An Interview with Ian James of Melrose and Morgan

If you had told Ian James and Nick Selby nearly ten years ago that by 2013 they would be the proud owners of two top grocery stores in Primrose Hill and Hampstead as well as a commercial production kitchen in Chalk Farm, employing 35 members of staff, producing 500 different recipes per year and making 7000 Christmas puddings for the Selfridges Food Hall, they might have thought you completely mad. Yet this is exactly what this very enterprising duo of foodies from Hackney have managed to achieve, surviving two recessions in a row as well as all the vicissitudes retailing brings, growing and developing their business in every direction ~ from creating their own branded product lines to writing their own book and training teams who have then gone on to create flourishing businesses of their own.

I went to the Primrose Hill Melrose and Morgan shop to see for myself how this brand has grown and to meet co-founder Ian James, to understand the secret behind the success. Light, bright, big windows greeted me from the pavement, with cheery pillar box red writing on the glass heralding the grocery emporium therein. A cross between a good, old fashioned farmers’ market and those food halls you see in modern Italian streetscapes, the shop showcases the very best artisanal, regional food offering as well as a limited range of kitchenware. The food and drink range is edited, curated and well thought out, so that all the choices have been made for you. And the choice is eclectic albeit, still, predominantly British.

“When we started we were really strict about choosing just British food and drink: no croissants, dried pasta, bananas and so on. But as we listened to our customers, we realised that people wanted those things for their dinner parties. So now we offer olive oil from a friend’s grove, Italian lemons, Spanish chorizo and so on because we know that is what people need in their cooking,” Ian explained.

The power of great branding, a clean, light palette and contemporary shop fit are of paramount importance to the founders of the company.

“We knew our look from the outset,” Ian told me. “The first impression is so important in business, and it has to be in line with who you are. We were really fortunate in that our design agency, Studio Frith, took us under their wing from the start and the collaboration has worked so well. Nick, my partner, came from an art background, had done cookery courses with Alastair Little and Dan Lepard as well as at Ballymaloe Cookery School, and had I worked for the theatre, helping to establish the food offering at The Wapping Project. We both started the business in 2004 with exactly the same vision: to be really good grocers. But customers judge first with their eyes, so as well as selling delicious food we knew we had to make the shop look good too.”

They combined the maiden names of both their mothers, Mrs. Melrose and Mrs.Morgan, and set to creating an exciting and modern concept in what were then, unchartered waters.

Inspired by community hub shops like Leila’s in Arnold Circus, Ian and Nick wanted to create a seven-day-a-week retail emporium that showcased the finest artisan producers in a way that was exciting and compelling. On their shelves are Chegworth Valley fruit juices from Kent, Balthazar Bakery breads, Neal’s Yard cheeses, coffee from Climpson and Sons, honey from Steve Benbow, founder of The London Honey Company, and tomatoes from The Tomato Stall. You can find all the staple larder ingredients for a winning risotto, a traditional tea party or a picnic in the park. The chefs make pies, terrines, pates, preserves, granola, stews, soups, salads, biscuits, pastries and cakes that can be taken home or eaten at work.

“Some of our customers come here three times a day,” Ian told me. “They come early for their breakfast and cappuccino and brioche, then we see them again at lunch time and again as they set off for home, wanting something quick and easy for their supper. We build a rapport with people, so we understand their needs and likes. We are just like French traiteurs, working with the seasons, making the recipes that we know our customers love and trust.”

In the corner of the Primrose Hill shop there is a “dwell area” where customers can sit and have a drink or snack, read a magazine and chat, but the essence of the business is to focus on retail and not on being a café or bistro ~ there are plenty of those already in this neck of the woods.

In wooden and cardboard boxes sit today’s fresh selection of sugar snap peas, fennel, tomatoes, salads and soft fruits. Small, limited and colourful, the fruit and vegetable selection reflects the selective stocking policy of the whole shop. Jaunty white and red cloth bags are used as carriers and all the products are beautifully packaged in PVC wrap and stickers. Every tiny detail is considered with care. Less is more.

“Everything we stock has got to look good and taste great. It has to be the best of what we have found, and it has to be presented well,” Ian insisted.

Recently Ian did a course at University College London, sponsored by Goldman Sachs under an initiative called 10 000 small businesses. Through workshops, mentoring and coaching he learned how to analyse his business in order to develop it further, working alongside business peers and financial leaders.

“I left the course with an 80 page document, written by me, projecting a plan for business growth for Melrose and Morgan for the next five years.”

This growth plan includes creating new products and ranges that can potentially be sold through other channels. But expansion and more shops are not necessarily the be all and end all: Ian believes that specialising in a few things, and being master of a few crafts, is sometimes the best way forward.

“If I had to do the business all over again maybe I would try to specialise in a smaller product range and be really fantastic at fewer things,” he confessed.

The work split is delineated along their skill set, so that Nick focuses on all the recipe development, delivery and kitchen management whereas Ian focuses on finance, marketing and retail operations.

“Having a strong team behind you is what matters. Our General Manager, who has just left us, was here since 2004. We have a very loyal, talented team of people who work with us. Finding the right people can be a challenge, though, because not everyone is cut out for a life in catering. Some people last just a few days. We advertise for new positions in Gumtree but we also get personal referrals from existing staff.”

If you are looking to set up a food and drink shop, I cannot recommend a visit to Melrose and Morgan more: small, exciting and thoughtful, this is the face of retailing for the future. And it does not have to be limited to London: high streets up and down the country would be so much improved if this sort of neighbourhood shop opened up, a firm rebuttal of bland, impersonal supermarket shopping. It proves how successful a calm, careful, curated approach to food and drink retailing can be.

Further Information

Melrose and Morgan:

Follow the team on Twitter: @melroseandmorgan

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