Farm café sets the standard

Sue Firth Owner of The Farm Caf� at Fulham House Farm, Whitley.
Sue Firth Owner of The Farm Caf� at Fulham House Farm, Whitley.
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Farm shops aren’t always the answer to rural diversification. They don’t work everywhere and they’re not for everyone.

Such was the case at Fulham House Farm between Whitley and Womersley on the south side of the M62 and just half a mile off the A19, but the experience has brought about a better business than Gary and Claire Needham and proprietor Sue Firth ever imagined.

The Farm Café is now one of the area’s most increasingly popular destinations and is far more than its name suggests. It isn’t some ‘greasy spoon’ establishment, even though it has to be said that it does serve excellent breakfasts including one known as The Hungry Farmer that may challenge many a morning appetite. It has much more of a restaurant-bistro atmosphere; a relaxed and upmarket feel.

“It’s been amazing,” says Sue. “I took over the running of the business in November 2012 and the trade has just gone crazy. People love coming in to the countryside where they can park easily. It’s so peaceful and is a lovely place to walk. I’ve also introduced a lot of home-made cooking such as lasagne and steak pies, plus a specials board.”

Sue, who lives nearby in Henshall, cooks and bakes the food herself from locally sourced ingredients. “I buy from Motson wholesale butchers in Doncaster and all my veg comes fresh from Doncaster Market. My eggs now come from Chucks & Cheese in Pollington, bread from Knottingley and milk from Moss. 
“We’ve just started opening on an evening for special nights. I see the future being in opening perhaps on Friday and Saturday evenings too. Our Sunday lunches are going really well, my partner Roger helps on that day too, and we’ve started opening on one evening every other Thursday for what we originally called Knit and Natter but has now developed into the delightfully named Chicks with Sticks.”

Claire’s mum and dad moved to Fulham House Farm over 30 years ago taking on the farm’s 450 acres and running an arable and beef operation. Her brother Geoffrey had an idea to have a few hens and started selling eggs from the farm gate using a trolley and an honesty box. The eggs sold well and more hens were bought. Claire explains its progression: “It grew into buying a bit of fruit and veg and putting it all in the garage. As the farm shop grew we moved it all into this building that had been a bull pen and a corn store.

“We wanted to do it all the right way and spent some serious money on making it look right but in the fullness of time the farm shop wasn’t working out for us. We were throwing so much food away and in the end we gave up.

“It seemed as though we were only really getting customers coming in to buy the bits they had forgotten whilst on their way home from the supermarket.”

Claire and Gary weren’t at Fulham House Farm when the egg business started. They were working elsewhere for a baler company, but 11 years ago Gary set up his own business Big Bale Services, of which they are both now directors, and rented a building from Claire’s mum and dad. The couple then bought six acres of land and the farmhouse when Claire’s parents came out of farming and moved to France in 2004. Gary now has a reputation for selling and hiring balers as well as maintaining, servicing and supplying parts for Massey Ferguson and New Holland big square balers. He undertakes all of the baler work that comes the way of Farmstar at Marr.

“Gary repaired my baler when I was 16,” says Claire. “That’s how we first met. Mum and dad had gone into agricultural contracting and I was driving the baler for them. We then worked together for another company before coming back here to set up at home.

“I knew that if we were going to get The Farm Café right we’d have to spend money and we have. I also knew that as well as transforming it we would have to keep it looking brand new and all spick and span.

“Eventually I found that I had too much on my plate with the bale business and becoming pregnant. That’s when Sue started running the shop as it was at the time. Within a month of taking it on the business was hers and now Sue pays rent to us. I’d never rent it to anyone else.”

Overcoming tough times

There’s strong bonds between Claire, Gary and Sue and they have gone through some tough times while building the business.

Claire was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare virus that causes the paralysis of nerves which only around 1,500 people develop each year. She spent 99 days in hospital and had to learn to walk again. Sue was on hand throughout and Claire counts her as her best friend. “We couldn’t have done anything without her, and now Sue is taking The Farm Café on to the next level. It’s great to come in here and have a glass of wine and great food. She has wonderful plans for the future.”