This week on the #WORLDCHANGERS series, we speak to John Shepherd owner of one of the few remaining family-run food shops in Central London, Partridges – a company that still cherishes its original idea of providing the very finest quality foods.
Location: Duke of York Square, Chelsea, London
Current job: Partridges Owner & Managing Director
One word that best describes how you work: Improvisationally
My role model: Clement Attlee
My biggest fear: Heights
Something I love: Padula, Italy
Something I hate: Brexit
Partridges was opened by my brother, Richard, in 1972. I first worked at the shop in 1973 after leaving school. I was actually born under a mile away from where the shop is located today when we were living in Chelsea.
After I finished my education at Johns Hopkins Graduate School in Bologna in 1980 I returned to the shop and have worked there ever since. Although I acquired an MBA and was also working as a Magistrate part-time.
In 1972 retail food shops in the UK were moving towards self-service supermarkets and delicatessens were something of a dying breed. Partridges was something of a village store in Chelsea.
The original motto was ‘good things for the larder’ and we sold traditional British Foods like Jugged Hare, Ox Tongue and Gull’s Eggs alongside our favourite foods and wines from the Continent.
We started supplying the Royal Household in 1991. I had actually originally written to them asking to be considered as a supplier, but this is not always the right approach! As a matter of fact, they were already buying from us discreetly.
Normally a business has to wait 5 years before being granted a Royal Warrant but we were Granted ours in 1994. Being a Royal Warrant Holder means that you have to abide by the Lord Chamberlain’s Rules which is the Highway Code for supplying the Palace.
The Royal Warrant is always Granted to an individual rather than a Business. If a business is sold the Royal Warrant does not necessarily go with it. In total there are about 800 Royal Warrant Holders and in 2007 I was appointed President of the Royal Warrant Holders Association which involves overseeing the various charity initiatives and travelling the country to meet other Warrant Holders. There is a very active social scene as well.
The secret to maintaining the Royal Warrant is not a secret at all really. It is about being constantly vigilant in ensuring deliveries are on time, in good quality and anticipating problems early. Recognising the customer and the customer’s needs is the ultimate goal regarding everyone who walks through the door at Partridges – even shoplifters. When things go wrong, and they will, it is important to act quickly to put them right. Recognition and an element of surprise are two key aspects. And a good PR team to spread the word.
Running a food shop that just sells groceries is running between two very fine margins. It is important to innovate and constantly surprise customers with new ideas and initiatives. This is the surprise element to accompany recognition. So we have tried to introduce new initiatives into the mix. We celebrate as many major festivals as we can throughout the year, we have an American ex-pat section, we run the World Chelsea Bun Awards, we have created a range of own-label products which we export, we distil our own Chelsea Flower Gin and we created the Fine Food Market on the Duke of York Square which first opened in 2005 to help attract footfall onto the Square. The traders who attend are smaller businesses or ‘Start-Up Artisans’ which one of my daughters named Startisans. We actually ran over 20 regular markets around London over the past decade offering Startisans places to trade at a very low-cost base. Due to the pandemic, we transferred the Duke of York Square market to the historic running track where it has flourished in a socially distanced manner. We also offer Startisans a space on our website, sell some of their products in the shop and provide an Award for the Startisan of the Year at the Great Taste Awards – see Startisan.
We have adjusted our business spontaneously, if not willingly, in reaction to Covid19 by carrying out actions that we would never have done otherwise. For example: closing the in-store Café, redesigning the shop floor layout and upgrading our delivery services by for example starting to be featured on Deliveroo. It has been a challenge to manage 120 plus staff in the time of self-isolation and track and trace and encouraging customers to change habits too. However, we have also been very lucky to be able to stay open every day so far and to be supported by loyal local customers in such good spirit.
I am not very good at spotting the next big things. Usually, they hit us on the head before we embrace them. But I see increased specialisation going forward. The Pandemic has encouraged the return of smaller independent food businesses. In one area of London we know well, a new Italian deli and a fruit and veg store have recently opened. There are now at least 9 shops selling various types of food. When we opened there were only 2. The success of these newcomers may also rely on their engagement with delivery platforms which I believe will keep expanding in London for the foreseeable future. Food technology will also become increasingly important in the quest to find greater sustainability in food production. In terms of types of food, we work closely with the Great Taste Awards where the quality and presentation of many new food products is outstanding.
If I knew what I know now I would be more inclined to take risks and follow more instincts. We have kept going for 49 years but I always tend to remember the projects we didn’t carry out and the time spent treading water. Standing still is a risk in itself.
My wife and I go to our house in Padula, Italy. I used to play in the local football team but we like travelling, and staying with our grandchildren. Personally, I am a fan of film noir, sport, writing and single malt whisky, and making pizza in the garden.
I enjoy reading a lot. One of my favourites is James Thurber as I like the humorous approach he takes to life’s travails. One of my favourite books is the fictional “Autobiography of Fezziwig” by Danny Kuhn. He takes my favourite character from Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ – Mr Fezziwig – and spins out an interesting life story. The reason why I like Fezziwig is that he becomes the model of Scrooges redemption. I think it has been referred to as the Fezziwig Approach. He is the hero of a Christmas Carol.
Comfort food, how long have you got? There is a lot of it. But pasta in many, many forms and chocolate would have to be at the top of the list.
You can follow Partridges on Instagram here.
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