Welbeck Farm Shop: Behind the scenes at the farm shop named the best in the entire country

Pies and sausage rolls at Welbeck Farm Shop
Pies and sausage rolls at Welbeck Farm Shop -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

When you've tasted the food at one of Nottinghamshire's most successful farm shops, there's no going back. Customers prepared to pay extra for top notch meat, cheese and bread say you get what you pay for in terms of flavour and quality - and some will travel miles to stock up.

It's the hard work, dedication and passion of those running Welbeck Farm Shop, near Worksop, that have led to not only a record year, but four top awards. The pinnacle was recently being crowned the UK's best large farm shop. At the same ceremony for the Farm Shop & Deli Awards, it scooped the prize for Midlands best retailer.

Earlier this year, the butchery counter scooped top honours, being named the best in the UK by the Farm Retail Association and towards the end of 2023 the Harley Cafe, in the courtyard opposite the farm shop, won the Great Food Club's Cafe of the Year.

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General manager Oliver Stubbins said: "Individually they are amazing. It's nice to win anything but to have all four is what's made it unbelievable. Most of it is about passion. We want to sell good food. We only sell food we are proud of, whether it's in the shop or in the cafe. It's food we want to eat and enjoy.

(L- R) Harley Cafe manager Rachel Meadows, general manager Oliver Stubbins, head of fresh food David Wall and butchery manager Ian Cain pictured with an array of awards
(L- R) Harley Cafe manager Rachel Meadows, general manager Oliver Stubbins, head of fresh food David Wall and butchery manager Ian Cain pictured with an array of awards -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

"Since winning awards we have been even busier. When we got the award for UK's best large farm shop, I came off stage and said 'we can't get complacent'. This doesn't mean that we've got to where we're going. This is like a minimum standard. We are relentless."

The farm shop was up against bigger businesses and some with pick-your-own produce, playgrounds and animal parks. Oliver said: "It depended on what they were judging us on. We thought if it was customer service and food we'd be right up there and in with a good chance. We were delighted. We turn 18 this year and it really feels like the business is coming of age. It's gone from being a little secret shop people stumbled across by accident to one where people come regularly."

Oliver works closely with executive chef Ricky Stephenson. "I call him my Mr Food. He is the taste buds of the business." Ricky's exuberance for good food is contagious. He heads up a panel, who taste every single product on sale in the farm shop. Not just once, but every few months, to make sure it is the crème de la crème. If it's not, it's out.

Ricky said: "We're always tasting, always testing and looking for the best. We don't need to change everything every week but, for example, we taste jams every three months to make sure that they are still the best and if they're not we'll get another supplier in. It can feel a little bit ruthless in some respects but at the same time, we want it to be the best.

The meat counter at Welbeck Farm Shop
The meat counter at Welbeck Farm Shop -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

"We have got a really good formula. We don't sell novelty. We use only the best quality, we only want the best ingredients and treat them simply. The best food is food we all want to eat, done properly. We want to be profitable but we're not driven by that, first and foremost we're driven by quality.

"One of the things I'm super proud of is our egg custard. We sound big-headed but it is the best. It's a simple dish. We've looked for all the right ingredients, we've tried lots of recipes and we've got it exactly how we want it and to some people, it's not spectacular, because it's just egg custard, but if you like egg custard that's the one."

The long-term goal is to produce almost everything they sell. Food miles are virtually zero for a lot of it. Some cakes are made in the shop's small production kitchen by pastry chef Ian Heslop, a former student at Welbeck's School of Artisan Food. Amongst the sweet treats are Chubby Buggers, a take on the trademarked Fat Rascals baked by Yorkshire tea room Bettys. A cross between a scone and a rock cake, less than a dozen are made per day, meaning you're always guaranteed a fresh bake if you manage to buy one before they sell out.

Bread and pastries are from the bakehouse on the 15,000-acre Welbeck Estate and a selection of vegetables, including collard greens, lettuce and asparagus, grown in the historic walled garden, have been picked just a few hours ago.

Head of fresh food David Wall with Stichelton cheese
Head of fresh food David Wall with Stichelton cheese -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

One best-seller is Stichelton, a creamy blue cheese. Raw milk comes from Welbeck Dairy's herd of 100 pedigree Holstein cows, and some of the eggs are from the estate's hens. Lamb is from the estate's own cattle, while the shop's expert butchers make sausages and the award-winning home-cured bacon from free-range pork. The estate has its own herd of Belted Galloway cows, so their own beef will be on the butchery counter in a year's time.

The shop has improved its game offering in the last few years, with wild venison, partridge, pheasants, and wood pigeons from the estate. Ricky said: "We might have 300 birds delivered and they've gone in four days. People love them. We have got a fantastic reputation for venison, it's such a beautiful meat. It's every buzzword in food, it's grass-fed or crop-fed, it's not fed any antibiotics or steroids, it's wild, it runs free, it's low in saturated fats, it's high in protein, and it tastes fantastic."

Around a dozen different bottles of ale are produced at Welbeck Brewery. Rum is from DropWorks, Europe's biggest rum distillery, based on the estate.

What they can't grow or make themselves, Ricky makes sure it is from the best of the best. The beautifully iced cupcakes are from Fiona Cairns, who created the eight-tiered wedding cake for Prince William and Kate Middleton. And the Italian lemons are twice the size of those in supermarkets.

In 2022 Welbeck featured in the Channel 5 series Britain's Poshest Farm Shop - the staff weren't too keen on the title, saying they're not posh - but they're still getting visitors on the back of it. Oliver said: "We had someone come in at the weekend and they said 'we've seen your face before'. They said they'd been meaning to visit.

Welbeck Farm Shop
Welbeck Farm Shop -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

"The programme brought a lot of people in. We were on telly on the Friday at 8pm and the very next day at 9am the first people in the cafe had travelled 80 miles from Bolton. We get lots of customers from all walks of life coming through the doors... anyone who cares about food, it doesn't matter how much you earn. I wouldn't say we're cheap but we're certainly good value."

The food is only half the story though. It's the people who work there that help to make it what it is. Oliver said: "Winning awards helps us not only bring more customers in, it helps us attract stronger team members. Our team has got stronger over the years.

"We find people who are full of personality. The shop has a lot of service over the counter and if someone is going to stand there straight-faced or a bit soulless, it doesn't work. We try to find people with big personalities, who have a real interest in food. Retail isn't the best-paid business in the world so all the perks are food-based. They get a really good discount in the shop and good discount in the cafe and for lunch they can have anything off the menu for £3."

One of the newest recruits is butcher Desan Ehrlich. He draws on his South African roots to produce boerewors, a type of sausage, now on sale. "When you get someone like Des who has got strong roots and is passionate about food we want to encourage that and get the best out of that," said Ricky, who was a customer for years before he landed the job.

Talking to customers, they all speak highly about the quality. Retired GP Bob Guest, of Worksop, visits the shop once a week, buying meat, cheese and vegetables. "I buy the Stichelton, it's like Stilton but creamier. It's a very nice cheese. The quality is very good here."

The 69-year-old added: "It is a bit more expensive but one thing I have found about the meat is it doesn't shrink. You buy supermarket pre-wrapped meat and you cook it and it's about half the size. You get a steak from here and it's the same size when you've finished cooking. You get what you pay for."

Andrea Salmon, 73, who used to work for the National Trust at Clumber Park, visits every fortnight to stock up on meat. "I buy mainly steak, I love their sausages they are brilliant, and I buy the lamb mince as I make my own burgers. I buy quite a bit off the meat counter, then I go to the deli counter as their sausage rolls are delicious.

"It's always so fresh and very good stuff. You can tell the difference in the flavour and the taste, especially when you make your burgers."

The shop complements the Harley Cafe, which puts the produce to good use in its dishes - from bacon and sausages at breakfast to conjuring up small plates and sandwiches with cheese and vegetables. Once again, the staff get to taste everything.

Ricky said: "Any dish will take three or four attempts, sometimes six attempts before we're happy with it. Everyone tastes it. You can't sell something that you don't know. You might not particularly like it but you can identify flavours in it. Then you'll find dishes that you love and they become a natural sell. If someone says 'what would you have?' you can say it with real passion and not pretend passion that the chef said sell this today."

Ricky works closely with head chef James Armstrong, the shop's head of fresh foods David Wall, and Steve Wright, who looks after the walled garden where globe artichokes, sheep's sorrel, lettuces, kale, nasturtiums, herbs and other greens are currently growing.

Centuries ago when the Duke of Portland resided in the abbey, there used to be 50 gardeners. Now it's Steve, helped by his son James and four volunteers. We're shown behind the scenes, where the public isn't permitted, although they can book a tour to find out more about the 19th-century garden.

The chefs plan menus 12 months ahead to give Steve time to grow whatever produce they require. He said: "Last year we produced about 2,500 cucumbers for the shop and cafe and normally we do a ton-and-a-half of tomatoes."

Head gardener Steve Wright pictured with his dogs Red and Sid in the walled garden on the Welbeck Estate
Chubby Buggers are made in the farm shop

It means the produce is fresh and picked at its prime. Ricky said: "Buy a tomato from the supermarket and most of the time it's picked under-ripe, put in a bag, sprayed with a powder to keep it from getting sweaty, and has all the oxygen sucked out the bag before they seal it. We're able to pick them when they're ripe, the smell is amazing, they come up warm, they haven't been refrigerated. They're so good."

As well as tending to the walled garden, Steve also looks about the estate's small herd of rare breed Portland lambs, that take their name from the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Only around 2,000 exist in the UK. They're reared for their fleece although some of the meat is used for special events in the cafe.

What customers don't realise is that some of the best plans aren't drawn up sitting in an office or boardroom. Ricky said: "Oliver introduced me to walking meetings. It's a nice thing to be able to do. You have better meetings. You can't write so much down, but you have much better conversations while you're walking and you're doing exercise and there's some lovely walks around here."