The Semley Grocers Determined To Recover ‘The Lost Art Of Retailing’

The two entrepreneurs behind Compton McRae grocers have fused culinary and retail experience from both sides of the planet to create their ambitious new Semley business. Alfred heard their story and learned about their future goals.

Bill Dowling and Sam Rosen-Nash have a passion for cheese and charcuterie that has taken them all over the world. Sam spent fifteen years as a Fortnum and Mason buyer, where she specialised in ‘ambient buying’. “It is everything that has a long shelf life – chutneys and mustards to olive oils, flours to rice and pulses or herbs and spices,” explained Sam.

Bill Dowling and Sam Rosen-Nash

She is also a respected judge for the international fine food ‘Oscars’. “I have worked alongside the Guild of Fine Foods for eighteen years, judging for the Great Taste Awards. Last year I was in Norway judging there,” she said.

Sam met Bill when he was showcasing his successful Tasmanian chutneys, marmalades and sauces to UK retailers. “I ran into Sam at a tradeshow and we struck up a business relationship, with Sam trying to grow the wholesale business,” Bill said. “At some stage she said it was ‘a tough gig’ and we should look at other ways of selling the product. From that, very quickly came the idea that we should do something together and look at retail.”

The business partners chose our area as home for their respective families and their joint venture. “I certainly wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world,” Sam enthused. “I think this area is simply quite beautiful. It nourishes. This heartland speaks to us as people.”

Although Sam and Bill love our area as residents, it was Bill’s wife Caroline who recognised the potential for a specialist, quality grocers. For the last three years, she has provided a catering service locally. “We were getting quite a lot of feedback from the magnificent job she did on what frustrations her clients had when they were shopping or what they couldn’t find. We saw a gap in the market for what we can offer but that doesn’t take away the fact that we wanted to work close by home,” Sam said.

Bill and Sam came close to basing their business in the former Turnbulls Deli in Shaftesbury. “The lease had just been signed to Willow. We were driving back from finding out that news when we came across this beautiful site here and maybe it was serendipity, because it meets our every need. In Shaftesbury, it was going to be focused on cheese and charcuterie but now we are broadening our range,’ explained Sam.

Compton McCrae’s Chaldicott Barns address has quickly entered the satnav of Shaftesbury area foodies. The company’s stylish kitchen and retail space are on the ground floor. Handcrafted wooden light shades from Semley’s Sylvie Lights hang above the first-floor balcony space. But it’s the cheese room which shows how seriously the pair take their food.

A separate wood and glass cubicle had been built. Inside this space, there are display shelves laden with cheeses of various shapes and sizes, backed by a wall of sage green tiles. “It has been set up very delicately on a cool air convection system. We have cold water pipes at the top cooling the air. Cold air is naturally heavier, so it drops and the hot air rises and hits the pipes and creates moisture. The most important thing about this room is that we are maturing cheeses, so it is not set up like a classic fridge. It creates an interactive environment,” said Sam.

Sam and Bill in the cheese room

The aroma was delicious, and the space was refreshingly cool. “During the English heatwave, there were lots of people coming in saying this was a beautiful space,” smiled Bill.

Sam told me about the ever-changing cheese choices. “It’s a flexible selection of cheeses. Currently, we have 92 in here. Two-thirds of them are British but you can’t ignore the gorgeous European cheeses that complement their English, Scottish and Irish partners.”

I asked Sam what her favourite was and she responded with a mock frown. “That is like asking a mother who your favourite child is. You’re not supposed to have favourites,” Sam laughed.

“Our best seller is Rachel from White Lakes Creamery but my personal ‘be all and end all’ favourite has to be Beauvale, from the Cropwell Bishop stilton guys. It’s a creamy cheese and it’s oh, so good,” said Sam. “Our customer base, so far, have been surprised at how many varieties of British cheeses there are. We only have a pinnacle of them in here.”

Bill’s delicious chutney complements the curated cheese selection. He doesn’t think that the British palate is different from the Tasmanian taste. “The English invented chutney, so I have been told,” said Bill with a smile. “In Tasmania, I was buying directly from the farmers – the apple grower or the beetroot producer. My beetroot savoury marmalade is my biggest seller. Australia and Tasmania have a fusion of traditional cooking and flavours with European and Asian influences. That’s what we are trying to bring to this part of the country. Showing people there are lots of different ways to cook and prepare and present food.”

Bill’s chutney

“One of the most important messages with the business is a balance,” added Sam. “What pairs well with what? Those conversations started because of my passion for cheese and Bill’s marvellous chutneys. Gently, the range that we are creating and cooking ourselves on-site is all about that balance and fusion.”

Sam and Bill want to provide a click-and-collect service from their back door that will offer customers good food without the packaging that goes with supermarket meals. “You can either bring your own dishes or pay a deposit for our dishes that we can loan you,” said Sam, while Bill added, “You can put them straight on the table. We’re avoiding the disposable packaging.”

Sam says that the company wants to reduce waste. “We are slightly incensed sometimes by the amount of packaging on goods that are coming into us,” she said. “We can’t believe the sheer volume. Anything that we are sending out, we are doing as environmentally friendly as possible. We have not used anything that is not either biodegradable or multiple uses.”

The shop opened in June, but Sam and Bill have been careful not to expand too rapidly. “We just want to make sure that everything worked, that the cheese room contained its humidity and that the charcuterie was what people wanted,” said Sam.

“We are starting the business very small,” she continued. “At the moment we are all about being local grocers, listening to what our customers want and we use the term ‘grocer’ specifically. We don’t see ourselves as a delicatessen. We are not a food hall. We say ‘grocers’ because we want to hark back to traditional values rooted in customer service. That can only work if you get it right locally first. It’s listening to what our customers want and then we’re evolving,” said Sam

Both Sam and Bill understand that their business needs the support of people in the Shaftesbury area to succeed. “Community is very important for all of us,” said Sam. “If you think about a meal, what it is and when it works well, it is a group of people who are comfortable breaking bread across the table, enjoying the company and having that balance to their relationship.

“If I were to come in with heavy boots and ride roughshod over the community, who would our customers be? Both of us have worked in a high-powered, fast-moving and very commercial environment. We both reached a certain age and it’s not what we want to do. We have set this business up so we can enjoy working. We are no longer career-goal-minded people. It’s about doing what we enjoy and doing what we do best and taking the time to do it right.”

Online ordering will become increasingly important going forward. “We certainly want to grow our business, we’re not looking to take over the world but we do want to have 50% of the business coming from mail-order sales by this time next year,” said Sam.

Sam and Bill are showing that small independents can survive and flourish by offering customer care and special products you don’t expect from the chains and multiples. “I truly believe that what we’re doing here is recapturing ‘the lost art of retailing’. It’s a bit of a mouthful,” laughed Sam. “It’s taking the time to sell things well and grounding yourself in the community and understanding what they want.”

And, most importantly, they know that shopping should be an exciting exploration of new tastes and experiences, rather than a mundane chore. “I think it’s a joyous thing to go shopping for some beautiful produce and you don’t need a lot of it, just a little bit of something gorgeous made by an artisan producer,” Sam smiled.