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The Name: Country Food & Dining

The Place: Mainly in the south east, there are currently eight outlets in places like Chichester, Winchester, Basingstoke, and Reading with the flagship branch near Hungerford.

The story: Bow your heads. There is a man so hallowed in brewing circles that a mere mention of his name will bring grown men to tears and shouts of ‘He’s a firkin legend’. That man is David Bruce and having sold the Firkin brew pub chain to what became eventually Allied Domecq in 1988 he had to turn his whirlwind energies elsewhere.

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David Bruce, chairman, Country Food & Dining

Didn’t Allied Domecq sort of… you know…Muck it up? Tush. That’s all in the past now and one of the many irons to come out of his entrepreneurial fire is the Country Food & Dining chain. [Note: he is ably assisted by CEO Tom Newey].

Sounds kind of upmarket: Well, certainly the chain knows who its customers are. No branch is ever launched more than 10 miles away from a Waitrose supermarket, in fact taking no chances the first one is in the middle of a triangle of three Waitroses, so you get the picture on the demographic.

I promise I shall be using the correct cutlery: Actually the concept is not particularly posh inside but there isn’t anything else quite like these shops around. They are farm shops but they also have a restaurant, some have a garden centre in there too. A florist, butcher, and fishmonger are run as concessions and these professionals give each outlet 10-15% of its sales. They also provide local produce for the restaurant to use. It’s all very circular.

Why haven’t I heard of these before? Not affluent enough probably, but hope is at hand because Bruce has been asked to do a trial in Terra Firma’s chain of garden centres The Garden Centre Group.

I don’t think I’ve heard of them either: Yes you have. Wyevale by another name. Anyway, there are 160 of them and the beauty of garden centres is that there are always, and without fail, lots of out-buildings doing precisely nothing. Just the kind of spot David Bruce searches out as a Country Food & Dining requisite. The garden centre world is super competitive and selling food to the lunchtime crowd is a massive opportunity to drive-in trade. It’s a match made in retail heaven.

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Tell me the other requisites: Typically you need a site of between 10 – 50 acres. They start with the core shop and build the rest later. The restaurant will usually have around 50 covers. The majority of the land will be used for growing produce to sell in the shop and for the kitchens. At the flagship Cobbs in Hungerford for example, seven acres of asparagus is grown and then shipped to the other shops. A total of 30-40% of sales are derived from either produce grown on its own farms or sourced within a 10-mile radius. Finally of course, you have to get some lucre together. And that’s where the good old EIS schemes come in.

Ah yes, good old EIS, great stuff: You don’t know what they are do you? It stands for Enterprise Investment Scheme. Investors apply for shares in a scheme and qualify for tax relief against their income tax bill. EIS investors like land – it’s solid. It doesn’t go away and invariably does not reduce in value. And David Bruce has raised £7.5 million through four such schemes for his outlets.

So how much money are these ventures actually making? To break it down properly, use Cobbs for example. It takes £10k per week in dining, the butcher makes £8-10k, the fishmonger around £3k and the florist £2k. All the rest is farm shop sales.

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And what apart from asparagus are these shops selling? That’s all down to the manager. David Bruce didn’t get where he is today by telling the local manager what to do. No sir. There is no central purchasing and local is the name of the game. If there are 100 cheeses on offer, then 80 of them will be from the area. Soon there will be wine too.

Now you’re talking. Spill: Four years ago the Cobbs in Hungerford outlet planted 4.5k Pinot Noir grapes and 1.5k Chardonnay. Cue early 2015 for approximately 12k bottles of something quaffable. Just planted are three acres of the third grape required in Champagne – Meunier. So in a few more years expect something quaffable and bubbly. In fact generally expect lots more talk of land prices for English wine.

How so? Because you can sell a bottle of wine for a lot more than a loaf of bread, muppet. Arable land retails at £10-12k per acre but you can multiply that five-fold if you have planted some grapes on there. So, in a trice Country Food & Dining have upped their eight acres of vineyard from a total land value of around £50k to a whopping £400k. It’s the future, people. You heard it here first.

Expensive though aren’t they? Farm shops: Think again. Bruce maintains that this public perception is wrong and that on staples like milk and spuds his shops can be cheaper than the supermarkets. They are the competition, not niche farmers’ markets.

Well, I’m impressed. If I promise to sit up properly to the table will you take me to one? No.

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