Meet the couple who swapped company cars and bonuses to run village shop The Dale Stores in Birstwith

Village shop owners Matthew and Andrea Walwyn have been humbled by the response they have received from customers since The Dale Stores in Birstwith was nominated for a Countryside Alliance Award.

Fifteen years ago they swapped a life of company cars, share options, bonuses, sizeable salaries and a house in Harrogate to follow their passion for local quality food after their third choice for their daughter’s primary education ended up being the school she was given a place at. Andrea said she couldn’t believe it at the time.

“I remember thinking, where’s Birstwith? We had put it down, not really thinking Rosie wouldn’t get either of the first two, but when we came out to look at the school we fell in love with the village.”

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It was when Andrea saw an advertisement for The Dale Stores that their future was decided. The couple used to pop into the shop when dropping off Rosie at school.

Matthew, Andrea and Rosie are now fully embedded in Birstwith life, 15 years after their move

“When people sometimes say life is planned for you, I think it probably was for us. We’d thought of doing something for ourselves and had previously looked at taking on a jam-making business that we had missed out on. When this came up we were determined we weren’t going to miss out again. We walked through the door, thought we could do something with the house and the shop and made an offer straight away.”

Sitting on the bench outside the shop after their first day was an eye opener, as Matthew recalled.

“We counted our takings. There was £200 in the till and we thought what the hell had we done? We used to spend that at the Co-op on a Saturday shop for ourselves!”

Matthew said they had never looked back since. Their professional lives had been in food manufacture and catering.

Andrea also sells her own home-made jam and chutney range at the shop

“We began filling the shop with good quality local food, the things that we would want to buy if we were customers. We hadn’t wanted to change everything straight away but when a previous supplier of meat and pies retired a couple of weeks after we started it enabled us to source from Weatherheads butchers in Pateley Bridge.

“We now source from Paul Kendall in Pateley. It was quite a decision at the time, but we’re now Paul’s top customer and we get our own customers from far and wide because we stock his meats. We also have Dales Dairies milk from Grassington and support our local milkman Michael Bellerby, who we’ve been with for 12 years; and eggs come from from Ian Taylor of Burton Leonard.”

Community resource organisation The Plunkett Foundation was promoting a ‘Look for Local’ campaign. Matthew and Andrea took on the branding in the shop, which helped accentuate their own support of local suppliers. Andrea said this was a major step that showed they cared about their area and those who produced food.

“We built our offering and reputation around local quality produce and had stands at Birstwith Show and Ripley Show to promote what we were doing. We also then developed our own brand of AJ’s, using my initials of Andrea Joanne, through a marketing friend in Harrogate. The beauty of AJ’s is that people can’t buy that brand of preserves, chutneys and cooking sauces from anywhere else, so they have to come to us or order online.”

The couple say the pandemic saw increased interest in local produce - as well as more mail passing through their Post Office counter

Matthew said the perception of village shops is that they are more expensive than supermarkets and that they are somewhere people pop in for a loaf of bread, block of butter and pint of milk.

“We wanted to dispel all that. We knew we couldn’t beat supermarkets, but we could match them, promote and support local farmers and Yorkshire produce. We made a point of keeping all of our supermarket-type products such as breakfast cereals and tinned products price-marked, so that we could overcome another perception that village shops set their own higher prices.”

Matthew and Andrea were focused on becoming a destination shop, somewhere not just the villagers would support but those from miles around would come to because of their offering.

‘Food To Go’ saw them expand into a section of their house, building a new commercial kitchen to produce paninis, homemade soups, jacket potatoes, salads and hot and cold sandwiches.

Matthew said they decided to rein it in when they found they had started to become seen more as a sandwich shop than a village store.

“It wasn’t what we wanted for our shop. This is a beautiful village full of lovely people and we enjoy running a beautiful shop that people like coming to for what we stock, whether that is our AJ’s range, local hams, cheeses, breads, pork pies, eggs and our special Yorkshire hampers.”

In March last year when the first lockdown hit Matthew and Andrea ensured their village customers came first. Andrea said Matthew was a local hero.

“We never ran out of anything. Matthew was sat outside the wholesalers for our tinned goods and cereals at 6.45 every morning for the minute they opened and straight back here. Our bakery sent flour bags and blocks of fresh yeast, it was like the old days weighing it all out. Our fruit and vegetable supplier had got hold of a toilet roll supply!

“We weren’t used to handling the demand but people panicked when their online grocery delivery orders were cancelled and we stepped in.”

The Dale Stores is also a Post Office Local, which Andrea said was one of the first in the country.

“We had always been a Post Office and when the change came we decided to continue as a service to the community. The volume of mail during the pandemic has astounded me.”

Matthew said the award nomination, originally for 2020 but deferred to 2021, has brought about such a feelgood factor.

“The testimonials have been phenomenal and very touching. Whatever happens it has reaffirmed what the community thinks about us.

“Rosie has put together a great video for the judges. People keep coming in asking if we’ve heard anything. It’s excited everyone.”