This week, I chat to Ruth Huxley, Managing Director of Cornwall Food and Drink about her showcase for Cornish Products, the Great Cornish Food Store.
She has been championing Cornish products for nearly twenty years and knows so much about Cornish businesses. Her Great Cornish Food Store is five years old this week, so it's an absolute pleasure to feature this important store and to find out more about her motivation and plans for the future.
Tell us about your background
I’ve been working on the development and promotion of Cornwall’s food and drink industry for about twenty years now, helping businesses find and capitalise on opportunities and become better and stronger at what they’re doing.
In 2010, I set up the network Cornwall Food & Drink, providing a collective voice for the industry here. Until we opened the store, I guess we were best known for putting on the Great Cornish Food Festival, the biggest event anywhere dedicated entirely to Cornish food and drink which, by the time we ran our last festival in 2018, was generating millions for the local economy every year and drew visitors from all over the world.
What led you to starting your business and how has this evolved over time?
The Great Cornish Food Store was a sort of happy accident for me really. I’d originally been involved in the planning stages - doing the market research to establish whether the concept of a local food store sitting beside a major supermarket would really stack up. So when Waitrose asked if I’d consider making it happen I was a bit taken aback. My response was pretty adamant: “Good grief no, I’d never touch retail in a million years!”
However, when it struck me that a permanent bricks and mortar showcase for Cornish produce could in fact be a really good fit with what Cornwall Food & Drink was already doing, a spark was ignited. I had little direct experience of retail and definitely didn’t have any spare time, so it was crazy to even consider it really, and my team was divided right down the middle about whether it was a sensible move. I knew that a big part of me felt I’d regret it if I didn’t at least give it a go. If someone else took it on and made a hash of it I’d never forgive myself; and if someone else took it on and made a real success of it I’d probably kick myself.
The rest, as they say, is history. Here we are now, five years older and very very much wiser. I invested everything I had into getting the store open, and put my reputation on the line too, which I think really helped my determination to make it work; it was a massive baptism of fire. Looking back, I wince at my own naivety and how little we knew about what we were taking on. We made countless mistakes and are still learning but, exasperating as that can be at times, I think it’s also half the fun of it. I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t have some sort of challenge to tackle!
What inspires and motivates you?
I guess I need to feel I’m involved in something that’s changing things for the better; rather than just doing something for the sake of it. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist so I don’t see the point in doing something if you’re not going to try to do it as well as you possibly can.
Tell us how you manage to be sustainable in your business
The whole ‘buy local’ ethos is about minimising the supply chain, keeping things simple and avoiding food travelling unnecessarily, but I also feel quite strongly that you can’t expect people to buy into that just because it’s ‘good for the planet’. It has to be good for them too. That’s why we go to great lengths to ensure that we stock a really comprehensive range of good quality produce at realistic prices and offer unbeatable service alongside. We want our customers to come to the store because they love it, not because they feel guilt-tripped into it.
It’s also well known that the greatest contributor to ‘food miles’ is the shopping journey of the final consumer. Therefore joining forces with a supermarket so that our customers can do all their grocery shopping in one place (as well as picking up lovely things like Helen’s linens) is intended to reduce the environmental cost of food shopping.
We’re also keenly aware that waste is a huge contributor to environmental damage, and the most important thing we can all do is minimise the creation of waste in the first place rather than just think that by recycling things we’re doing all we can.
We make a huge effort here at the store to reduce our waste and for the waste we do generate to have minimal environmental impact. By being really smart with our ordering and using our own kitchen to move fresh produce through the store swiftly, our food waste from the whole business remarkably fills just one or two household size wheelie bins each week and it goes to an anaerobic digestion plant to be turned into energy. Our cardboard is mostly recycled by customers using boxes to take their shopping home and the remainder is used by a local gardener to create mulch for his veg plot.
We also take sustainability into account when we’re selecting our suppliers and that’s one of the reasons we love Helen’s products, particularly the eco range.
Things like the sandwich wraps and face masks, for example, can go a long way to minimising the use of throw-away equivalents, as well as reduce Helen’s own waste by using up smaller offcuts of linen.
We like to think of sustainability in its broader sense too. So, for example, helping businesses to become more financially viable or to prepare for changing market trends will help them survive, which in turn helps to keep diversity in the supply chain, which is essential for the longer term sustainability of our economy and our environment.
What are your 3 top tips to live more sustainably?
Buy only what you know you can use. One of the reasons we’re so proud of our fresh counters is that customers can buy as much or as little as they need at any time rather than being forced to buy pre-packed weights, especially of things like meat and cheese.
Buy what’s in season locally. Before we took on the store, we once did an experiment at home to buy only from local shops for 6 months and were very surprised at how much variety we found when we looked hard enough (and also how much money we saved when we weren’t being distracted by other things).
Live as if you’ll live for ever. People of my age might think their own habits don’t matter because they won’t have any real impact in their own lifetime but I prefer to think of us as custodians of the planet. I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to be able to enjoy it too.
What are you most excited to work on over the next few months?
After lurching our way through the pandemic, re-inventing ourselves to supply customers who couldn’t get out, second-guessing how people would shop during all the different stages and complying with the constantly-changing rule book, we’re exhausted! But we’ve used the time productively too, evaluating the last five years and what we’ve learned, and putting ideas together for life beyond Covid (or is it life with Covid?). Now we can’t wait to get stuck into making some of those ideas happen, although it’s likely to be much slower than we’d like as I imagine we’ll be jumping through hoops for a while yet. Watch this space…
What piece of advice would you give to someone who is looking to set up their own company?
I can’t think of one piece so I’ll give you two:
1) Get the best advice you can possibly afford from a real expert who isn’t a friend or family member. Time with someone who really knows what they’re talking about will pay dividends.
2) Don’t underestimate how much it takes to run your own business successfully, especially in the early stages. It will consume you, sap all your energy, cost twice as much money as you think and fill all your waking hours but, if it’s successful, the sense of achievement is wonderful.
Thanks Ruth, what amazing insight into the development of such an important retail space for Cornish products. We've loved being part of your store and it is wonderful to have a showcase for the wonderful products that are produced in Cornwall, so a big thank you from me!
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