The rise of the local independent food scene
Northamptonshire's food scene is making a name for itself
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By Katie Wheatley
Northamptonshire’s independent food and drink scene has made a name for itself. Despite being surrounded by bigger cities, namely Birmingham, Leicester and Coventry, the county’s hard work has put us on the industry map.
“We may not have an equivalent to the Lincolnshire sausage or Melton Mowbray pie,” says Rachel Mallows, founder director of Made in Northamptonshire – a cooperative celebrating the county’s independent food and drink producers.
“But we have a really strong network of passionate independent producers, who put quality and taste at the heart of their work. They really are dedicated to supporting their local economy.
“We believe in local food where you can understand it’s provenance, reduce food miles, and spark peoples’ interests in where things come from. That link from farm to fork, or mud to mouth, is really important,” Rachel says.
Steve Peel, Owner of Yellow Bourbon Coffee Roasters, believes there’s been an absence of independent food and drink in Northamptonshire historically, but people are now ‘taking the plunge’ due to the availability of business property and the demand for local and independent produce.
“We tend to be behind most cities and urban centres when it comes to picking up new things and cultural pursuits.
“There was a general feeling that we were being left behind and, as a result, we didn’t have the independent food and drink places – like what you’d see in Cambridge or Oxford, and certainly London.
“It was a no-brainer people living in Northamptonshire wanted this.”
Steve opened Yellow Bourbon in 2017 after seeing the opportunity to provide a London-style coffee shop in the centre of Northampton. Having spent six years working in the coffee industry in the capital, the combination of Steve’s technical skills and being able to ‘pick and choose the best bits of what worked’ in the London coffee scene was a recipe for success.
The pandemic has proved difficult to navigate for all companies but for many of the small independents it was make or break.
John Lashley, who runs the Brooklyn Brownie Co (an artisan bakery) with his son Leo, says:
“It’s interesting how the scene has blown up and grown during the pandemic.
“A lot of people had time on their hands and were able to see more content online, exposing them to different food and drink. Some took it up as a hobby, ran with it and now have thriving businesses.
“People in Northamptonshire thought ‘let’s just do it’, we can’t just keep looking at the surrounding areas and thinking their food places are great.
“My son and I struggle to figure out why we should leave the county to go to other food markets – Northamptonshire is so packed full of talent, it’s ridiculous.
“I don’t think Northamptonshire is trailing behind in any way, we’re just not braggers. It’s looking good for the county getting on the map.”
John experienced a surge in the popularity of the products he and Leo offered during the pandemic, particularly in the first lockdown when their sales quadrupled. Within a day of Boris Johnson’s announcement, they woke up to around 50 orders.
“This continued daily. Over and over,” John says.
He says anyone who could get food to people’s door in the early days of the pandemic, and continue that for its entire duration, did well. From what his business experienced, he believes people had a higher disposable income to spend on food and drink as they weren’t splashing out on their usual activities, like restaurant visits and gym memberships.
Like the Brooklyn Brownie Co. Rachel, from Made in Northamptonshire, witnessed some businesses adapt and do ‘exceptionally well’ – but there were plenty who struggled.
“Instead of looking nationwide for gifts during the pandemic, people got on board with buying local and made conscious decisions about their purchases. The more we can do to continue encouraging that, the better.
“It was a cycle. Local businesses adapted and were doing really well, but as soon as the supermarkets opened again, people went back as they were able to save a few pence on certain products.
“Some have settled into their new habits, but as a sector we need to be doing more to promote independents and locals so we can retain as many customers as possible,” Rachel says.
She added how ‘outstanding’ it was to see businesses do things for their local communities without shouting about it. This included delivering food, collecting groceries and prescriptions, and changing local pubs to village shops to facilitate those without transport.
“They were doing these remarkable things for genuine reasons, and we celebrated them,” Rachel says.
With the support and networking the Made in Northamptonshire community encourages, the county’s independent food and drink scene is set to go from strength to strength.
“The industry has a unique opportunity to progress even further by looking at, and shouting about, the impact it has on the local economy,”Rachel says.
“We need to make sure the food and drink is the best it can possibly be and isn’t just local.
“We should celebrate the fact it tastes amazing, it’s bringing jobs to the area and more of each pound is spent locally.
“If we can emphasise these things, in our individual towns, as a county, and as a country, we can really start to have an impact.”
This article was written by Katie Wheatley, a University of Sheffield journalism student from Northampton, who has joined us during August on work experience.