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Philippa James visits Roaming Roosters in Higham

PUBLISHED: 23:04 15 June 2014

Philippa James and Simon Mellin with George Cropper

Philippa James and Simon Mellin with George Cropper

Archant

Two brothers with big ideas have created a thriving and unique countryside food business. Philippa James paid them a visit

As I walked into The Olde Spot Bistro, named after one of the rare breeds at Roaming Roosters, photographer Kirsty Thompson waved her arm around and uttered: ‘Isn’t this all amazing?’

The last time we visited Higham, wedged between Pendle Hill and Burnley, was just under two years ago. Then, the operations manager, Simon Mellin, and his brother and head butcher, Nick ‘The Knife’, had a huge building filled with little more than worries about the future.

The financial and emotional commitment was considerable. They were embarking on their dream project during a time of general financial gloom and their father, Geoff, had helped to raise funds by selling the butchery business that had been in the family since 1904.

They needn’t have worried. We arrived at 11.30am and The Bistro was almost full with lunchtime diners and the Hay Loft was awash with coffee drinkers. Meanwhile, the deli was brisk with shoppers armed with full baskets and the car park was packed.

Simon, asked about the early months and the biggest problems, rolled his eyes and grinned. ‘The growth was so rapid,’ he said. ‘There were so many aspects - the farm shop, the bistro, coffee room, education centre, all rolled into one, taking on so many staff, all at once…suddenly, I found my days were much less hands on.

‘We were over-awed by it all to start with, I have to admit. We both said “what will we do if it doesn’t work?” We suddenly realised that it wasn’t just about raw meat, anymore, it was all or nothing!”

The transition from a butcher’s shop with a small online ordering service to something completely different presented big challenges. However, the support from local people and belief from farmers, who’d had to increase their stock holding to allow for the projected meat sales, was absolutely phenomenal. People placed a lot of trust in the brothers’ skills to make it work.

Neighbouring farmer, Martin Lee, used to supply around 20% of their beef and lamb, now his entire herd is dedicated to the Mellins, and the number of his Aberdeen Angus cross cows is still increasing. There are five more local farmers now supplying Roaming Roosters with top quality meats. I noticed on the farm shop blackboard that the week’s lamb was being supplied by G. Coates, from Barrowford, real traceability, and a symbiotic working relationship.

The first Christmas was a nightmare - not only did the brothers work for three days, straight through, but they weren’t sure they’d have enough meat, such was the demand. They have recently started to supply meat to The Seafood Pub Company, another local success story.

Simon admitted that the education centre had been ‘a bit of a flop’ initially. ‘We’d placed too much focus on education, rather than the fun element, and we weren’t holding the children’s attention,’ he said. They’ve made it more child-friendly in an attempt to raise understanding of farms and farming.

Nick, who also presents master class butchery evenings, buys the animals ‘on the hoof.’ He knows the right time to slaughter an animal, and if the beef can’t be hung, it doesn’t cross the threshold.

Walking into the barn, dad Geoff is with the free range hens which gave the business its name.

‘From one-day-old, we nurture our chicks in our new super sustainable under-floor heated brooding room, which is powered by a biomass boiler that is carbon neutral.’

I asked Simon what Geoff does. ‘Not a reet lot, he kind of just hangs about!’ he joked. He said they have a digester tank that deals with the effluent, the car parks are grassed, for natural drainage, and they’ve planted around a thousand trees. Their aim is to operate in a sustainable manner to off-set their carbon foot-print.

I also met chef, Karl Reader, who told me that his wife, Marie, makes all the puddings, and, even in the summer months, the most popular is her rib-sticking Jam Roly Poly. I was treated to a delicious lunch, of this month’s recipe which was kindly supplied by farm shop manager, George Cropper, and prepared by Karl.

As I bade my farewells, we stopped by an impressive, solid and much-used butchers’ bench. ‘My granddad made this,’ Simon proudly announced. ‘I didn’t want the place to be twee.’

Rest assured, nothing about Roaming Roosters is twee. The whole venture is, like the bench, making a strong, rock-solid statement that they mean business in an impressive way.

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