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Daring to be different

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Some independents take a long time to open a second shop. Many never bother. Holly Wilson decided to do it the hard way by taking over a long-established business only two years after opening her first shop. The owner of Prep Cookshop and Richard Dare in north London clearly is a retailer who is up for a challenge.

LIKE MOST ASPIRING independent retailers, Holly Wilson had in her mind’s eye exactly how she wanted her shop to look. She wanted to preside over a rather cool, rather beautiful, cookshop, with minimal displays of carefully-selected special products on show. Price was not going to be a major concern. It was going to be the sort of place she wanted to shop in but could not find.

Holly Wilson, owner of Prep & Richard Dare

Holly Wilson, owner of Richard Dare kitchen ware shop in Primrose Hill and Prep in Stoke Newington, 1st November 2018.

So much for the theory. Reality made its presence felt very soon after Holly opened Prep Cookshop on Stoke Newington Church Street in north London in February 2014. The sparse displays of expensive goods made the shop resemble an art gallery, but they did not hold the interest of the local customers.

“You could certainly see the shelves back then, but people came in, couldn’t see what they were looking for among the sparse displays, so walked out,” Holly remembers. “I had to change my merchandising mix pretty quickly.”

 

Today’s Prep is a very attractive cookshop trading across compact ground and basement floors. While it is not as minimally stocked as it was, it retains a stylish ambience and the products have clearly been selected with someone with a great fashion eye.

Fashion was, in fact, Holly’s profession before she became an independent retailer. She spent 10 years as a garment technologist, working for companies like Coast and Whistles to ensure that their clothes met the correct technical standards. It’s a job where attention to detail and understanding how things perform to do the job they are meant to do is essential. It’s proved to be good training.

Holly has two children, Tabitha, who is seven, and Archie, who is five. It was when she was on her second stint of maternity leave that she began to think it was time for a new career because as a garment technologist she had to spend a lot of time travelling to factories in Asia.

“Even as a teenager, I fancied having a shop. Originally I was interested in a fashion shop but having lived just 10 minutes’ walk away from Stoke Newington Church Street for five years, I began to think what it was missing was a really good cookshop. It’s a bit of a foodie area and a lot of the residents work in creative or design-led industries, so I thought it was a good idea,” she recalls.

Church Street, which has a strong selection of independents was her chosen location, but it took 18 months to find the right premises at the right rent, so there was plenty of time to clarify the concept. “I wanted it to be a really practical shop, filled with products that everyone would need, but beautiful products. I didn’t want to compete with John Lewis and I didn’t want it to be one of those cookshops that has so much stuff you can’t see what you are looking for.”

As well as presenting more stock, Holly rejigged her pricing architecture soon after opening, keeping her top-end products but dropping her entry price points: “Not enough people wanted to pay £12 for a quirky mug.”

There was also an insight into the local clientele: “Stoke Newington is an interesting district, with a very family-oriented community. Parts of it are down-and-dirty and border some of the rougher parts of Hackney. The houses here are expensive but no one has much disposable income because they all have huge mortgages to pay! Superficially, it feels affluent but it’s not.”

Today Prep Cookshop has its more design-led products, gadgets and gifts on the ground floor area, while the larger and more practical products are kept downstairs. An idea of Holly’s original vision is seen in the bespoke shelf units on the ground floor, which were made a local craftsman using copper tubing. Customers regularly ask if they can buy the shelves.

Once she was up and running, Holly learned just how demanding the role of an independent retailer is. Every day she would update an Excel spreadsheet with her sales information (this was before she graduated to a Vend Epos system).

Even before she opened, to find her products she was a regular at trade fairs like Top Drawer and Exclusively Housewares in London, soon adding Ambiente in Frankfurt and Maison et Objet in Paris to her calendar. Once established, news travelled fast about her shop and she has been regularly approached by suppliers ever since: “Once you have one thing from a supplier, it’s easy to take on something else.” She admits too to being very adept at “Instagram cruising”.

The compact space is used well, so Prep offers a comprehensive selection of products ranging from a Zone silicone trivet at £6.99 to a Kai Shun Made-in-Japan knife at £199. Coffee-making equipment is a regular seller and Holly has been selling about five reusable keep cups a day since the publicity about avoiding disposable cups.

Within a year of opening and getting her mix right, Holly wanted to open a second branch as the small Stoke Newington shop was always going to have a finite turnover, but she could not find a suitable area that was not already served with a decent cookshop. There was nowhere for her to shoehorn Prep 2 into. She had asked friendly reps to keep her informed on any opportunities and through this network she heard that a well-known cookshop character, Lionel Vincent, who had run Richard Dare in Primrose Hill, just north of Regents Park, for 20 years, was planning to retire.

In April 2017, a little over three years after opening Prep, Holly bought the Ricard Dare business and immediately set about gutting the two floors of the shop. “My father is good on DIY, so I got him involved and we lifted floors and tackled the damp. It took us from April until June.”

Richard Dare

Richard Dare

Looking back now, Holly cannot decide whether her decision was brave or stupid. It was, she says, quite terrifying to take on a business which had been something of a high-level cookshop institution for the 48 years since Richard Dare himself opened up. It is the sort of cookshop that attracts professional chefs.

Although the second shop is only five miles from the first – Holly likes to cycle between the two, which takes 25 minutes, rather than going by Tube, which can take over an hour – it presented a noticeably different demographic. And not everyone was pleased to see a newcomer taking over from the well-established previous owner.

“Primrose Hill is super-affluent. There are 1970s hippies with old money, there are the bankers who moved in during the 1980s and there are the new rich, particularly Americans whose companies spends lots of money on making them feel comfortable in London,” Holly explains. “Some of the locals, including other retailers, were quite vocal and mean about my plans for the shop. I brought in cheaper lines, which some people complained weren’t expensive enough, but I couldn’t survive selling just Ruffoni copper pans at £450 a time. It took me about nine months to win everyone over.”

The Primrose Hill shop is similar to Stoke Newington in that it trades across ground floor and basement, but it is somewhat bigger and with its pared-back wooden floorboards and substantial wooden shelves, it has a different feel. While there is some overlap on products, Richard dare has a more high-priced and refined selection.

Having two shops that were two different companies was, predictably enough, “a logistical nightmare”, so a full-time manager was hired for Richard Dare. Holly now spends a day a week in each branch and the rest of the time she is, in her own words, “the admin queen”.

She has become well-known in cookshop circles thanks to a bi-monthly column she writes for Progressive Housewares magazine, covering topics that concern her and other owners, such as business rates and the changing relationship with suppliers that sell online.

She is also vocal on her experience of operating in two London boroughs. “My first shop is in Hackney, which is massively supportive of the high street and wants to keep the independents open in places like Stoke Newington. The council organised extra business rates relief and applied it to my bill without me having to apply. I am paying less than half of what I should be on rates,” says Holly.

“Camden, on the other hand, doesn’t give a damn. Even when the whole street in Primrose Hill puts together a petition about something, we are just ignored.”

 

As soon as she opened Prep, Holly joined Bira, attracted by the advantageous credit card fees and the supplier discounts available through Bira Direct. She has been active in the Bira cookshop community and recently she has been part of the Bira contingent advising the Home Office and Metropolitan Police on their strategy to reduce knife-related crime (see page 7).

In 2016 Holly joined Trouva, the online site that sells the products of independent boutiques. Using it for Prep only (Richard Dare does not have a website), she is happy with the experience, although admits she should be making better use of the opportunity by loading more products to the site. As always for an independent, time is in short supply.

“I was attracted to Trouva as I needed an online presence and I didn’t have the time or the money to do it properly myself,” Holly explains. “I can’t abide websites that don’t work efficiently and I didn’t want to be one of those. We have very little storage space and my stock holding is small, so it would be difficult to run my own site. I liked the idea of Trouva as it only works with independent boutiques.”

Trouva charges 20% on all transactions and although Holly thinks she could do more, it already accounts for 8% of her turnover.
The physical shops trade seven days a week and although she employed a full-time manager for Prep for the first time last year, Holly knows she is the face of her brand. “I am never not on call,” she admits.

Almost five years later, Holly has no regrets about her change of career: “I became an independent retailer knowing it would be hard work. I thought I would be able to work more flexibly, but it has not turned out like that. I work evenings and I work weekends, but I love it.”

PREP COOKSHOP
106 Stoke Newington Church Street, Stoke Newington, London N16 0LA

RICHARD DARE
93 Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill, London NW1 8UR

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