By Victoria Masterson

A FIFE butcher and bakery business has sold six of its shops and secured a new distribution deal with more than 100 convenience stores across Scotland in the McColl’s Retail Group.

Stuart’s Fine Foods, based in Methil, already supplies chains including Scotmid and Co-op and said the rationalisation would help strengthen the sixth-generation family firm.

The company, which was founded in Buckhaven in 1857, announced in March that it was temporarily shutting 10 of its 16 stores. Managing director Keith Stuart, whose great-great-great-grandfather James Stuart started the business, confirmed that six of the stores had been sold to different buyers during lockdown.

“We had to sell six shops because they weren’t performing and we’ve tried to reallocate staff elsewhere,” said Mr Stuart, who runs the business with his brother, Mark, and two non-family directors, Derek McMahon and Stephen Haig. “I would never have chosen to close six shops in one swoop, but lockdown and Covid forced our hand and we’ve just tried to strengthen our business.”

Of the firm’s 215 staff, about 45 remain on furlough and another 95 work in the Stuart’s production facility next to East Fife Football Club’s Bayview Stadium in Methil.

The deal with McColl’s Retail Group involves supplying stores across Scotland with family-sized steak pies, mince and steak rounds, Scotch pies, beef sausages and potted meats. “Food safety is very important to McColl’s and we are accredited with the Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) food standard,” Mr Stuart said.

Stuart's already supplies bakery and butchery goods to around 100 Co-op stores, 25 Scotmid outlets and more than 30 Spar stores, as well as the Nisa Local and Premier convenience store chains.

The shops that have been sold are in Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy, Methil, Buckhaven, Leven and Kennoway in Fife.

Mr Stuart said he had seen an increase in footfall to local stores during lockdown and hoped this would continue. “We’ve seen a lot of customers returning who we haven’t seen for a long time,” he said. “They won’t go to supermarkets, so they’re coming back to our shops. I think there’s still a chunk of society who fear going into supermarkets and feel like our shops are safer places to be. There are fewer people to bump into and it’s easier to socially distance. We also sell higher-quality produce.”

Measures introduced in the firm’s stores include hand sanitiser for customers’ use and two-metre markings on the floor. The route out of lockdown was to “keep following Government guidelines, keep customers and staff safe, and keep offering quality products”, he said.

The Stuart family had never experienced anything like the current pandemic. “I’m quite certain the war was very hard for my great-grandfather, in a way that would be difficult for our generation to comprehend. But for me and my father and grandfather, we’ve never seen anything like this in the last 50 to 60 years,” Mr Stuart said.

The firm’s longevity might be down in part to its succession strategy. “A lot of family businesses sell to the next generation – but we’ve never done that,” he added. “It’s just been handed down to the younger generation, they’ve never had to buy it from the previous generation. I think that might be one key to it.”

Mr Stuart’s father, Alan Stuart, founded the annual World Championship Scotch Pie Awards in 1999. Entries are judged in categories including football pies, macaroni pies, steak pies, sausage rolls, vegetarian savouries, bridies, and apple pies.

The competition is usually judged in November. Mr Stuart said it would be up to trade body Scottish Bakers as to whether this year’s competition went ahead. “A lot can happen between now and November.”