The extraordinary product range and impressive pizzeria at The Village Store make it stand out for all the right reasons. Sarah Britton reports

It may have been only six months since we last wrote about The Village Store, but during that time owners James Brundle and Siobhan O’Donnell have been working non-stop to make their offer even more diverse.

The in-store bakery, which took pride of place on C-Store’s last visit, has moved behind the scenes, giving the shop’s swanky new pizzeria a chance to shine. And with gleaming metal bar stools lined up along the wall, smart black floor tiles and a wooden panelled counter, shine it does.

The unit was created by the designer behind the co-branded Eat17 restaurant next door, which is run by James’ brothers Daniel and Chris. “We didn’t want it to be like Pizza Hut!” grins James.

So when he describes the pizzas themselves, he’s talking sophistication, pizzas lovingly crafted by professional chefs.

James and Siobhan were deeply inspired by the high-end, yet value-for-money pizza offering at Franco Manca’s restaurant in Chiswick, West London. Explains James: “Franco makes top-quality pizza but, unlike Pizza Express where you can be paying about £13, his pizzas are just £7.”

The Village Store’s pizzas are made from finely milled Caputo flour, Napoli-sourced tomatoes and mozzarella, and organic ham from Dorset. “This isn’t your standard fare,” says James.

The ingredients may be premium but the prices aren’t, starting at just £3 for a rosemary, garlic & cracked sea salt pizza bread.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be The Village Store if there weren’t a few unconventional variants thrown in. “We brainstorm every week and change the specials on the same frequency,” explains James. “We’ll usually go for a couple of more familiar flavours, such as rocket & Parma ham, and add in one or two quirky ones, such as our pear & walnut variety.”

Store: The Village Store/Spar Walthamstow, London

Staff: 10 full-time, 2 part-time 
Size: 2,600sq ft 
Opening hours: 8am-10pm daily 
Extra services: National Lottery, mobile top-ups, artisan bakery, pizzeria

The pizzeria cost £30,000 to install, but returns have been superb. “It’s been up and running for three months, but it’s already paid for itself,” he beams. “We’re making up to £4,000 a week and there’s a 400% mark-up.”

The pizzas take five minutes to make one minute on the toppings, and four minutes to cook. And those four minutes provide ample time for precious incremental sales. “People can watch the pizza being made, and then wander round the store while it’s in the oven,” says James. “They’ll often pick up beer and wines, so we’ve seen an uplift across those categories, too. I’d say about 60% of people buy extra products on top of the pizza.”

A newly installed touchscreen Movie Booth is also proving popular with customers waiting for pizza. “It has low commission rates, but it takes up very little space and younger people and couples use it a lot,” says James.

Of course, it’s not just the store’s existing customers who are lapping up the Italian-inspired delights. “We’re seeing loads of new customers. Someone even came from Tottenham, which is a 20-minute drive away, to taste our pizza,” says James.

Once people have come to the store to try the pizzas, the same customers then come to shop at the store. “There’s easily an extra 50 or 60 customers a week now,” points out James.

While demand for pizza is at its busiest in the evening, chefs Simon and Max are kept busy throughout the day making Italian-style ready meals, such as lasagne and Parma ham with green lentils.

And just because the bakery itself is now out of sight doesn’t mean that the store’s bread offering has been neglected. The bakery fixture is now right at the front of the store so customers can see and smell the range as soon as they come in. “We used the same designer to create our new bread unit, so all the fixtures complement each other,” says James. “It only cost £400 and we’ve seen a good increase in sales as a result. Before, we were selling £1,200 worth a week; now we’re up to £1,800.”

Head baker Mimi has worked at the store for a year-and-a-half and makes artisan breads from scratch daily. During the week the store offers eight or nine different types of bread, and this rockets to 14 at the weekend. The best-seller is the Walthamstow Bloomer, but there are also a few quirkier loaves for the more adventurous, such as the new bacon, brie & cranberry loaf.

Convenience Retailer of the Year Award: Convenience Retail Awards 2011

Owners James Brundle and Siobhan O’Donnell won over the judges with their unerring commitment to continual development. “The store was highly commended last year and we found more to admire this year at the Spar with a difference,” they said. The new pizzeria was a particular high point in the store’s entry. The judging panel were in awe of the great quality and value delivered by the produce, which resulted in remarkable sales figures and an increased customer base. 
“Turnover is up an impressive 10% year on year to £40,000 at 33% gross percentage profit,” noted the panel. “This store is truly raising the bar.”

Another new addition is luxury bathing products range Bomb Cosmetics. “I spotted them on sale in a store in Sawbridgeworth and was impressed, so I got on to the supplier and ordered some,” says James. “They’re only £1.99 each, so they appeal to lots of budgets.”

Tracklements preserves, which were introduced on trial in December, have also had a positive impact on sales and are now a permanent fixture. The supplier provides recipe cards to accompany the products, which James creatively uses as pos material. He has slotted them into the shelf edges, so that customers can see serving suggestions as they shop.

The Tracklements range makes up just a small section of the store’s preserves offering because novel ingredients are a high priority for many of his customers. “Our customer base is quite mixed, but there are certainly a lot of foodies,” he says. “People come in here looking for ingredients, so we want to be able to help them. We stock lots of interesting products we even have a barbecue powder called Slap Ya Mama!”

Sourcing and reviewing the store’s extensive product range takes a great deal of time and effort, but James has found ways to ease the burden. “I work with Marcus Carter who runs the Virtual Farmers Market [a website which showcases independent suppliers from around the UK]. He lets me know about all the best products.”

And now that the Village Store has a reputation for sourcing the less ordinary products, James finds that sometimes the business comes to him. “We sell Pieminister pies and one of the guys who worked for them left to set up his own business selling Kabuto Noodles.”

The Village Store became one of the first to stock the new range. James states: “They have a low-fat content and are popular with health-conscious consumers.”

The store is also hoping to woo calorie counters with a new frozen yogurt offering, which will replace last year’s freshly whipped ice cream cones.

And for those who aren’t so keen to cut back, the shop’s alcohol section still offers plenty of opportunities for extravagance. “We’ve had a bit of a tidy up with our beer area and got rid of a few slow sellers, but there are still lots of unusual flavours, such as our chilli beer,” says James.

In fact, he is even toying with the idea of brewing his own beer in the future, but for now he’s busy with a new wine area. The range comprises 14 wines produced on a small scale, making them more exclusive than the Spar alternatives.

As well as making its product offering as diverse as possible, the store is also reaching out to the community. “We have developed our own range of E17 jams, marmalades and chutneys and we donate proceeds to the local residents’ association,” James adds.

He explains that making the store a success is all about differentiating it from the masses. “There are three Tescos within a mile radius of the store, so we don’t want to offer the same as them we have to be unique,” says James. It seems that particular multiple has a long way to go catch up with Walthamstow’s finest.