How Reg Johnson’s daughter is continuing the legacy of Johnson and Swarbrick Goosnargh
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 May 2018
Kara Johnson is following in her dad’s footsteps at one of the county’s legendary food producers. Emma Mayoh reports
The photograph of Reg Johnson next to the desk of his daughter Kara is one she will always treasure. The renowned poultry farmer is standing in front of a gate at Swainson House Farm in Goosnargh, looking straight into the camera with a bird under his arm and that broad smile many people came to know.
‘I always talk to him – and sometimes shout at him when I’m angry because he’s not around any more,’ said Kara. ‘It’s nice to have that picture close to me so I know he’s watching over whatever we’re doing. It helps when I miss him.’
Reg was a man who needed little introduction. For decades the Goosnargh geese, ducks and corn-fed chicken he reared with step-brother Bud Swarbrick at the family farm have been at the top of the shopping list for many of our most famous chefs.
Michel Roux Junior, Gordon Ramsay, Mark Hix and Raymond Blanc loved his produce and top restaurants and hotels still clamour to have it on their menus. He was a man who, along with chefs Paul Heathcote and Nigel Haworth, was at the forefront of promoting Lancashire food and he travelled the country spreading the word.
‘He was the perfect salesman,’ said Kara, who lives a stone’s throw from the family farm. ‘He was always out in his van, he just did it all while talking to people. He never had to do a hard sell.’
His sudden death two years ago brought things to a halt but the business has continued in the safe hands of 32-year-old Kara along with Reg’s trusted partner Bud and Bud’s son, Adam. However, there is one role she has not yet taken over. Kara had only just started to go out and visit chefs and other customers with her father when he died. It was her dad’s main task but after his death, it was too painful to continue following in his footsteps.
‘Going out doing the deliveries, chatting to all the customers, it was my dad’s thing,’ said Kara. ‘I’d started to go out with him, started to meet people and we had good fun. They are memories I’ll always cherish.
‘I’ve never been as confident as my dad and he was really helping me to get to know people. That’s something that’s just too hard to do at the moment, though. Just like going to Preston North End, which was something we always did together. Some things are still too painful to do without dad.’
Kara reluctantly joined the family business aged 17. She had been determined to forge another career and had done some training in tourism. But her dad couldn’t let her deny her roots and now, 14 years later and despite having had a bird phobia, she is still working there.
There have been many stories about her dad but some of the funniest have come from a tradition known as being ‘Reg’d’.
‘There were so many people who have been Reg’d,’ laughed Kara. ‘I remember Tom Parker Bowles ended up staying on our couch because he was in a bad way from a night out with dad.
‘Paul Heathcote was Reg’d too. My dad was a real monkey. I’d heard stories before he died but then there were so many more afterwards. Not only about the mischief he caused but wonderful stories about people he’d helped or been friends with. Everyone I meet has a fantastic Reg story. It’s wonderful to hear them.’
Kara is proud to carry on the legacy left by her dad. As well as running the office on the farm, she is also involved with The Reg Johnson Foundation which was formed last year.
With Kara and her family’s support, an inaugural ball was held at Ewood Park last November, on the anniversary of his death. The UK’s best chefs travelled to cook at the event, which raised thousands for charity. This year a special competition to nurture the cookery talents of Lancashire schoolchildren was launched, as a part of the foundation’s work. A charity golf day is also being planned for the autumn.
‘Encouraging young people was something my dad loved to do, he was such a caring man,’ said Kara. ‘I think he’d be so pleased with what’s happening in his memory. He was always passionate about celebrating and recognising the talents of young people. He always told me to chat to the young chefs in kitchens we visited as they would be the next generation of Michelin star chefs.’
The past few years have been hard with a rocky economy, bird flu and the lost of her father.
‘To deal with that loss and have to come into the place you saw him every day was just really tough. But then, to see all of these positive things being done in his memory is amazing. It would make him really happy.’
Walking away from the family business was never an option for Kara. And it has been great support hearing the many stories people have recounted. The family and staff have pulled together to keep the business flourishing.
And now they are forging forward to realise the dreams Reg had. A new sales team – it takes several people to do the work Reg once did on his own – is in the process of being recruited and Kara hopes to one day start visiting customers just like her dad
‘He’s left a big hole in our lives but we’ve all pulled together and my mum, who always said she’d never go to the farm, now helps out. My dad would be chuckling away at that.’