Fred'll fix it

QI'm considering diversifying my business by opening a shop and small meat processing unit on my farm. What are the main pitfalls?

TJ, Yorks.

AThe main pitfall is rushing ahead with a project without consulting the right people early on. In a nutshell, local authority planning, environmental health and trading standards departments are all likely to take an interest in what you're doing. If you aren't doing any retailing or meat processing on your premises at the moment then there are quite a few hurdles to be got over.

First and foremost there's planning. Turning a stone barn into a shop or a cutting unit, for example, means a change of use for which planning permission is needed. What you are looking to do may also affect the ratable value of your property - you might attract a business rate. Inheritance tax may also be an issue and something worth checking with your accountant or financial advisor.

The next thing to do is register what you intend doing with your local authority. Expect to be contacted by your local Environmental Health Officer (EHO), who will want to see proposed structural plans and a HACCP plan that shows you have identified the critical control points at your premises and the measures in place to ensure the safe handling, preparation and storage of meat. Some plans can be bought 'off the shelf' or can be put together for you by a consultant. There are also quite a few other rules and regulations covering issues like meat labelling, storage, temperature controls and others. Many of the main trade organisations, like MLC, EBLEX, or the NFMFT may be able to help or give advice on all these issues. Getting their advice on the layout of your facility is also vital to avoid cross-contamination between raw and cooked product.

Trading Standards may need to test any equipment you use, such as scales, and verify any claims you may make with regard to product origin. It is key to involve both EHO and Trading Standards early on to avoid problems further down the line.

Foodservice and retail differ greatly and also means a different view from the authorities. Sell on to a pub or a restaurant, for example, and the EHO may consider your shop or preparation unit as a cutting plant, which comes under the remit of the Meat Hygiene Service.

Undertaking cutting/preparation work on behalf of others, or selling meat to others who will re-sell it, will also raise the same issues. While some may be exempt due to their size, new rules introduced in January this year mean most premises selling meat to the foodservice sector must be visited and re-licensed.

The bottom line is to seek professional advice if you're in doubt on any issue. For further advice on this whole subject try Martin Palmer of the MLC on 01908 844157, or EBLEX on 01480 482980 and they will put you in touch with one of their regional advisers.

QThere are rumours that a supermarket and a farmers' market are opening near our quiet parade of shops. The parade has a range of shops beside my butchery business including a quality independent fishmonger, baker and greengrocer. Can we group together to oppose the development? TK, Manchester.

AAre you mad? This sounds like a golden opportunity. Many independent traders think that the arrival of a farmers' market or a supermarket nearby spells the end of life as they know it. And yet quite a few butchers have found that when this happens trade actually increases.

I notice that you describe the parade as 'quiet'. The last thing any trader wants is a shopping parade empty of shoppers.

Both the supermarket and the farmers' market will provide potentially tough competition. But they will also help bring an enormous number of customers into your parade. I also note that you say the traders are quality shops. Make no mistake about it, supermarkets do sell quality meat these days, but the traditional butcher can still have the edge when it comes to marketing and service because he or she has more flexibility to quickly adjust to local trading conditions.

The best way forward would be for you and your fellow traders to share the cost of a small marketing campaign.

Come up with a brand name and logo that identifies you all and your locality, then do a trial campaign in the local paper and radio station. The important thing is to monitor response and footfall.

Q I hated trading through last August. Trade dropped off because the school down the road was closed. What can I do? WR, Liverpool.

AThe schools have shut now of course so you've lost the face-to-face opportunity to encourage them to visit over the holidays. Consider a promotional leaflet drop in your area. Many local free newspapers and the agencies that run them will arrange this at a relatively low price. Check out the rate with the Post Office too.

Leaflet drops are good for bolstering slack trade or at times when you've an oversupply of product that you need to sell. Think ahead to other times when such a promotion may pay dividends. Remember also that at this time of year there are some great bargains to be had in buying stock from wholesalers relatively cheaply - forequarters for example.

It won't help your August trade, but it will give you a good base for trading when the school-run returns.

QI'm labelling and advertising my meat as 'local' and 'organic' but I've been disappointed with sales. Any suggestions? Mrs D, Derby.

AYou may be moving in the right direction. However while the terms 'local' and 'organic' might conjure up the image of healthy freshness and better quality, they are still fairly general expressions. Shoppers have got used to the terms. You may need to promote more specific attributes. Name the breed of meat, the farmer or farm where it is sourced (best to get the farmer's permission first), and the organic organisation through which your organic status is accredited. Display the information and put it in your marketing material. Don't identify what price premium you are charging. Prices for organic produce have plummeted in recent years and most shoppers will baulk at paying a really hefty premium.