Hot Shops: Couture Food Hall adapts haute approach

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Couture Food Hall: urban farm shop

Couture Food Hall, an urban farm shop in Woolwich Arsenal, has adapted its high end range to meet local community needs. Fiona Briggs reports

Couture Food Hall, Royal Arsenal Riverside, is a community hub. So much so, local residents in the Berkeley Homes development at the former armaments manufacturing site on the south bank of the Thames, will venture into the store in their pjs.

It wouldn’t wash in Wales, where Tesco has banned shoppers wearing pyjamas from visiting its Cardiff store but Couture Food Hall is unfazed.

“They are nice, fleecy checked ones, which they wear with a nice t-shirt,” insists store manager Lena Jessen, who lives on site and took the helm at the branch in October 2009.

The bright and airy interior of the listed building, with its high vaulted ceilings and contemporary finish, including six tables, chairs and banquette seating, adorned with tea lights and gerberas, attracts regulars. As, I guess, does Jessen, who is originally from Denmark and exudes warmth and a sunny personality.

Extended opening hours, 8am to 10pm Monday to Friday; and 9am to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday, help to meet local shopper needs too.

“People come and work from here,” says Jessen. “They say they have more peace than at home and can get inspired.”

Couture serve over food counter

The Couture Food Hall was opened in September 2007 by Truly Different, a concession catering business with contracts in the arts, leisure and media sectors plus the corporate arena. These span fine dining restaurants, coffee shops and staff canteens and are branded Couture. They include Pinewood Studios, the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton, the People’s History Museum and Museum of Museums in Manchester and advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in Canary Wharfe.

According to Couture managing director Marc Warde, the business’s ethos lies in offering quality products and working with small, independent suppliers. British food and especially local produce is favoured too.

The Woolwich store is the only Food Hall in the chain. A Food Hall and brasserie was opened in Ipswich in 2009 but subsequently closed.

“We did this at the beginning to see if it was an area to go down but it is a small margin business compared to the restaurants,” says Warde.

While the store does feature a serve over food and drinks counter, Warde would have preferred a fully functioning kitchen, which is a key feature in all other locations.

Future development lies in offering a mix of retail within food service locations, he says.

Couture still offers high end lines

At 1,200sq ft, the Food Hall is the smallest location in the Couture estate and it has evolved to meet consumer needs and a tougher economic environment.

“The idea of this originally was an urban farm shop and the guy running it came from Selfridges Food Hall. Initially it was a lot fancier and we’ve dumbed it down for the audience,” he says.

“We would not have been selling cheapy branded chocolate bars,” he continues, pointing at Wispa bars and Kit Kats at the till point, “but  we’ve not sold our soul to the devil – we have some higher end lines but have had to adapt quite a bit. People are more conscious of what they are spending and we have had to look at the tariff everywhere.”

The Food Hall is an oasis in the residential development, which is gradually being occupied. When it first opened, however, the DLR wasn’t even running and commuters would travel home by boat, packing the store in the early evening.

Still very much a micro world, a Tesco Express store and Young’s pub are planned, there are no other amenities on site except the cafe at The Royal Artillery Museum.

The store still champions British producers over foreign ones but has tailored the offer to the demographic.

When it first opened, for instance, it offered speciality cheeses and cut meats.

“They were nice to have but did not sell to the demographic,” says Warde. Instead, the Food Hall operates a sandwich bar, serving freshly made hot and cold sandwiches, paninis, baked potatoes with various fillings plus soup.

The offer caters for local workers who use the store during the day, particularly at lunchtime. The evening trade is based more on retail, takeaway lines.

The store stocks around 2,000 skus but it varies on a week by week basis.

“Lena gets an idea of what they buy,” says Warde.

Smart interior

The Food Hall sources from suppliers who buy locally, according to commercial director Chris Mitchell. These include West Horsley Dairy for milk, cheese and bread; Suma for many organic store cupboard lines; Stratford Fine Foods for frozen products and Oliver Kay for produce.

In wine, Warde reports Couture works with a couple of independent wine buyers to source product and the London wine merchant Bancroft Wines, which is also a client on the catering side.

While the Food Hall has bought British wines including product from Shawsgate in Suffolk and Oxford Regatta from the Brightwell Vineyard in Oxfordshire, it is not a key focus.

“Some are better than others and you have to sell them hard because of the perception,” says Mitchell.

Uniqueness, instead, is a top criteria. “You will not find our wines in supermarkets,” he says.

Prices, meanwhile, are upwards of £10 per bottle with a house wine sold on a two for £13 deal.

In beer, there is more home-grown product to choose from and the Food Hall stocks both local Greenwich Meantime beers and Freedom Organic lager.

There are around 50-60 wines in the range, including four organic products, and a similar number of beers including Couture branded beer and lager.

The store runs wine tastings when suppliers, including Bancroft, will come in to show their wares. According to Warde, these typically are well attended and the company is receptive to hearing from new suppliers, especially “if a product is new, different and good”.

One such case in point is Scratch, a range of ready meals, including ingredients and instructions, designed to be cooked from scratch. Other standout lines include What on Earth, a range of frozen organic pizzas and pasta and cheesecakes; Easy Cuisine, a range of frozen ready meals; Criterion ice cream from East Anglia and fresh Danish pastries from Denmark – “the best pastries in the world,” according to a biased Jessen.

While gourmet products are more prominent, the Food Hall also offers everyday staples such as baked beans.

“We keep Heinz beans but keep it separate – it’s there but not too much of it,” says Jessen.

It also offers household lines (Ecover brand) and staples such as flour and baking products.

According to Jessen, these lines appeal to shoppers, who are mainly singles and couples, since many don’t drive or have a car.

The Couture own brand, meanwhile, spans tea, coffee, chocolate and water. Where the company operates full kitchens, the company uses the label for lines it makes in house.

Future development at Couture is centred on its catering arm, says Warde. It currently operates 12 contracts including four museums and reports it has increased trade by 55% on any previous incumbent. Online is another avenue for growth, says Warde. No problem with pjs for those  customers.

Hot shops: Couture Food Hall

Verdict: The Couture Food Hall has managed a difficult balancing act – it has retained its modern, urban farm shop image but successfully changed the offer to appeal to core customers with food-to-go and eat-in menu options. With no close competitor (yet) it has been able to retain its more premium price positioning, while first-rate service from store manager Jessen attracts regular custom.