April 26 2020

Our Lockdown Life: Larkhall Butchers

As part of an ongoing Pig Guide series publishing the thoughts, concerns and plans of local hospitality businesses during the lockdown, we’re putting Peter Milton – proprietor of Larkhall Butchers – in the spotlight.

My concerns about supply actually started weeks before the lockdown, around the first week of March. At this point we could see that disruptions were inevitable and we started to plan ahead accordingly. I devoted a little time to thinking a few moves ahead at this point and broke down possible outcomes into phases, based on the ‘Italian model’ a phrase I found myself overusing. Of course, I didn’t realise just how extensive the disruption would become.

As the days moved on, it became apparent that restaurants, cafes and hotels would have to close. These businesses make up around half of my business, and there’s still great uncertainty as to what will and won’t be recoverable. Obviously, I have large worries hanging over my head, but I’ve had to focus on the continuation of my business as best as I can.

There was also the added complication that I already had huge amounts of stock of niche items destined for restaurants. Many things could be broken down and used for other things – sausage, mince, etc but there’s a limited market for people who want to buy pigeon! I was able to freeze some stock, but I donated the rest. We felt that, with all the panic buying that went on at the start of the lockdown, there may have been a shortage of food going to groups that rely on donations (although I’m pleased to say I was informed by Julian House that I was wrong!)

With the shortfall of stock in the supermarkets, the pressure was put onto us to fill the gap in the market. I cannot fault the supermarkets for dealing with their own impossible battles too – there’s no easy way of changing whole operating procedures overnight for companies that big, and this is something that we’ve had to do multiple times a week.

With the catering side of my business missing, I was confident that the increased shop trade would initially keep us all busy and counterbalance some of our losses. It swiftly became apparent, though, that the increasing social distancing advice meant that the shop trade would start to steadily decrease.

My business already operated a small home delivery service, as did the Larkhall Farm Shop, just across the road from us. The joint delivery service that had begun as an idea between us some six months or so previously with a plan to gradually include other traders in the village became the obvious solution to the larger issue we faced. So, instead of waiting to iron out all the details we decided to run with it and fix the smaller details as we went. This allowed us not only to set up the hugely popular Larkhall Delivered service but meant that, by the time lockdown was in full effect, we had already ironed out many of the faults in the service and provided an option for people who could otherwise not receive food whilst socially isolating – bear in mind too that supermarket home delivery services had a three-week waiting list by this stage. By the end of March we saw a turning point where home deliveries outgrew shop walk-ins, but we had our busiest Easter period to date!

With the massive numbers we were now processing between us and the sheer time and space needed to produce over a thousand orders a week, there was obviously a huge amount of pressure on; fortunately, I have an amazing team who stepped up to the challenge. The first few weeks in particular were the hardest – I’d made the conscious decision not to have a cut-off point on the numbers of orders per day and to maintain a next day delivery service, albeit adapted to certain areas of the city on certain days to make it more feasible for our distribution.

Due to so many businesses closing down, there were large numbers of professionals who had been ‘let go’ who were able to help us – and we in turn helped them by providing a somewhat stable income. We also had a huge amount of volunteer helpers coming forward; this was fantastic to see, but I favoured using paid employees who really needed the income wherever possible. Being in a position to help, and not being a charity ourselves, I felt it our duty to do what we could to help the local community and the economy a losing battle perhaps, but every pebble makes a ripple.

Fast forward a few weeks and we have an army of trained staff helping us supply the city of Bath. I have a team of chefs who work late into the evening preparing orders for the next day, not to mention the Uber drivers, hairdressers, estate agents and others who help with the logistics of the operation. My original butchery team follows on from the chef’s shift beginning at midnight, meaning that the shop runs all but 24 hours a day to keep up with demand. Spreading the shifts like this has the advantage of giving us more space to work in at any given time. There is, of course, the worry that were someone in the shop were to get the virus, or even symptoms of it, everyone would have to self-isolate and the shop could grind to a halt. By splitting the workforce down and minimising contact between shifts we’ve been able to minimise this risk and create the ability to isolate just one team at a time, effectively turning each shift into a ‘household unit’ within the workplace.

I think that my team will agree with me in saying that, although we’re tired, stressed and sometimes feel like we can’t go on, the essential work we’re doing makes it all worthwhile. Being able to see the direct results of helping people who have been struggling to get essentials, speaking with people who are over the moon with having us there to help… my job fulfilment has never been higher. We’ve been thrust into a position of enormous responsibility and we’re trying our hardest to make this ordeal easier for everyone. I like to think that we’ve all risen to the challenge, but only time will tell.

Peter Milton, April 2020

2 thoughts on “Our Lockdown Life: Larkhall Butchers

  1. I love my regular Larkhall Butcher delivery and my Larkhall Farm Shop mixed fruit and veg box. The quality is just superb. It’s really changed the way we shop. And the way we eat. We shallnt be going back to the old ways! I’m in awe of how you’ve managed the logistics. I’m so impressed that you are supporting so many people in your extended operation. Outstanding job and outstanding sense of duty and community. Well done!

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