Safeguarding more than 140 years of tradition while evolving to satisfy ever-changing customer needs requires a sharp business mind, as Dean Bailey discovers when he meets a sixth-generation butcher.
History and modernity are recurring themes on the streets of Alnwick. From the historic castle to the modern splendour of Alnwick Garden and its now iconic treehouse, old and new are combined to great effect.
This is also achieved by the town’s long-established butcher, Turnbull’s. For more than 140 years, this family has brought the finest local meat to the people of Alnwick, first on Clayport Street, and since the 1950s on Market Street, where this traditional butcher’s shop continues to thrive.
In addition, on the outskirts of town is the epitome of modern retail. Opened in 2019, Turnbull’s Northumbrian Food Hall, next to retail giant Marks & Spencer, has been dubbed both the Home of Northumbrian Food and the Harrods of the North by locals and visitors. Home to skilled butchery, the food hall also brings together produce ranging from local beef and lamb purchased at Acklington Mart to artisan produce from the likes of Alnwick Brewery, Northumbrian Pantry, and The Mad Jam Woman.
Tasked with combining six generations of tradition with the bold development of the food hall is Dan Turnbull. Having joined the business in 2012 after graduating from university with a degree in physics, Dan leads the business alongside his father Mark, while his sister Lucy runs The Loft shop above the food hall, and his grandfather John remains part of the team.
“The business has been a huge part of my life,” says Dan. “From the age of 12, I was in the shop learning from my dad and grandad. My dad was always keen for me to go to university, so I did that, but I wanted to be part of the business since I was a kid and I came into it properly at 21. I started at the entry level, following the same syllabus as the apprentices – making sausages and organising cellar fridges – before working my way up. There’s no short-cut to those 60-hour weeks with a knife in your hand.”
While traditional butchery and relationships with local farmers going back generations remain at the heart of things, the business continues to adapt to customer needs. This includes developing ready-to-cook meals, a hot food counter, and bringing baking and bacon smoking in-house.
“The heart of our business is in local produce from farms within a few miles of our door, and that hasn’t changed in more than 140 years,” says Dan. “But eating habits have changed, and people want a quality product that’s quick and easy. I grew up understanding where my food came from and how it was cooked, but not everyone does, and today it’s easy to grab a ready meal at the supermarket. But there’s a middle ground, whether that’s a prepared dish which is cooked in full at home or a heat-to-eat product.”
The journey from joints to ready-to-eat dishes is illustrated in the food hall. Starting with a traditional counter of steaks and joints, we move to barbecue-ready chicken kebabs, then lamb and pork prepped and ready to pop in the oven. Past these lie pies and sausage rolls made in the bakery above the Market Street shop, before a hot food counter of steak pies, hog roast sausage rolls and hand-cut chunky chips ready for lunchtime.
“Simplicity for the customer is important,” says Dan.
That’s driven as much change in the last 10 years as in the 100 years before. People are time-pressed – they can’t do an hour’s prep and a mountain of dishes with every meal. But they still want to cook a well-rounded, healthy meal.”
Accommodating that market with ready-to-go meals in foil containers which go straight in the oven is essential, he says. “The next step, which we’re working on now, is elevating that experience with a heat-and-eat range of restaurant-quality food. We’ve invested in the best training for our team and the best equipment, including Rational ovens and sous vide machines, to offer customers high-quality produce, cooked to the highest standard, which they can take home, heat in the oven, and enjoy any night of the week.”
The Turnbulls have changed with the times, from purchasing Pitts drapers’ store next door to the shop on Market Street and expanding into greengrocery, to launching their bakery and delicatessen in 2007, and opening the Northumbrian Food Hall in 2019. “The food hall was a big risk, and it has been a massive change, but it’s a good one the family is proud of,” says Dan. “It’s now the biggest part of our business, thanks to its size, 200 parking spaces just off the A1, and being open seven days a week. We’ve embraced this while never neglecting our traditional customer who loves the experience of going to see their butcher, greengrocer and baker.
“One of the biggest benefits of diversification has been using more of the animals we buy. We’ve always sold all the fillet steaks, but now our waste is so much lower as we’re making all our meals to go and pies from those same animals. That’s good in terms of sustainability, ethics, and business.
“While we’re always adapting and developing, at our core we’re a traditional business. We buy whole animals from the local mart every week, just as we always have. The presentation of the produce changes over time, but the skills used and the focus on provenance and quality remains the same as it was when we started out.
“Steering a 140-plus-year-old business with 40-plus staff is always going to be stressful, but there’s also a lot of satisfaction in this job as well,” adds Dan, who still works on the butchery counter every day while developing the business.
“We work hard all week, filling the cases and fridges, and come 7am on Saturday morning we stand back and see this incredible display of produce which we know all about and have made the absolute most of. Come Monday morning, those are all empty, and we’re back in and all ready to go again.”