When a c-store site no longer required by Tesco came on the market, David and Lucy Calland seized the opportunity, but getting the supermarket giant to part with it proved to be rather more of a marathon than a sprint.
Tesco Express came to the site in Exmouth, Devon, about five years ago, but when the petrol forecourt a little more than 100 metres down the road came up for grabs, it upped sticks and moved to that location, leaving the store on Brixington Parade empty.
"It was a Morrisons forecourt but they had to surrender a lot of their smaller stores after the Safeway acquisition, and that was one of them," explains David, who with his wife Lucy has transformed the abandoned unit into a Budgens
c-store. "The chance to go over there arose and Tesco jumped on it. They kept this site shut for 18 months, while still paying their rent. The lease was running down and had two years left on it, which put us in a good position. If it had 10 years left, I think the landlord would have continued to lease to Tesco.
"Tesco was getting a lot of stick off councillors for leaving the unit empty, so eventually they decided to put it on the market. I don't think they thought anyone would be mad enough to move in though. They were firmly established up the road and this site would take a lot to turn it around, but the council and the local community were putting Tesco under pressure to let it go. On the parade, all the traders were complaining because having a redundant unit damages the look of the area. The car park was always empty - it looked like nothing was
Finally the 'Unit for Let' sign went up and David and Lucy made their move. "We got in contact with the agency but we never thought we would actually get it."
But they did, and that's when the hard work began. "There was a lot of
wrangling back and forth with Tesco," says David, "and issues such as a leaking roof took a long while to sort out. We had hoped to open for Christmas 2006."
When the couple eventually got their hands on the site, they realised the incredible amount of work required to make the store a viable proposition. "It was a complete shell; Tesco didn't leave a thing in it," says David. "We had to replace the floor, ceiling, electrics, everything. It was a £170,000 investment."
But in September 2007, they started trading, and very quickly took turnover to £22,000 a week from a standing start. Turnover then levelled off around £18,000 but has been growing steadily ever since.
"It's always been a fantastic shop," says David. "It was doing £30,000 a week as a One Stop or a Dillons but it was more of a CTN then, and I believe Tesco was doing £50,000-odd a week. At the year end, we hope to be doing £25,000. Exmouth doubles its population in the warmer months, so we expect our first summer to see a good rise in sales."
While the couple admit that they were a little apprehensive about competition from Tesco, from day one they have been giving the supermarket a run for its money. "During our first month of trading we smashed every target, despite Tesco's heavy promotions - they were offering £2 off when you spend £6," says David. "But we're completely different from Tesco. People come in here and say that it's nice to see some competition, but we don't really see ourselves as a competitor to them. When you've got someone that owns the store, they're really dedicated. The service is very good, and we offer a lot more fresh food."
The Callands are really promoting the business as a family affair, with a large picture of them and a welcome note on the front window and inside the store. David's brother Dan, and his wife Angela, who is Lucy's sister, joined the business in December. "We've been able to split our day in half and it's allowed us to take a bit of a step back and not work 15 hours a day, seven days a week," says Lucy. "We've now got more time to concentrate on developing things, rather than just filling the shelves."
Adds David: "It's also about gaining a fresh perspective on things. We've all worked together before, and it makes for a good atmosphere if you have a lot of family in the store. It's nice for the staff, too. They feel more relaxed, and more than just a number."
The fresh offer at the store is proving to be a strong seller. Fresh foods make up 40% of sales and 5% come from fresh bread alone. "We can't keep up with the fresh breads - we could do with a full-time baker," says Lucy. "Fruit and veg is very strong as well."
One area for development is the local produce offer. They currently sell local ales, eggs and free-range pork. "That's going really well," says Lucy. "We're going to the Taste of the West trade show soon, so we hope to find some new suppliers there."
David and Lucy's customer base tends to be the older generation and a home delivery and phone ordering service is helping to build a base of regular, loyal customers.
"Our customer base is quite elderly - we serve a lot of retired people who are relatively affluent," says David. "The younger ones are still going to Tesco. A lot of the community who need to shop to a budget are blinded by the Tesco sign and the perception that it's cheaper. We're actually cheaper than Tesco but they've got clever marketing."
But the Callands are trying not to concern themselves too much with the competition from Tesco. Instead, they're continuing to set themselves apart by promoting what they do best - fresh food, good service and a family atmosphere.
Store: Calland's Budgens, Exmouth, Devon
Size: 1,900sq ft
Staff: 15 part time
Opening hours: 7am-10pm, seven days a week
Services: Home delivery service, cash machine, National Lottery due to be installed this summer