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The chairman of Lewis & Cooper tells Jo Haywood how a market town grocery became a global gourmet emporium
George Lewis and Binks Barton Cooper were not interested in having a store on every corner when they launched their business in 1899. And, 113 years later, the brand they established is still very much about being the best rather than the biggest.
We have always seen ourselves as a completely different business to the likes of M&S, said Dr David Gearey, chairman of Lewis & Cooper. We are resolutely about quality and variety.
We could have left Northallerton long ago, but we didnt, and we wont, because we love it there. I still thoroughly enjoy every visit I make to our Northallerton flagship store.
And he has made a lot of visits over the years, starting when he was a small boy, popping in to see his Great-Uncle George (who was married to Davids grannys sister) at work.
I remember as a child being intrigued that I could go anywhere I wanted in the store, even into the back rooms where the staff were working, he said. It was still quite formal in those days and I was treated like Little Lord Fauntleroy.
From the age of 15, David took an active role in the family business, which had by then firmly established itself as a purveyor of fine food and wine. Unfortunately, George died just a year later. But Davids business education continued under the tutelage of his Uncle Jack.
There have, in fact, only ever been three chairmen of Lewis & Cooper: George, Uncle Jack and now David. In the same way, there have been very few general managers. George ran the store himself for a number of years before passing the baton on to Maurice Fairburn, who passed it to Tony Howard, who passed it seamlessly to his twin daughters, Victoria and Bettina, who run the business today.
Tony came to me and said his girls wanted to come for a holiday job, said David. That was about 25 years ago, and theyre still here. That is one heck of a holiday.
Our staff tend to stick with us because we stick with them. They are an extension of the family. Weve always believed that a business lives and dies by its staff. They are the gate-keepers.
This ethos can be traced back to the original Mr Lewis and Mr Cooper, who built their business through hard work, aided by a dedicated staff. They were sticklers for detail, going so far as to furnish their managers quarters with a discreet window so they could keep a constant vigil over the shop floor, but they also made a point of promoting from the ranks and encouraging employees progress.
Reassuringly, little has changed in the intervening years, perhaps because the company remains a family-run concern with a direct lineage linking the present owners with Mr Lewis (Mr Cooper sold his portion of the business in 1914).
He was always more of a sleeping partner, but the name stuck, David explained. Its got a nice ring to it and, by the time he left, theyd already established it as a recognisable brand.
The name Lewis & Cooper has come to mean quality, first in Yorkshire, then nationally, and now, thanks to significant online sales,
internationally. But that growing reputation has not been matched by a growing army of stores. The Northallerton flagship remains largely unchanged, partly because Yorkshire people dont like us messing about with their store too much, and, after 113 years, the company still only has three bricks-and-mortar outlets.
It recently opened its third store in Parliament Street, Harrogate, 10 years after it launched its Yarm branch and, while the company is not in a rush to expand, David is confident other shops will follow.
We want to expand further, but not at any cost, he said.
We have to find the right place and the right fit for us. Our objective is to have more stores and to become the norths number one store for foodies, but caution is always key.
He thinks his Great-Uncle George would have been particularly proud to see a Lewis & Cooper store in Harrogate as he and his wife Stella lived in Otley Road and held the town in great affection. Harrogate has always been particularly important to us as a family, said David.
When I was a boy, mother and I would often head to the Winter Gardens to listen to a string quartet, usually after Id been allowed to buy a colouring book so I wouldnt cause a fuss. When we opened the Harrogate store, I thought a historic return journey was called for.
It turned out the Winter Gardens had become a Wetherspoons pub. I have to admit I enjoyed the music more this time round though.