Speciality Food Industry – The History of Partridges, by John Shepherd, Managing Director

Partridges opened its doors for the first time at 132 Sloane Street on 25th May 1972 at 9am.

A former car showroom had been transformed into a delicatessen with the slogan “Good things for the larder”. It was the vision of my older brother Richard who after studying at the LSE with Mick Jagger, among others, had opened a chain of late night convenience stores called Shepherd Foods in 1968.

As a delicatessen Partridges was going very much against the trend of the time. Convenience and self-service were the clarion calls for food retailers. Counters were being phased out, floor staff were being reduced and product ranges modernised. It was a bold move and a challenging one. Our prices were significantly higher than local competitors who included Oakeshotts, Justin de Blank, Jacksons of Piccadilly and International Stores on Sloane Square. Although by closing at 9pm we traded later than all of them and by opening on Sundays and offering free deliveries provided a service that was readily appreciated and provided a USP. We still have the original delivery bike.

However 1972 was just prior to the recession of 1974, the oil crisis, three day week and electrical blackouts. So not a particularly auspicious time to launch an independent, traditional food shop.

It was a different world in other ways too. On the day we opened T Rex topped the charts with Metal Guru. The temperature was recorded as 47 degrees Fahrenheit and Ramu the killer whale was performing at Windsor Great Park. The Watergate Hotel in Washington was about to be burgled the following day. Products that we sold from day one included Bird’s Nest Soup, Gulls Eggs and Frozen Jugged Hare. Game Pie and Taramasalata were popular. Our tea range included Gunpowder Tea and Russian Caravan and the cake counter sold Black Forest Gateau and a chocolate cake the likes of which I have never seen again. Our speciality of the house was the Alderton Marmalade Ham.

In the wine department a bottle of our Vin Ordinaire sold for 60p, Chablis for 77p and Moet et Chandon champagne for £2.20. Under the section ‘lesser European wines’ there was Valpolicella for 90p. Our free range eggs were supplied by the family dentist and later on our olive oil was produced by our local vet. We were locals ourselves and my first home was just a few hundred yards from the front door having arrived in this world at St George’s Hospital on Hyde Park Corner. At the time of our opening Upstairs Downstairs was a fictional television programme about life in Edwardian London and we fortunately reinforced the image of the local grocers. Indeed we were mentioned in the more recent remake as such.

1972 was also the year after decimalisation. Not many products had date codes. There were no barcodes, prices were applied using a price gun and Sunday trading laws restricted the hours when alcohol could be sold and ensured that household products and bibles could not be sold at all. It was actually very confusing. On several occasions I recall police officers in uniform asking to buy alcohol which would result in a swift prosecution if a hapless member of staff agreed to do it. Something we fortunately avoided. So by the end of the 1970’s Partridges was still open but still had not quite developed a stride pattern.

In 1983 the opportunity arose to buy the double unit carpet shop next door. I had gone in with the intention of actually buying a carpet but the conversation with the elderly owner soon developed into a much larger business transaction. So in 1984 we tripled in size and our new address was 132-134 Sloane Street. There was a much larger deli counter, wine section, fruit and veg department and patisserie counter. We even had a rotisserie oven for cooked chickens that eventually caught fire but in the first year sales doubled and by the end of the second year had nearly trebled. We now had very large windows for product display and the death trap grocer’s boy delivery bike had been replaced by a van. By the end of the decade sales had risen over 600 per cent and this was a real transformation in our fortunes. We also started to export in a small way and became Founder Members of the Guild of Fine Food Retailers who were later to become the real champions and saviours of artisan food in the United Kingdom. Their creation of the Great Taste Awards – often referred to as the Oscars of Speciality Foods – played a key part in the Artisan Food Revolution of the early 2000’s.

The rest of this editorial will be published in the Jan – Dec 2020 issue of I-MAGAZINE.