Full bloom: The Queen's grocer raises a glass to 45 years in business
Partridges managing director John Shepherd on the store's regal history and the new gin which celebrates its anniversary
Partridges opened on 25 May 1972 at 132 Sloane Street, Chelsea. The doors were, in fact, first opened by my brother Sir Richard Shepherd, who was the first of at least eight family members to have worked in the business. He had previously studied at the London School of Economics and met, among others, Sir Mick Jagger and Albert Vince, who founded the Europa chain of shops and helped Richard formulate his ideas for Partridges.
It was a different world then. Two weeks before the opening and while studying for exams at school, I had found enough time to attend the Doors' concert at Imperial College London, the very first Watergate burglary had just taken place, The Godfather had opened in the US and T-Rex were at number one in the charts with Metal Guru.
It was a different food world as well. In 1972 popular lines for delicatessens included frozen jugged hare, coronation chicken and veal, ham and egg pie. There were gull's eggs in the fridge and the shelves were adorned with packets of Jackson's Tea, tins of Bird's Nest Soup and Campbell's Beef Bouillon. Olive Oil was found mainly in chemists and we sliced smoked salmon by hand and sold bottles of Chablis for 77p.
Richard moved on in 1979 to pursue a career in politics and, having worked part-time since 1973, I joined the business full-time on 1 May 1981.
Fast forward 45 years, 16,000 days of trading and around 16 million customers and we have moved about 200 yards south-west to the beautiful Duke of York Square on King's Road - I actually work about one mile from where I was born. Along the way we have been granted the royal warrant by the Queen, were co-founders of the Guild of Fine Food Retailers, won the title of Family Business of the Year in Retail, became Commonwealth Export Champions, acquired four new shops, launched more than 20 artisan food markets in London and invented a new concept called Startisans, which gives start-ups the chance to realise their dreams.
My personal highlight in the Partridges journey was when, in 2007, I was appointed president of the Royal Warrant Holders Association. This august body has a membership of more than 800 companies, some of who have held royal warrants for many generations. The role of president, which rotates on an annual basis, is to oversee the well being and future development of the association. There is a lot of travelling around the country to meet local warrant holders, many of whom have outstanding stories to tell. After my year as president, I became the honorary treasurer for five years and really got to know the workings of the association and the members of it very well.
This is why at Partridges we try to stock as many royal warrant-holding products as possible. It is good to know that many of the companies involved are still family businesses.
One of the most enjoyable things we did was in 2009, when he held a Christmas Market for the staff inside Buckingham Palace based on the market we run outside Partridges every Saturday, which attracts around 15,000 customers each week. More than 100 royal warrant holders sold their products to staff inside the State Rooms and the Queen also came and talked to each stallholder individually about their companies. As you can imagine, we were all somewhat chuffed about that.
This lead to the Coronation Festival in the grounds of Buckingham Palace four years later, which was visited not only by thousands of members of the public, but also senior members of the royal family, ambassadors, politicians and well-known public figures.
It is not easy for independent family food shops to survive in the modern commercial world – rents, rates and larger competitors all play a part in that - and innovation is key to keep going. We have tried to innovate wherever we can, for example, running food markets, developing the Startisans initiative, exporting, selling online and creating new products - the latest of which is Chelsea Flower Gin, which will be launched in May to coincide with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
I've wanted to launch a gin for a long time as it is a quintessentially British drink, the distilling process was developed in London and we have a shop in Holborn very close to Gin Lane, which played on my mind. It is the perfect fit for a Chelsea flower variety and wearing my retailer's hat, it can be made and sold quickly and lasts a long time.
I also enjoy drinking it myself.
We worked in collaboration with Martin Murray, master distiller at Dunnet Bay Distillers in Thurso, on the north coast of Scotland - the home of my great, great, great-grandmother – and each limited edition bottle is hand filled, numbered by hand and sealed with wax. It is a London Dry Gin containing 19 botanicals including marigold, verbena, cassia bark and juniper, but the signature flavour is rose, which celebrates the tradition of flowers and nurseries along King's Road in Chelsea, some of which have supplied the royal family.
Perhaps we have gone full circle.
John Shepherd, managing director of Partridges, has many years’ experience in the world of food and has appeared on the likes of The Apprentice on the BBC and Sky’s Cooks to Market. In 2008, he helped celebrate the ancient right of walking a sheep across London Bridge as a Liveryman of The City of London.
Partridges Chelsea Flower Gin will be exclusively available in Partridges' two central London stores at 2-5 Duke of York Square and 17-19 Gloucester Road and online at Partridges' website. There will also be a Chelsea Flower Cocktail stall at Partridges' regular Saturday market in Duke of York Square. partridges.co.uk