A recent Scotch Butchers Club trip to Ireland for Aberdeenshire’s Shona Marshall has given her plenty more to think about for her fast-growing butchery counter, part of her family’s well-known farm shop.

Like farming, butchery is a trade which often runs within families, with shops, suppliers, recipes and customers being passed on through the generations. But now and again, someone with plenty of enthusiasm, a drive to improve and a clear idea of where they can diversify and make a difference comes along.

With a passion for farming from a young age, Shona Marshall completed an Honours degree in rural business management at Craibstone, and now combines involvement in the family farm with running the thriving butchery counter at her family’s retail business, Marshall’s Farm Shop and Kitchen near Kintore in Aberdeenshire.

For Shona, the drive to become a butcher came when the family decided to grow their successful farm shop and café. Located at the side of the A96 just outside Aberdeen, the business had outgrown its original premises when they decided to expand to provide a much bigger retail experience and restaurant.

Shona Marshall loves dealing with customersShona Marshall loves dealing with customers

The shop had always sold pre-packed beef, lamb and pork, bought in from known suppliers. But, as Shona explains, the new shop brought new opportunities.

“We had our own cattle and sheep, and I thought we could sell direct to customers, like we already did with our homegrown tatties, veg and free-range eggs.”

That thought led to Shona and her sister going on a week-long butchery course in Sheffield to gain some understanding about what was involved.

“It gave us an insight into just how much there was to learn within the butchery industry!”

The new shop opened in November 2021 with a 140-seat restaurant, and the butchery counter representing just a small part of the business, though a full-time butcher joined the team that December. Now, Shona is part-way through her butchery apprenticeship, and is completing it alongside another team member.

“I am on the last stages of completing Level 2 and planning on going onto Level 3 with the intention of doing my diploma.

“I think if you want to do something, you need to know how to do it yourself. As I learn more and am becoming closer to breaking down a whole carcase of beef, I can see how we might be able to use cuts differently, whether it’s selling in the farm shop or serving in the restaurant. It’s really amazing what a good chef can do with a lesser quality cut of meat.

“By cutting out the middle man, we are aiming to get the margin at both the farm side and butchery side of the business. The biggest challenge I have is making sure every cut is used to its full value, and our busy restaurant really helps with carcass balance in the butchery.

Edible flowers are eye catching on the counter says Shona MarshallEdible flowers are eye catching on the counter says Shona Marshall

“About 90% of the food on our Sunday roast plates is either grown or reared on our farm, a story we are really trying to tell our customers. Our menu is annotated with which dishes include our own beef, pork or lamb, and this in itself encourages customers over to the butcher counter after they’ve enjoyed their lunch.”

Currently, about three cattle a week bred from the farm’s 150-cow Aberdeen Angus suckler herd are being killed by Millers of Speyside and used in the business. A further 300 Simmental and Sim-Luing sucklers are kept but their numbers will reduce as the Aberdeen Angus herd grows – the aim is to have 250.

“The first beast we killed for the shop was an Aberdeen Angus and we have never changed. We find it’s very consistent for carcase size and quality, which our customers like.”

The farm also runs 600 ewes, a mix of Cheviot, Mule and Texel crosses, but the business uses only one lamb a week. “It’s really hard to sell lamb in Aberdeen – beef and pork are much more popular.

“Within the last 18 months, we’ve established our own pig herd of 20 sows, all outdoors just 1.5 miles from our shop. We chose breeds that give quality, taste and a good level of fat in the carcass. The Hampshire and Duroc are working well for us and I can see the pig herd growing as more customers begin to enjoy our pork.

“I love being on the butchery counter and talking to customers. It is great to be able to say to them that I am involved in the whole process from calving and lambing to rearing, then onto butchering in our on-site butchery.”

All meat sold in the shop comes from the farm, and while having a consistent and known supply chain is essential, butchering, pricing and selling the meat requires a lot of planning and thought. For Shona, the help of QMS Scotch Butchers Club manager Gordon Newlands has been invaluable – as has the support of other butchers.

“A lot of butchers have generations behind them so they are really well established and have their own recipes. But I have really benefitted from Gordon’s help. For instance, I wasn’t happy with my lorne recipe and with January being a quieter month it was a perfect opportunity to take time and develop it. Gordon contributed a few ideas of ways to improve the recipe, and between his advice and persistent effort from everyone in the butchery we were able to produce a lorne sausage that will hopefully be a good seller for us.

Butchery counter team at Marshalls Farm shopButchery counter team at Marshalls Farm shop

“He also gave me some really honest advice after spending a couple days up at the shop. It was tough to take at the time, but it was the best thing he could’ve done to push me to make the changes required to improve the counter.”

Other members of the Scotch Butchers Club have been equally helpful, inviting Shona to visit their businesses, while another asked Shona and another member of her team to work alongside them on new product development at his premises.

Shona also has plenty of new ideas after a recent Scotch Butchers Club trip to Ireland organised by Gordon. The trip saw 14 Scottish butchers attend the Irish Butchery Expo (where the Scottish team won the Four Nations Butchery championship) as well as visiting more than a dozen leading Irish butcher shops for ideas and inspiration. “It was brilliant – I took some tips away from every shop we visited.”

One of the main learning points was about improving efficiency, she says.

“It’s a very small thing, but something like having a small deli counter for the marinades [so they are close to hand] would make a big difference. Looking at the time saved every week, month and year it’s clear to see this could be easily justified.”

Pricing was another surprising point. “The Irish butchers price quite a few products by unit – so for instance, a steak would be priced at, say £10 rather than £38/kg, which makes it easier for people to know what they are spending. We tried this when I got back with some 10oz ribeye steaks and they were a top seller over the weekend.”

Shona has also been trialling ‘pensioner packs’ which include five meals – butchery or deli products, plus tatties and veg or eggs for £20, and is selling about 100 of these each week. Another offering at the butchery counter is a value pack for two for £25 which includes four meals and a dessert of the customer’s choice. “This is a great way to encourage customers to try new products or to help with carcase balance by including cuts that we have a surplus of.

“The Irish shops had really impressive displays and all the staff were very well presented. This in itself was something to take home as presentation is so important in keeping standards high.

“From speaking to other butchers on the trip I realised changing counter displays encourages the customers to look for products and in turn they purchase more.

The butcher counter display changes on a regular basis at Marshalls Farm shopThe butcher counter display changes on a regular basis at Marshalls Farm shop

“Since returning from Ireland, I am now buying in fresh kale for our display which is really eye catching and makes the counter very colourful. We will be adding kale to our selection of vegetables we grow on the farm this year specifically for this reason.

“Tropical chicken is our newest product in the counter, topped with edible flowers – they have been eye catching for the customers and have been selling really well,” she says.

“I can really see the benefit of QMS, especially after the last two years of being involved in the butchery industry and the support I have got from Gordon in particular after we became members of the Scotch Butchers Club.

“Ireland was a brilliant trip and I would jump at the chance to go again as there is no better way to progress than spending time with like-minded people. Many were experienced butchers with their own shops, and they were so open and helpful, especially as I know I have a lot still to learn in the industry.”

Scotch Butchers Club

QMS has more than 250 members of the Scotch Butchers Club; like-minded, forward thinking independent high street butchers who source premium, quality assured Scotch meat.

Members pay an annual subscription, and as part of this QMS provides seasonal marketing packs and recipe guides. It also hosts knowledge transfer days such as farm and livestock auction visits for member butchers.

It also provides help and advice through its manager, Gordon Newlands, who has extensive experience in the sector, as well as additional marketing assets and tools to help independent butchers run their businesses profitably. Weekly e-newsletters also offer advice on topical issues and provide up to date market information and analysis.