A growing family firm

Award-winning Keelham Farm Shop is about to add a second string to its bow, taking its winning formula to Skipton. Catherine Scott meets the brother and sister team behind the venture.

The Robertshaw family

Victoria Robertshaw had a very different upbringing to her brother, James.

She was privately educated, went to university and spent 13 years working in top London firms before returning to the family’s Keelham Farm Shop, near Bradford.

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He went to the local school, left at 16, and entered what his sister calls the “Robertshaw training programme”, working on the family farm and in the farm shop, and learning butchery skills.

However, for the last six years the pair have been running the phenomenally-successful farm shop, bringing together James’s years of experience in farming and buying animals direct from auction and Victoria’s marketing, accounting and business skills. It is a partnership made in heaven.

Since they came together Keelham Farm Shop has grown beyond recognition.

From the small shop started by their dad, to employing 128 people with sales to £8.2m a year with some 9,000 customers a week.

And they are now set to repeat it in a new, purpose-built, eco-friendly farm shop in Skipton which will employ 60 people.

The phrase “Farm Shop” really doesn’t give the full story about their business.

When you drive up to Keelham, on an isolated road between Thornton and Queensbury which is surrounded by nothing but farms, mostly owned by members of the Robertshaw family, it is immediately clear that there is much more on offer than just a few cuts of meat and some mud-covered vegetables.

It is a veritable one-stop shop for those wanting good quality, local produce at an affordable price.

It was a freezing, snowy Thursday morning when I visited Keelham and the car park was packed.

Inside people were pushing bursting trollies filled with all manner of goodies from the award-winning butcher, the vast array of fruit and veg, the homemade soups, jams, confectionary and Easter treats, to name just a few.

“We want people to be able to come here and do a proper shop,” says Victoria.

“You can come here and buy your Yorkshire beef, and fresh veg, but also your flour and eggs to make the Yorkshire pudding and Oxo cubes to make the gravy.”

The pair have invested half a million pounds refurbishing and extending the shop to bring it into the 21st century, complete with garden centre, petting farm and at Christmas, Santa’s Grotto.

But it is farming which is at the heart of Keelham.

The farm where Victoria and James grew up was first run by their grandfather Harry, who decided to diversify and opened a butchers shop in Halifax in 1929.

His son Andrew – James and Victoria’s father – opened the first farm shop in the early 1970s. “There weren’t nearly the number of farm shops there are today,” says James. “Dad was quite innovative. He had a very clear ethos.”

The brother and sister grew up next door to the farm and shop, although there wasn’t a normal farming upbringing.

“Our parents separated in the 1970s when we were six and four,” explains Victoria. “Dad was left to bring us up, which was fairly unusual at that time, as well as run the farm and the shop. It was a different sort of upbringing, although we were surrounded by family members.”

“I remember sitting on the tractor before school 
waiting for Dad,” recalls James.

One of the things they remember about their dad, who wasn’t known as much of talker, was his sense of fairness and generosity.

“We really try to keep to this ethos,” says Victoria.

“We are passionate about helping the local community and charities.

“We support more than 400 local farmers. We are the very essence of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

“However big we get, we are a family business, built by farmers and run by farmers.”

And they are hopeful that they will be able to pass on their passion for providing great local produce at an affordable price to their children. And with seven between them, aged between two and 13, odds are they will find someone to take over the mantle.

But unlike when they were growing up, Keelham has a strict policy of not employing anyone in the shop under the age of 16.

Having been away from farming for 13 years, Victoria believes it is important for her children to experience life beyond Keelham first.

“I think it is important that they get time to do something else, like I did, and then return if they want to,” she says.

After studying at Durham University, Victoria qualified as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen in London in 1994 and then worked for a number of FTSE 100 companies.

She moved back to Yorkshire in 2006 where James had been holding 
the fort since their father’s death.

The influence of her commercial background is clear to see and is a perfect fit with her sibling’s farming knowledge.

While she is showing me a slick overhead presentation full of facts and figures, James has to make his excuses as he has to rush to Thirsk Farmers Auction where he needs to buy produce for the shop.

“I know the provenance 
of every beast,” he says proudly.

The siblings are looking forward to extending their successful formula to their new Skipton venture.

But you get the feeling this is not the end of their ambitions.

“I would like to see more Keelhams beyond the Yorkshire border,” says Victoria. “But we will remain true to our local ethos.”

Award-winning shop branches out

Keelham Farm Shop was voted Best Farm Shop, Best retailer of Local Produce and Best Butcher’s Shop in 2012.

Seventy five per cent of their produce is fresh compared to 25 per cent in large supermarkets.

In February the Robertshaws were granted planning permission for a second farm shop at the vacant former Nicholas Smith garage on Gargrave Road.

The new purpose-built Keelham Farm Shop will will create 60 jobs. It will be eco-friendly, having its own wind turbine, solar panels, sun pipes, wind catchers and a sedum (plant) roof.

It will include a bakery, delicatessen and butchers.

Building work is due to start later this year and the shop and an activity barn for children will be open for business by autumn 2014.

Victoria and James Robertshaw say the new shop will once again focus on local, affordable, quality produce and will use as many suppliers as possible from the Skipton area.

For more information visit www.keelhamfarmshop.co.uk