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Same principles, fresh thinking

Q&A with Fairhaven Wholefoods, Letchworth Garden City

In 2021 Fairhaven Wholefoods, an independent vegetarian health food shop in Letchworth Garden City, celebrated 40 years since Robin and Wendy Sternberg started the business in their living room in 1981.

In 2022, new owners Neil and Tressa Timms value more than ever the advantages of being an independent and family-run business. That’s the backbone of health food retailing across the UK and Ireland – the ability to react rapidly to an ever-changing marketplace not least in the face of lockdowns and restrictions.

We spoke to Tressa about life in a community health store in such fast-changing circumstances.

How are you taking forward lessons learned from the pandemic into 2022?

Key to us are strong partnerships with suppliers and ensuring we keep abreast of trends in the food industry as well as scientific developments in nutrition. For example, monk fruit is being hailed as an excellent sugar substitute.

New thinking for 2022 includes non-alcoholic spirits, pea protein nuggets and foods, food waste meals (where raw materials would otherwise go to landfill), sea greens, and continued reduction in plastics, for example laundry strips to replace detergent bottles.

How is in-store customer interaction affected?

The nature of our high-ceilinged and airy shop (which is unheated to reduce our carbon footprint) means that customers feel safe when shopping with us. In addition, our baskets and trolleys are all sanitised by staff for our customers and refills are carried out by staff to minimise contamination risk.

The shop has wide aisles and displays have been moved aside to ensure plenty of room for customers to be able to shop in safety. This is now ingrained and will remain with us as we move forward. The beauty of being an independent and family-run business has meant that we have always been able to react rapidly to an ever-changing and developing situation.

You operated a Click & Collect service during lockdowns. Are you continuing with this? And other online services?

We still have customers who make use of the Click & Collect service, with one customer who drives to the front door, phones to say she has arrived, whereupon staff take her shopping out and place it in her boot and off she drives with a cheery wave!

Making use of social media and having our website has been invaluable over the past two years, and it would be difficult to comprehend having a successful business without them. Although it’s time-consuming to keep current and up-to-date, we have found that our monthly newsletter helps feed posts and offers, keeping our customers abreast of relevant developments in the health food and supplements arena.

What else have you taken from the last two years to become more resilient in 2022?

Having dedicated and resilient staff is a godsend – they are willing and enthusiastic to adapt as well as put themselves in the ‘firing line’, willing to continue coming to work to help those who are in need. This means customers are often coming to us when other avenues have failed to help them return to good health. Without dedicated and knowledgeable staff, it is difficult to provide customers with the ‘value added’ service needed to survive as an independent health food store.

A loyalty scheme that we introduced in 2019 has been incredibly successful and gives Fairhaven the opportunity to thank our customers for their support of the business, giving them 10% off their shopping when they present a full card.

Do you have any supply chain issues and what do your customers think of the way you are looking after them?

As with food stores in general, there have been supply issues affecting some stock items and brands. However, we have been extremely fortunate to have been mostly able to source alternatives for our customers. It is uncertain as to whether the shortages are due to Covid-related reasons such as staff absences, or Brexit and a lack of raw materials.

We have had numerous messages of thanks from our customers who rely on the service we provide, and it is always heartening to receive them! A particular favourite comment was when one customer said, ‘I’ve been everywhere looking for organic malt extract – I should have known to come to Fairhaven first!’

What’s most important to Fairhaven in 2022?

The main core values of the business remain today: healthy wholefoods, organic choice, free-from food and natural supplement choices for those struggling with health problems, intolerances and allergies, while constantly striving to build on the product offering being sustainable. Reducing waste, supporting local suppliers, sourcing as many plastic-free products as possible.

Historically our customer demographic was more mature, generally female and very conscious of a healthy vegetarian lifestyle. We have noticed a subtle change in the demographic becoming younger with both male and female customers not only interested in a healthy vegetarian/vegan diet but also much more aware of the buying choices they make, looking for refills and products that are more earth-friendly and body-kind.

Where do you go from here?

This is a tremendous time to be a local independent health store with the heightened awareness of health and diet as well as people looking to support their own health and protect the planet. The future holds many opportunities to partner with practitioners, develop a greater role with customer diet and nutrition, increase website and internet business while also continuing to give customers ideas for how to lessen their impact on the environment by making changes to their buying habits.

Fairhaven is affectionally known as one of Letchworth’s best kept secrets and the store is an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ full of wonderful healthy wholefoods. After 40 years of trading, they can look back with pride and look forward to what can be achieved over the next 40.

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