The fabulous celebration cakes, desserts and pastries made by the North family at their deli patisserie in deeply rural Rothley, Leicestershire are so delicious that customers regularly drive 30 miles to buy them.
With top hotels and restaurants across the UK also crying out for the delicious treats, it’s a far cry from the day Eric North started in business just after the war – selling eggs, by bicycle. But the family has always set its sights – and standards – high.
Grandfather North’s egg-selling entrepreneurial skills were so successful, he knocked out the ground floor of the family home in the rural village to create a traditional grocers shop in the 1950s, rapidly building a reputation for top quality produce. Keen to develop the business, he sent son David to France in 1960 to learn about fine wines and cheese. This was at a time when most English greengrocers bore a striking resemblance to Ronnie Barker’s Open All Hours, where the closest you got to fine wines and a cheese selection was a pot of stilton and a dusty bottle of Sanatogen.
David is now 74 and still cheerfully running the deli side of the North family business alongside his son Dominic – a master pâtissier – in the same building, which still looks like an attractive family house despite expanding over the years to meet the needs of a growing enterprise. David had a wonderful time in France, soaking up knowledge about fine wines and good food, and becoming really passionate about the business. “It was a real experience,” he recalls. “In those days people in England weren’t interested in continental foods outside the big cities. You could find an occasional Polish deli and French and Italian restaurant, but not much else. As a family, we decided to expand the traditional grocery offer, which was way before its time – we blazed a trail for more cosmopolitan tastes.
“After returning from France, I got a job at Leicester’s top department store Simpkin and James to learn all I could about retailing, before coming back home to Rothley to build up the deli business.” About six years ago, David decided to cut back on supplying fresh fruit and veg to hotels and restaurants across the region to focus on the deli, offering a veritable cornucopia of new and classic wines, cheeses and charcuterie, unusual and traditional products and gifts, sourced from all corners of the world – but quality is the key, echoed in the North’s mouth-watering website which helps boost sales.
David’s unrivalled knowledge of his profession and experience in the business for 50 years, together with the most discriminating of palates, helps guide customers through the trickiest dinner party or a family picnic with the same warmth and care .The wonderfully richly-coloured displays in the deli hint at David’s creative side – as a young man, he wanted to study art but the pull of the family business was too strong. “The display is a collage of colours, tastes and aromas. It allows me to express my artistic side!” he says.
The deli business has two full-time and seven part-time staff and David and his wife Wendy are still in the thick of it – Eric continued working until he was 89!
David adds: “I still love discovering new products, flavours and tastes and go up to Partridges and other top retailers in London, as well as the food exhibitions, to check out the new cheeses and other products which are selling. Not everything goes down well with customers though – a pecorino cheese with truffle which I thought was fantastic, was not appreciated at all!”
Of course, Leicestershire is famed for its stilton – and David buys from the top suppliers in the country as well as direct from the cheesemakers. He delights in the huge growth in artisan cheesemakers across the UK, many of whom are represented in the shop.
The patisserie side of the burgeoning North business is down to David’s son Dominic who, at 18, went to study at the UK’s longest-established cookery school, the Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Woking, Surrey, where his aptitudes led to him working with top patisserie chef, Michael Nadel, to hone his talents. “Dominic’s fantastic patisserie skills were recognised quite early on, so, once again, we expanded the family premises into the cellar to create a kitchen for him to really focus on that,” says David. “Now he has a fantastic team of more than 25 people working for him, creating the most wonderful celebration cakes and pastries. But he also works at the weekend to create the savouries for the deli.”
Dominic and his partner Jules also run a deli and 25-cover café in the delightful market town of Ashby de la Zouch and two years ago, opened North’s Tea Shop at a nearby garden centre. They supply celebration cakes, desserts and pastries to some of the country’s top venues as well as major wholesalers, hotels and restaurants.
But individual customers are still at the heart of the business. “It’s quite extraordinary how far people will travel to visit the shop,” says David. “People divert off the M1 and customers drive 30 miles from Derby and Nottingham. We even have a customer who lives near Silverstone who visits regularly and ex-pats back visiting the UK stock up on things they just can’t buy where they live now.
“We have a nucleus of really good suppliers – but we’re always looking for new, top quality, stock and there’s a never ending stream of suppliers who contact us due to our reputation. We aim to sell as many exclusive items as possible – certainly Dominic’s creations are completely unique to him – and we have a range of own label deli products. We’ve always put quality and service at the heart of everything we do; it’s part of the family ethos. We maintain exceptionally high standards. Our premises and procedures are fully accredited to BRC Grade A Standard.”
The North’s shop is next to the delightful Rothley station – part of the Great Central heritage railway – which brings lots of visitors in the summer. But expansion of the business has also brought challenges in terms of car parking. With no public parking nearby, the Norths bought the field next door and did battle with local planners before finally being allowed to create a small car park. “Over the years, we have encountered numerous planning objections, usually around parking, as we expanded the business, creating work for dozens of local people. We have to deal with too much red tape,” says David.
He plans to have a word with local customer Anna Soubry MP – who also happens to be Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise – about this particular challenge of running a rural business, next time she pops in.
Grandfather North’s original bicycle takes pride of place in the window of the smart, whitewashed premises in Rothley. “Luckily, Eric was still alive to see Dominic starting out in business and he was extremely proud, and I know he’d be delighted at how the family business has now encompassed three generations. Now I’m just hoping granddaughter Lottie will show an interest; but she’s only seven!” adds David.