Now is the perfect time to invest in an “exciting” expansion of a multi-award-winning farm shop business across the North of England, its entrepreneur boss Victoria Robertshaw said.
Keelham Farm Shop, which employs 300 staff across two outlets in Bradford and Skipton, has secured an investment worth £8.5m from Santander bank, as well as a partnership with investors Growth Partner LLP, to open new outlets elsewhere in the county and beyond.
For Mrs Robertshaw, the company’s chief executive, it is the start of realising long-held ambitions that have been encouraged by the runaway success of the Skipton shop. Having opened in 2015, it has gone on to become the biggest farm shop in the UK, attracting 500,000 customers a year.
While she remained coy on specific locations for potential new outlets, she said she hoped to open the first new shop within 18 months, somewhere in Yorkshire.
“We have had so many approaches from people who want a Keelham so we have plenty of places which will definitely work,” the business boss said.
“People who know me will know I never stand still and with Keelham it would be wrong not too (expand). So many people love Keelham, it’s better to have a go at something.
“This idea hasn’t come up overnight."
She added: “Within 18 months we want to have another shop up and running, which is doable, and another one 12 months later and then a couple a year after that.
“The next few will definitely be in Yorkshire. We will try not to cannibalise Skipton. We will look further away to an east or south kind of area.
“At the moment we have been approached lots of times beyond Yorkshire and we will look beyond Yorkshire, but it’s easier to do the next few here.”
Keelham has won more than 60 industry awards - including Large Farm Shop of the Year in The Yorkshire Post's 2017 Rural Awards - for a business model which supports local food producers and provides a retail experience where customers can sample food before buying and talk to staff who know how the produce has been made.
The Skipton shop has a restaurant and an on-site kitchen. More than half of the produce for sale is made on-site with the rest coming from local suppliers.
Mrs Robertshaw said she was confident that the Keelham brand and ethos is transferable to new places.
“When we worked in Skipton we could see a format that did not just work in one location. It showed there was a brand that was transferable, a concept that we had taken from the original farm shop to become a new concept in fresh food retail.
“It’s really easy to do one, with the second one there is more to think about but we have tested the model of multi-stores and know we can do it.”
She said she also believes that Keelham’s expansion can benefit farms and high streets, both of which are operating in particularly tough economic circumstances.
“When we opened outside Skipton there was concern about the impact on the high street and the local area but if you look at what we have done, people have come to Skipton because we are here,” Mrs Robertshaw said.
“All the butchers on the high street are still there. Local businesses benefit from selling their products in our shops and other farm shops in the area are doing very well.
“We buy eight to nine ‘bodies’ a week from Skipton Auction Mart. Farmers know the animals we want, go to the store sales, buy them, farm them and bring them back to the mart.”
Brexit uncertainty may be scuppering investment decisions for many businesses, while on the face of it, high land prices may also be holding back expansion plans, but Mrs Robertshaw said now is the right time for Keelham to fulfil her ambitions.
“On land prices, it’s a good time to do it because things are coming up where other retailers are pulling out of sites,” she said.
“Some sites have existing planning approval where people have pulled out.
“Should we hold off with the political environment as it is? People always have to eat, as my dad would say, and the other good thing about Keelham is we are not top end with prices.
"People do their weekly shop with us. It’s not a luxury thing if prices become more of a factor.”
The expansion plans follow a decision by Mrs Robertshaw and her brother and business partner James Robertshaw to focus on different priorities. The original Keelham Farm Shop in Bradford, which first opened 40 years ago, is now in the sole ownership of Mr Robertshaw, trading as Robertshaw’s Farm Shop, allowing Mrs Robertshaw to focus on Keelham’s next step.
She added: “I’m very proud of Keelham and of the team, and I’m really excited about moving this forward.”