannot be anything better than rushing around the countryside, loading your vehicle with product, shaking hands/hugging/laughing with and learning from producers who are the masters of their crafts.

You’ll definitely lose a day’s takings. But you’ll have a week’s worth of stories, a month’s worth of stock and a year’s worth of goodwill, gathered from face-to-face encounters with the producers of your handpicked collection of great tastes. You can’t put a price on that.