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Family firm going places

In many ways Eric Lyons butchers is a throwback to yesteryear, a Knowle institution selling meats and pies to generations of grateful customers from the area. Now, as Jon Griffin discovers, the much-loved firm is embracing technology and tapping into a more national market.

Nick Lyons sits in his workaday first-floor office in the heart of Knowle, the very epitome of a Middle England setting, and reflects with family pride on nearly 120 years of serving juicy steaks, tender legs of lamb, succulent poultry – and more than four million pies.

Despite a multitude of challenges facing his industry, he is clear in his mind what he wants to sell and how he wants to sell it.

“We sell quality,” he says. “It is going to be more pricey than going to a supermarket. You come here and buy a steak for £8 or £9 but it is dry aged, the best you can get, and the same goes for our pies which we make ourselves.

“There is a pastry roller out the back making puff pastry right now. The pies you buy from supermarkets are pumped with chemicals because all they need are a shelf life and a bit of branding.

“Even with a recession coming and I am wondering if we have to find cheaper products, I am still ‘No, it is not what we are, it is not what we stand for’.

“You never say never but I am very strongly against buying cheap chicken breasts at half the price. Supermarkets will go and get foreign meat because it is a lot cheaper.”

Lyons may be just 26 but he clearly knows what he is talking about. After all, he is the fifth-generation descendant of a family firm which has been feeding the households of Knowle, Solihull and further afield in the West Midlands since the early Edwardian era, more than a decade before the start of the First World War.

Knowledge, tradition and an undying commitment to quality service oozes out of the Eric Lyons shop in Knowle High Street, with its counters brimming with beef, lamb, pork, steaks, ready meals, cheeses, jam, pickles – and of course those famous pies.

In an increasingly bland corporate world, with the high street under attack like never before from the internet and rapacious supermarket chains, Eric Lyons still stands for individuality and personal service. You almost expect to see Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones serving behind the meat counter.

And just as in the life of the fictional wartime veteran butcher, the Second World War played a key role in the history of Eric Lyons Ltd, or at least its nationally renowned pies, as Nick’s Uncle Peter explains.

"My dad Eric was trained to be a tank driver but because he was a butcher they said ‘we need someone like you in the kitchens’. He was very lucky. He didn't go over for D-Day and he spent the rest of the war working in the kitchens.

“Once he became a chef and worked in the army kitchens he mixed with people who worked for hotels in London. Dad was really interested in how to make pastry and stuff, and that is how the pies started. He came back and in those days butchers didn’t make pies.

“It was him mixing with chefs during the war where he learnt how to make pastry and ready meals, that is why that side of the business took off. Dad was the original inspiration for the pies.”

And the pies certainly did take off, as Nick Lyons, a trained chef and former student at Birmingham College of Food, proudly points out.

“We estimate that we have made 4.4 million pies, from the 1950s, based on 1,600 a week. We make them from scratch, the flour comes in a sack. Making puff pastry is a serious skill, nearly all the other butchers I speak to buy it and just use a gravy mix.”

But more than four million mouth-watering pies created from wartime recipes and nearly 120 years of devotion to the cause by five generations of Lyons do not necessarily guarantee a permanent place at the butchery top table, as Nick explains in outlining the latest chapter in the family firm saga.

“We went national two or three months ago. The first order was from a Scot who used to live in Knowle and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. He bought nine family pies and was a very happy man as he hadn’t been able to have the pies since he moved to Scotland.

“I could have opened more stores, but that would have been more of a headache because I would have needed to buy new machinery and find new staff. It would have been a lot harder doing it like that.

“The other option was building a website and learning how to deliver nationally. We can do that all under one roof because we are already here and I have already got the staff, so it is a lot easier to scale up. I made the decision that the growing point of the business is the website and national delivery. Someone can order and they can get delivery in two days. We do 10 national orders a week and 30 local orders which we personally deliver.

“You can’t make this shop any busier really. Currently 80 or 85% of the revenue is still in store and that revenue percentage will very quickly change because I am looking to drive national sales on the website. I hope one day, maybe next year, I will have gone from 85% revenue in the shop and 15% online to 50-50 and will be serving the same amount of national customers as local.” The decision to future-proof the business through new national online sales followed a demanding period of lockdown for the Knowle butchers, when Nick and his co-directors, brother Dan and their father David, had to decide whether to keep the shop doors open.

“I almost think, especially over Covid, people really valued quality meat. We actually benefitted because people had a bit more disposable income – they were doing nothing, so people were coming to us to buy our steaks.

“We made the hard decision to shut and that was where the website came from. Dad, me and Dan sat down when it all came about. We were allowed to stay open but we made the choice to shut and I stayed up until 2am creating a website with three packs on. We went from 1,000 products to three packs, poultry, everyday essentials and a pie pack. They were about £40 and when I came in the next morning and we had about 400 orders.

“The staff were safer, the customers were safer, we could still deliver what they wanted. At the time, those three packs were an absolute godsend. I turned up to numerous old people’s houses and they were in tears. They were too scared to go out of the house and every supermarket slot was fully booked for three to four weeks. We were rushed off our feet serving the community.

“There was never an instance when I didn’t deliver to someone. We just carried on taking the orders and worked to whatever time of night to get them there. These elderly people, they thought they were going to die, they couldn't get any food, they couldn't get a delivery slot from supermarkets, they couldn’t buy milk, eggs, bread, they were genuinely relying on their freezers until it felt safe to get back out of the house.”

Whilst he freely admits that the UK’s biggest medical emergency in a century benefitted the Knowle butchers, Lyons also points to a major refurbishment of the shop back in 2018 which helped secure the future of the business.

“The whole shop needed doing – the insides of the fridges were old and the equipment wasn’t good enough. It took about 12 to 14 weeks. We stayed open the whole time because we couldn’t afford to close.”

The refurbishment paid off and Eric Lyons is now looking forward to a prosperous future, despite rising food and energy costs and the threat of impending recession.

“In 10 years we have almost doubled turnover. We currently do £1.8 million, and I am looking to rapidly grow it. We have 15 full-time staff including my dad, brother and myself.”

He sees the future of Eric Lyons as a ‘one-stop shop’ for households’ food needs, including eggs, milk, pies and other goods as well as meat.

But whilst Covid has come and (largely) gone, what about the continuing threat to the shrinking numbers of traditional butchers shops from the armies of vegetarians and vegans seemingly all too prepared to wage war on meat eaters? Lyons has some interesting views.

“I think it almost benefits us because it makes meat more niche. I think the people who are going to become vegetarian or vegan have already done so. The health implications are always marketed that it is good for the environment, it is good for yourself. I think all that is being found out a bit.

“Buying a banana from Jamaica isn’t environmentally better than eating a cow up the road. I think the vegan and vegetarianism market has been very well marketed. The health benefits are not benefits, you need protein in your diet, you need meat in your diet, full stop.”

More than four million pie eaters over the course of many decades might well agree with that, and look to the famous Lyons 100-year-old recipe for dietary satisfaction.