‘You must find a niche to stand out’ How an award-winning butcher took on the supermarkets

Food & Drink | Interview
Steve, Jack and Charlie Cook of Walter Rose & Sons

Steve Cook is a third-generation butcher who at the age of 21 took control of Wiltshire-based butchers Walter Rose & Son.

Cook turned the business into a multi award-winning retail and catering butcher, which he built on master butchery skills, authenticity, hand-made products, great personal service and attention to detail.

The family-run butchers is now being handed down by Cook to his sons Jack and Charlie who aim to take over the business.

BLM caught up with Cook to talk about his start as a butcher, taking over Walter Rose & Son, what he did to increase the fortunes of the business and how supermarkets have impacted butchers.

Tell me all about the family business and how it originated?

My grandfather and father were in the meat trade but I wasn’t necessarily going to come into it. At 21-years-old, I did a three year course in London on meat technology and business management. Nowadays, with the demise of butcher shops across the British Isles, there’s no one to populate a course like this and there’s no such thing anymore. After college the owner of butcher Walter Rose & Son was retiring and selling up, so I took over the business in 1977 at the age of 22.

At 22-years-old it must have been a daunting prospect to run a business?

No not at all. I didn’t really care. At 22 I didn’t have an awful lot to lose. When I came back to my parents I didn’t have to pay rent and I didn’t have to pay for food. It seems a lot of people who start businesses nowadays want to do it when they’ve got responsibilities, I had none, and the risk wasn’t there. It’s better to run a business when you’ve got no risks and no shackles of a family.

Do you believe that being in charge of the business at 22-years-old with no responsibilities helped you to achieve success?

No not really. It’s all circumstantial. It’s all about being in a certain place, at the right time, with the right ingredients. Success just happens and there’s no real masterplan, I don’t think. I had passions to succeed but when I took over there was more fear of failure, to be honest. I had nothing to lose but the fear of failure was massive.

What were your inspirations when you first started running the business?

When I lived in London I used to go to Harrods quite a lot and the only thing I could afford was the newspaper on a Saturday, but I would pop in and look at the food halls. I love displays and theirs in the 1970s were the best, I don’t think there was any better in the world. I remember when I came back to my home in Devizes wanting to recreate the meat department of Harrods food hall.

When you came into the business did you already have an idea of what you wanted to change?

The business was rundown when I took over, it had lost its way a bit. There was no money reinvested into the business for a long time and the way it was run, it was stuck in the dark ages.

Walter Rose & Son had a strong customer base of farmers, there were a good number of people which had accounts, and they would pay eventually, but some customers seemed to have indefinite credit accounts with the business and I stopped that. Walter Rose & Son needed livening up, so I put a stop to the business closing for lunch and just generally brought the business up to speed.

I wasn’t under any pressure so I didn’t go in there and think it was going to be a radical change around. I was able to afford myself enough time to find my feet and to learn. I soon realised I didn’t know quite as much as I thought I did, there were moments where I understood not to do things again. There were times when I had the bank on my back asking about overdraft limits, then I had suppliers asking about paying bills, it was tough at times.

What do you think led to the turnaround for the business?

When you sell a perishable product, which is deteriorating in front of your very eyes, you have to find a way to move it quickly. I saw a change in the eighties with pubs selling food, before then you’d be lucky to get a packet of crisps, so I decided to approach pub landlords. I started going around to pubs selling meat in the boot of my car, it was a big change for the business.

I had good relationships with local farmers too and I bought produce off them, they produced for me what I wanted. I was into sustainability and things that have now become fashionable with using local farmers were fairly obvious to me 50 years ago.

The rise of supermarkets has impacted local butchers’ business what are your thoughts on this and how do you stand out against them?

It’s a case of quality and service. The quality is an easy thing, the meat trade isn’t rocket science, but you have to provide better meat than the supermarkets and you have to provide a better customer experience. There is a market for quality and service and people are prepared to pay for it.

You have to accept that supermarkets have the lion share of just about everything, whether you’re a butcher, baker, candlestick maker, the supermarkets have a strong-hold in everything. If you want to make a living in retail you have to either find a niche or something different to what supermarkets are putting on the shelves.

Supermarkets are all about price, they can ramp it up whichever way. But they also market it well, but you can’t fool the general public and you can’t fool those in the industry. If people are going to come into my shop, where they’ll pay in upwards of 50% more than they would in the supermarket, put the meat on their plate and it tastes the same as supermarket, then they’ll not bother to come anymore and I wouldn’t be in this business for 40 years.

You’re now handing over the business to your two sons, how has that transition period been?

Jack and Charlie are both bright enough that they went away to do other things, and are educated. They’re also bright enough and are aware that the business takes a big chunk of your life away. However, it has now become apparent that Walter Rose is doing well and there’s a pretty good living to be made at the end of the day. Hard work isn’t hard work if you make money. They wanted to come back and be a part of the business, they’re doing more and more and I’m doing less and less.

At the end of the day if you’re not passionate about the business you’re in then it’s more than likely it won’t work.

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