James Brundle and his three business partners are determined to make a name for their store by sourcing a range of unusual and exciting products. Sarah Britton report

What makes the Spar-branded The Village Stores in Walthamstow, London, so individual is that virtually every category contains a smattering of the weird and wonderful. Take the grab-and-go section. Nestling among the standard c-store fare of Rustlers burgers and Peperami lie giant Scotch eggs in black pudding, vegtabularian and chilli flavours.

Even a traditionally unexciting section such as salad dressings has been sexed up with huge ‘fill your own’ dispensers of German fig balsamic olive oil and Spanish garlic-infused olive oil.

The off-licence area has all the usual bottles of WKD and Magners, but there are also plenty of less familiar brands vying for attention. Brodie’s Pink Pride a beer targeted specifically at the gay market Mexican chilli beer with pepper, and an IPA called Snake Dog are just some of the treasures.

The fresh fruit section is just as quirky with classic British delights such as asparagus and rhubarb alongside less-common cooked beetroot and coconuts and even more unconventional fruit-themed baby bibs and kids T-shirts.

And bang in the middle of the store is the Eat 17 artisan bakery, where customers can watch their bread transform from flour to focaccia. To differentiate the bakery from the rest of the store, the low wall surrounding it has been decorated with a bold, contemporary image of a cornfield, which co-owner James Brundle commissioned from a local graffiti artist. Customers have a clear view over the wall of bread being made, or in C-Store’s case, mushrooms being chopped to top a batch of fresh pizzas.

“Customers perceive the products to be of particularly good quality because they can watch them being put together from scratch,” says James. “The bakery turns over about £2,500 a week and we make great margins on it. A ciabatta only costs 20p to make and it sells at £2.10.”

With 16 different varieties of bread available, including banana bread, Parmesan baguettes and blue cheese bread, you certainly can’t complain about the lack of choice. “We didn’t want Delice de France we wanted the variety that a specialist baker can provide,” says James. “Eventually, we’re hoping to take the Eat 17 bakery brand to the wholesale market.”

It’s this drive, and the determination to be different from everyone else, that caught the judges’ attention at last year’s Convenience Retail Awards where the store came highly commended. “We offer 70% of well-priced Spar products, and 30% we source regularly from suppliers we have found ourselves either from Borough Market, the internet, or trade shows. The local people love experimenting, so we like to give them plenty of different things to try,” says James.

And there are other advantages to sourcing a lesser-known brands. “Buying from suppliers outside of Spar allows us to up our margins. We put a 45% mark up on our own finds.”

And just what does his main wholesaler make of the store’s decision to use so many brands outside of those it supplies? “Spar encourages our individuality,” says James. “They’re very supportive. Blakemore’s visits every month and they’re very active in helping us.”

In fact, Spar battled long and hard to convince the team to join. “We were really close to signing with Budgens because we saw Andrew Thornton’s store and were really impressed. But Spar showed us around a few stores and they were also really good.

“We thought that Budgens would have more chilled, but Spar was able to match it and it fought that little bit harder for us. It even offered to co-invest in the store’s renovation as part of the transition to becoming a Spar.”

Seeing all that James and his three other co-owners have achieved it is difficult to imagine it in its previous incarnation as gloomy 1,000sq ft off licence called Paul Wines. Back in 2007 its windows were littered with tatty posters and its fascia had missing letters.

“My Dad bought the store with his pension,” explains James. “He tried selling the lease, but people thought it was very quiet and a poor business model. Myself and my step-brother Chris could see the potential and so offered to buy the lease ourselves.”

When the boys took over, the store was taking a measly £7,000 a week, but that soon changed for the better. “We got an accountant on board straight away to ensure there was a strategy in place. Even before we had the refit we had doubled turnover.”

They also bought the next door restaurant and Indian takeaway, and initially turned the latter into a deli, before converting both units into a restaurant called Eat 17 and moving the deli offering in-store. With a second business to manage, Chris’ wife Siobhan and his brother Dan bought into the business. Siobhan took on management of the store with James, and Dan ran the restaurant with Chris.

With the business now run by four co-owners all under the age of 30 it would be easy for things to slide out of control. James concedes that there were a few hiccups along the way. “We argued a bit to start with we were trying to find our feet and working ridiculous hours, so everyone got tired. During the refit, the store was expanded to 3,000sq ft and we were all working 100 hours a week to keep on top of everything.”

But over time, they got things in order and learnt to operate as a team. “One day a week we meet to discuss how everything is going,” says James. “With the mults they have to go through a long chain to get things to change, whereas we can just go for it and try out new things. My brothers and I have always been very competitive. If Chris and Dan are doing something different in the restaurant then Siobhan and I want to do something new in the store.”

Their willingness to venture into new areas, coupled with strong support from Spar, has seen the store’s turnover leap to a whopping £38,000 and growing.

But the story doesn’t end there. James and co still have a million and one ideas for the business.

One of the major plans the team is working on is the branding of Walthamstow village. “We brought it up at a local residents’ meeting and everyone was really keen.”

The branding of the village will involve the introduction of signs to welcome visitors as they enter the locality, plus the design of a village logo and website with links to all the local businesses. “It would really help to give us standout,” says James. “We chose to set up here because of the Olympics and we’re expecting a big increase in trade come 2012. That’s why we need our own identity to get people interested.”

Shop profile

The Village Stores, Orford Road, Walthamstow

Opening hours: 8am-10pm seven days a week 

Size: 3,000sq ft 

Staff: two full-time, seven part-time 

Additional services: artisanal bakery, beers

The group is also in the process of adding a post office to its already enviable list of additional services. “We pushed very hard to get the post office. We got the local residents’ association on board and managed to collect more than 1,000 signatures in order to show how important the service would be to the village. Eventually, the council agreed to give us £60,000 to help fund it it’s unheard of!” he grins.

The extra business generated by the post office is set to bump up turnover to £50,000 a week, although James says it won’t add much to the bottom line. “I don’t think we’ll make a profit on it, but we wanted to give something back to the community,” he says. “It will mean a lot to locals, especially the elderly who can’t travel far.”

The group is also in talks about installing a ‘fill your own’ water dispenser, a touch-screen DVD rental unit, and even adding a hotel above the store. The ‘to do’ list at The Village Stores is seemingly unending, but this does nothing to quell James’ enthusiasm.

“Our aim is to be the best,” says James. “We’re all so passionate about what we do and want to give everything 100%.”

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