A rural Warwickshire business is planning to celebrate its centenary 12 months late after shelving plans in order to serve its local community through the Covid crisis.
The Hillers Farm Shop, based at Alcester is a restaurant, gift shop and plant centre. It was established in 1920 and has remained in the same family ever since. Its 100th anniversary was to be celebrated with the planting a 100-tree orchard and a tasting day showcasing local produce.
Children from Dunnington School were due to help out planting the trees but 80-year-old managing director Richard Beach has completed the job during lockdown, as the implications of Covid on the business hit home.
At the same time, staff at the business, which is on part of the Ragley Hall Estate, turned from a leisure and shopping destination to a vital lifeline for local people.
Emma Taylor and Sally Haines – Richard’s daughters who now run the business – rolled out a call and collect system to allow local people to have access for fresh food.
Emma said: “We have very loyal customers who love coming here to shop but almost overnight we were transformed very much into a vital service.
“People felt safe and secure ordering off our staff, many of whom they knew, and being able to drive in and have their orders placed in the boot of their cars without them having to get out or mix face-to-face with anyone.
“It was clear from their reaction how grateful they were and within a very short space of time that meant we were doing 120 call and collect orders a day. Not only did that help our customers but it also meant we could continue to order off our suppliers, many of whom are local.”
The chefs from the restaurant switched to become product pickers and arrived at 4.45 am five days a week to ensure the call the collect orders were ready for customers, five members of team became customer call staff taking orders, while the casual under-18 workers arrived at 5pm when the farm shop closed, to ensure the shelves were fully stocked for the following day.
The firm also had Covid-relief grant funding through Stratford District Council as well as benefiting from rate relief.
Sally added: “The financial support was very helpful and came at a time when we were really having to flex what we were doing, not only to keep trading but also to help our customers.
“In normal times we employ around 95 staff in different parts of the business and everyone has had to flex. The reaction of the team has been fantastic.
“The call and collect service is still running but is down to about 80 orders a week as people have got used to life in lockdown. Our restaurant is operating a takeaway service and our plant centre has been thriving, and there has been a huge demand for the ready meals we produce, as people want to have that dining experience without leaving home.
“But being in Tier 3 will make a huge difference, and we were not expecting it at all. We have fully stocked our gift shop ready for the Christmas season and spent thousands on an outdoor dining area and had been expecting to be able to open the restaurant.
“While the gift shop can open, it relies to a large extent on drawing custom from our restaurant, and that simply is not happening.
“We are now hoping that we can celebrate our 100th next year and to reinstate events such as the taster weekend which drawn in around 2,000 people, but everything is still very uncertain.”