In 1515 butcher Robert Balson opened a market stall in Bridport Dorset. King Henry VIII was on the throne and married to the first of his six wives, Katherine of Aragon, and the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey was his Lord Chancellor. In the intervening centuries the Balson family has survived the Great Plague, Napoleon, two World Wars, floods and fire and today Robert Balson's descendant Richard Balson serves behind the shop counter. Charlotte Peters talks to him about celebrating their 500th anniversary earlier this year.
If 16th-century butcher Robert Balson could step into a time machine and walk into his descendant’s shop today, he’d be recognise much of the meat and game on offer; locally sourced venison, partridge, pheasant, and rabbit,with wild boar from nearby Hampshire. But he’d be astounded to see exotic meats such as ostrich, crocodile, zebra and elk.
Running a successful business for 500 years and seeing off intense competition from the supermarkets – it occurred to me that the Balson family should have a regular guest slot on an entrepreneurial reality TV show such as Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice.
In fact, talking to Richard Balson, 56, who represents the 26th generation since Robert Balson started up in 1515, he informed me that there are now only 12 family businesses in the UK that have survived over 300 years, of which his is one.
I asked him why he thought the shop had survived for so long and thrived in the fast-food/microwave/cling film food culture of today.
“Keeping it small is the secret of success. People want to see me – I’m like the landlord in a pub. We have a chat. Bit of banter. Not like going into a supermarket where it’s all impersonal.
“People also want to know where their meat is coming from. The horse meat scandal was good for us because people were coming into butchers again, they didn’t trust the supermarkets.”
Ferreted rabbits preferred
“We buy our partridge and pheasants directly from the local shoots. There are loads nearby here.
“I could sell 10 pheasants for £1 each on the feather but nobody wants to pluck them, they can’t be bothered. People have too much money, they’re lazy. We sell rabbit too of course but we’d rather have ferreted rabbits if we can get them than shot ones.
“Food isn’t always dear if you buy the right things. You can buy a sack of spuds for a tenner but people don’t want to peel them. They’d rather buy them in a plastic tray, peeled, covered in goose fat and ready to go into the oven for about £5.
“We process our pheasants at the back of the shop and sell four packs of pheasant breasts (that’s 12) for £10.
“Nowdays people want food that’s fast and easy to prepare. Women are working, come in and need to get a meal on the table quickly so pheasant breasts that you can cook in about 10 minutes are perfect really. They’re lean and healthy.People are going away from buying large cuts like legs of lamb. They want something simple and fast.”
High streets used to be thriving places – with post offices, butchers, bakers, greengrocers …. many of which have not survived the might of the supermarkets. So what has RJ Balson done right? How has this family business survived for an impressive five centuries? Richard thought and replied.
“For us, the secret is keeping it small. You can only keep your eye on one shop at a time.
“Nowdays we also have a website that sells all sorts of game, meat and poultry that gets orders from all over the UK.
“Our toughest time was probably during the Second World War. You couldn’t get stuff to sell and there was strict rationing anyway.”
Richard pointed out a week’s meat ration would have been a pork chop, four sausages, four rashers or bacon or ham and an egg.
So to eke out the meat ration people foraged, did some rough shooting, grew vegetables and kept chickens. Things got very quiet for butchers.
The shop itself is on the westward road out of Bridport and whilst it does have eye-catching signs announcing the goods within, it is on the small side.
The Balson family bought the premises in 1892 and the photographs don’t look too dissimilar to now, although there was no glass in the windows until the 1920s as there didn’t need to be. There were no car fumes to worry about and at night boards were put up against the window for security. As the shop front is north facing, this had the advantage of keeping everything cool, but made the shop a cold place to work in the freezing winter months.
I asked Richard what he thought the shop would be like in fifty years time.
“You have to move with the times.
“If my father had seen the weird and wonderful stuff I sell now – like the kangaroo or zebra – he’d think I was off my rocker but if the demand is there – and if it is – you need to sell it.
“People are more travelled these days and open to trying things.
“People do want fresh and organic and that’s the good thing with all game. It’s low in cholesterol, wild and low in food miles so it ticks a lot of boxes. My customers like to know what they’re eating and I can give them traceability, age and what farm or shoot the produce is from. And of course game is more sustainable than fish.”
We talked about all the cookery programmes on TV now and Richard said that he thought there was no excuse not to know all about food – despite kids not being taught much about cookery at school.