Most abattoirs and meat processors would have you believe demand for red meat has slumped since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic and the closure of the retail market, but speak to your local butcher and appears nothing could be further from the truth.

Admittedly, all enjoyed record breaking sales on the week prior to lockdown, but since then, most are still enjoying a bumper trade, with demand for minced beef and all types of steak well up on the same time last year ¬ the complete opposite to what the abattoirs claim.

Despite these increased sales, deadweight cattle prices plummeted throughout April, with averages in Scotland falling from 350p per kg, to nearer 333p, although they have improved somewhat over the past two weeks.

Nevertheless, it comes as no surprise that the general public is looking to support local butchers more when news of cheap imported beef from Ireland and Poland has been allowed to flood the market, hitting the purse strings of Scottish producers particularly hard.

The Scottish Farmer spoke to several private butchers up and down the country to find out more.

By Patsy Hunter

Photographs by Rob Haining

William Lindsay Family Butchers, Creetown

Having just celebrated 30 years of his own butcher’s business, Willie Lindsay is enjoying one of his busiest ever sales periods with his customer base and revenue having doubled in the past seven weeks – without any major alterations.

“Things are going great at the minute,” said Willie, who works alongside his twin daughters, Lana and Sarah.

“We always used to take our butchers van to the square in local towns and villages on different days of the week, but business has soared since we started delivering right to people’s doors. And, because people see us going round the housing schemes, it’s attracted new business with more people now phoning in orders for a delivery on a regular basis.”

And, while Willie is out on the road, the girls are attending to their usual regulars in the shop, which with social distancing, allows one person in at a time. As it is, most phone in their order and come in to collect it, rather than come in on spec.

Like all butchers, Willie is up at the crack of dawn to make fresh pies and sausage rolls and box up orders from the previous day for deliveries. This can include anything from steaks, minced beef, stewing steak, lamb and pork chops to stir fries and kebabs. He will also deliver fresh vegetables, milk, bread – basically anything requested.

“I’ll deliver anything people want and it’s all produced locally. I’ve even collected a prescription for an elderly gentleman who lives in Creetown,” said Willie.

Most mornings, the van sets off at 9am round the far south west, as far as Gatehouse of Fleet, Port William, Garlieston and Whithorn, and will be back to the shop in Creetown mid afternoon.

Orders are taken over the ‘phone, priced and box delivered the next morning to the doorstep with payment made by card over the ‘phone. Most people have paid by the time the van is back to the shop.

More impressive is the fact that not only is the family butcher attracting new business, but also return sales, when his customers claim the meat is of a far better quality and taste than that of supermarket purchased meat, and, it is of a similar price.

“Beef is our best seller and especially mince, but we are also selling a lot of burgers just now with the warmer weather,” said Willie who buys his cattle and lambs through C and D Auction Mart’s Dumfries market, while fresh chickens and pigs are bought through Dennis Thomson, Dumfries.

In contrast to the retail trade, Willie does look for a beef animal with a bit of cover on it. Not too much, but enough to ensure a bit of marbling throughout. As a result he aims to buy a Limousin cross bred from a native-bred cow and often buys from his brother-in-law, Alastair Patterson, Stoneykirk.

“If you buy them with a bit of cover on, they can be hung for longer, and they taste so much better because of the marbling. I would never buy an animal that was too lean.”

With business soaring and new customers coming on board every week, it has been an extremely busy time for the Lindsays, but it is one which they are also relishing.

“It’s great to see the community coming together and local businesses being supported when so many young people have had to leave this area to find employment. I only hope it continues when social distancing restrictions ease and people don’t go back to their old supermarket habits,” concluded Willie.

Bert Fowlie Family Butcher, Strichen

As three times Scottish Butcher of the Year, Bert Fowlie Family Butcher was always busy, but it has been completely swamped since the middle of March.

“The first week our sales were up 300% and they’ve been up at least 50% every week since, on the same weeks last year,” said Hebbie, whose father, the late Bert Fowlie, established the family business in Strichen in 1955.

“We’ve had to change our business for the crazy times we now live in as we are selling so much more of the basics like mince, diced steak, sausages and even steaks. As our customers cannot dine out now, we have seen our sales of sirloin, fillet and rib eye steak treble," said Hebbie who owns this award-winning operation in partnership with his wife Eileen, son Gavin and daughter Donna.

With such increased demand, the business has had to alter the way it buys its meat too. Instead of relying solely on locally reared finished cattle bought direct from two farms just half a mile away from the shop – Howford and Newton Farms both owned by Gammack Coutts, who hand picks small, lean Limousin cross cattle – they have had to buy in additional primal cuts of guaranteed Scotch beef from Scotbeef and Stoddards to meet the increased demands of certain cuts.

With 40 staff all of whom are still working, the enterprise had to reorganise working arrangements and times to allow for social distancing and restocking. Plastic screens and additional hand sanitisers have also been installed now that only two customers can come into the shop at any one time due to the restrictions.

“The first week we were having to shut the shop at lunchtime to restock and to give our staff breaks as we were so busy, and we’ve never had to do that before. We also have had to alter our staffs working hours and shifts with some doing 7am-2pm and others 2pm-9pm to get round social distancing issues.”

As the only business to have won the prestigious Scottish Butcher of the Year title three years on the trot, the family who also own an onsite bakery for making pies, readymade meals, desserts and home bakes, has also increased their range of products to ensure demand and interest continues. As it is, their sole premises in Strichen, supplies up to 50 shops and two dozen fishing boats in and around the North-east and Moray coast.

But while Hebbie admitted people enjoy coming into his ‘coothy wee shop’, he added that they do pack a lot in, and people come from near and far to visit their Aladdin’s cave of delicatessen and fresh meat.

“When you step inside our shop you're faced with a large counter filled to be brim of fresh meats, pies, desserts, readymade meals, coleslaws and home bakes.

“Our colourful display of more than 50 dishes means there is always something different each time you step inside, from succulent roasting joints, sausages, burgers, stir frys, kebabs to our popular Strichen stacks, peppered steak parcels, brie and cranberry chicken, honey mustard pork bakes or a ranch steak”.

“We’ve got great staff, some of whom have been here for 15-20years, who come up with some innovative ideas and recipes, which we change every so often to keep people interested and it seems to work. We also rely on social media a lot to advertise new recipes and special deals.”

He added: “We never compromise on quality and our suppliers know we only look to buy the best quality produce which is what our customers are looking for and why they keep coming back to us.

“We also pride ourselves on having a shop that is always spotless, food that is locally sourced and produced and tells a story, with some brilliant staff who are always keen to help. They have come up with some great ideas because the young housewife is always looking to produce meals that are easier and more convenient to cook,” he concluded.

Ken Howie, Deeside Activity Park, Banchory

There is no doubt, tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants have felt the full force of Coronavirus, but while such firms have had to close their doors during lockdown, people still have to eat enabling Ken and Margaret Howie’s farm shop and butchery business to reap the benefits.

As the owners of the Deeside Activity Park, based at Cairnton, Banchory, the Howies have been rushed off their feet supplying fresh beef from their pedigree Cairnton Aberdeen-Angus herd and other locally sourced farm produce.

“Our farm shop was always the poor relation in terms of other sectors of the Activity Park which have since had to close due to Coronavirus but it has been our saviour over the past seven-eight weeks,” said Ken, who as a result of the lockdown, had to put 18 of his 20 full-time staff on furlough.

“We’re selling five or six times more through the shop than we used to and there has been a huge demand for beef mince and all types of steak from an increased customer base.

“We hit the ground running in the first week pre lock down with sales up 300% and after that our customers asked if we could deliver. We’re now delivering four times more than we ever did before,” he added.

Initially the Howies were delivering their usual farm shop supplies to include fresh and cooked meats, home-made scones and vegetables – all from local producers. However, with an expanding customer base and requests for other foods coming in on a daily basis, they now have two cooks making up ready meals, soups, and all types of baking on a full time basis, while a part-time butcher assists Ken on the meat side.

“Fresh meat sales are up 200-300%. We’re now selling more burgers than we ever did through the coffee shop and the demand for steaks has gone through the roof. Sales of ready meals have soared in recent weeks too by 300-500% as people are buying them for their parents on lockdown.”

Their delivery list is expanding all the time too, to include 100 packets of toilet rolls a week, bottles upon bottles of hand sanitiser, along with 1kg bags of flour and new to the list over the past week – Lea n’ Perrins sauce, to name but a few.

Most people ‘phone in their order and either come and collect it, at the farm shop which now operates a one-way system through the coffee shop, to enable social distancing, or it is delivered straight to their door.

The big question for the Howies however, is how long such sales will continue and how long they will maintain growth.

Ken added: “We live in very interesting times. When news of the lockdown first broke, Margaret was worried because it affected so much of our business at the Activity Centre. But, we applied to put staff on furlough and for grant money which was easy enough with the money coming through quite quickly. Those of us who are still working are nevertheless busier than ever.

“I just worry how we will re-employ those staff when things open up again, because for all our customer base has increased 25%, my biggest fear is that many will wander back to their old habits and back to the supermarkets.”

Murray Lauchlan, David Comrie and Son Butchers, Comrie

As an award winning seventh generation traditional butcher, Murray Lauchlan remains extremely grateful to the continued support of locals, when he has lost a substantial percentage of his catering trade to local schools, holiday homes and hotels.

“Coronavirus has brought local communities together again as people are looking to support their local shops more than ever,” said Murray.

“We now have a queue outside our shop every morning and everyone talks to one another even with the 2m social distancing.

“We have been extremely busy since lockdown and are so grateful to our customers and our suppliers for enabling us to keep going.”

Since lockdown, the business, has cut its opening hours from 8am to 5pm to 8am to 2pm which has worked particularly well when people now want to get up early for their shopping.

“People have far more time for shopping and cooking now so they are looking to buy different cuts and follow a recipe to prepare an evening meal. Everyone is at home now too, so people are buying more pies and sausage rolls to feed the family at lunchtime.

“I’ve never sold as much base meat products such as minced and diced beef, lamb and pork over the counter and we’re getting some fantastic comments, as people now realise what ‘real meat tastes like.’”

Outwith a busier shop, additional sales have been created using social media supported by home deliveries as far a field as Tyndrum, Killin, LochTayside, Crieff, Gilmerton and almost Perth, with mail order for further afield customers.

Like all butchers shops, beef sales have soared, but it’s the demand for lamb, pies and sausage rolls that have increased the most in the Comrie store.

“With home working or parents on furlough, so many more families are cooking at home and making meals from basic ingredients. It’s a pleasant return to the days gone by before ready meals and take away food became more convenient for working families,” added Murray who buys all his beef and lamb, either through Caledonian Marts, Stirling or Lawrie and Symington’s Forfar.

“I’ll be buying 50% more cattle every week, selling 100% more lamb and our deliveries are four, five times more than they were before, so we are busier than ever, even though we have lost our catering trade.”

However, with his business very much based on quality, reputation and locally produced product, Murray will only sell meat which meets the grade and which he would eat himself.

“I have never had to refuse anyone fillet steak before, because I didn’t have any mature enough, but I did at the weekend, purely because we were selling so much and the fillet I did have, had not been hung for long enough.

“People do appreciate that we will only sell quality meat, so if I say it is not of good enough quality, they respect that,” concluded Murray, who is looking to employ a junior as a result of the increased sales.

Forsyths of Peebles

As the country was faced with lockdown, each day brought a new challenge for Forsyths of Peebles, established in 1938 by Walter Thomas Show Forsyth – the grand-father of Mike, Callum and Norman Forsyth, who run this well-known butchery business which now includes a bakers shop.

First was how to maintain the health and welfare of employees and customers, whilst following the guidelines which changed on a regular basis during the first couple of weeks as the government tried to find a way to contain the current situation.

After much discussions, two of their three shops within Peebles were closed to allow the business to operate with minimal employees whilst ensuring social distancing was adhered to. This temporary re-structure forced the business to migrate from their normal 'over the counter shopping' to entirely online. However, such was the demand for their produce that their website crashed virtually overnight.

Their next challenge was working continuously for four days to build new website various boxes of meat for home delivery in the surrounding area of Peebles and Cardrona.

Mike’s wife, Louise continued to buy our beef and lamb through the local auction mart at St Boswells, with pork coming from the Wilkinson family of Woodfoot Farm, Hawick.

Since then, the business has progressed to opening it's butchers shop to six days a week from 9am to 1pm for over the counter sales and have also introduced a new click and collect service.