What started as a family venture into direct selling in the 1990s has since grown into one of the best known enterprises of its kind. Ewan Pate finds out more.
Craigie’s Farm Shop on the western outskirts of Edinburgh is one of the most well-known enterprises of its kind, its pioneering style having served as an example to others entering the specialised world of on-farm retailing.
The venture has been a family one, led sure-footedly by John Sinclair, so it seems only fitting that he was recently recognised with the Farm Retail Association (FRA) Lifetime Achievement Award.
The citation which went with John’s award praised his service and loyalty to the FRA, and for his work locally with the education sector.
Over the years thousands of children have visited Craigie’s, either with their families or on organised school tours.
John has also just finished a 12-year stint on the FRA council, five of them as treasurer.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says.
“And as well as making loads of contacts, I made some really good friends along the way.” The story of Craigie’s Farm Shop starts in the early 1990s when John’s late father, George, opened a small retail outlet to sell some of the soft fruit from the commercial enterprise he had set up to supply supermarket fruit.
As with many such enterprises, growth came organically, one step at time, until now when the whole farm is centred round what is now a large shop and cafe.
Success is never assured, but there is no doubt West Craigie Farm, tenanted from the Dalmeny Estate, is a textbook site for farm retail.
Sitting on the side of a hill looking eastwards, it has a panoramic view over the Edinburgh suburbs towards the castle.
It is also close to the M90 route out of the city, making it well connected to central Scotland’s motorway network.
John says: “We have calculated that about 600,000 people live within half-an-hour from Craigie’s and several million within two hours’ drive.
It is not unusual for families from the other side of Glasgow to come to pick their own fruit.
“We have a good relationship with our landlords and that has helped us move forward.
The farm is now 40 hectares.
In January we handed over our secure tenancy on 100ha in return for a 50-year commercial lease and significant investment in the buildings.” In some ways the fruit side of the business has come full circle.
Pick your own was very popular in the early days, with customers diligently picking reasonably large quantities to fill their freezers or make jam.
“Now we see families coming more for the experience of being in the countryside and picking different types of fruit,” John says.
“Recognising this, we now charge £3 per head admission, which can be redeemed against the fruit picked.
It is becoming very popular, with last year being the first when our pick your own sales exceeded ready picked.”
"The most ordered items for delivery have been bread, milk, eggs, gin and chocolate – life’s essentials it seems"
His earlier experience as a supermarket grower has come in useful in laying out the 6ha (15-acre) fruit enterprise.
Most crops, including strawberries, raspberries and cherries, are grown in polytunnels with only apples and currants grown outside.
A farm manger is now employed to manage the fruit and the 2ha (five acres) of vegetables grown for the shop.
The shop and deli are really the beating heart of the business though, which have been developed on an almost annual basis as customer numbers have increased.
A major expansion took place in 2006 with the introduction of a cafe.
Initially designed for 50 covers, it expanded first to manage 100 covers and now to 200.
The next step is the construction of a children’s activity and play area separate from the main building.
This will have its own cafe area.
John says: “Our client base is 50 per cent retired people and 50 percent families with young children.
Their requirements are quite different, with the older people the more serious shoppers.
I want to make sure they can shop without being distracted.” They certainly have plenty of food and drink to choose from.
Apart from the prominently displayed farm produce, Craigie’s stocks a full range of meat products from The Buffalo Farm Butchery, Fife.
The business can employ 65 people at peak season, or 35 full-time equivalents, but like everywhere else, it had to live with Covid-19 restrictions, meaning the cafe was forced to close for a period and the associated staff put on furlough.
Customers could still, however, make shop purchases safely by pre-ordering.
“We also started doing deliveries for the first time to West Lothian and West Edinburgh postcodes,” says John.
“At the start of the lockdown I took on three local tradesmen with vans who could not go about their usual business.
“They did the deliveries and I also bought a fridge van.
It has been a success and I think we will carry on with home deliveries once we are back to normal.
“Interestingly, the most ordered items for delivery have been bread, milk, eggs, gin and chocolate – life’s essentials it seems.
We have also sold 20 tonnes of potatoes over the last two months.” Despite being well connected to the road network, John has had to draw the line at expanding deliveries eastwards because of the risks of being delayed on the notoriously troublesome Edinburgh bypass.
Another result of the Covid-19 situation has been the huge number of requests for employment, with Craigie’s receiving more than 20 requests every day by email at one stage.
There is another ramification of the pandemic which John has to cope with.
As he wryly notes, this has not been the easiest year to become honorary treasurer of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS).
With this year’s Royal Highland Show cancelled along with all the other events due to be held at the Ingliston Showground, the society is facing a loss of income of about £6 million.
“It will just be a case of tightening the purse strings and being prudent,” John says.
He has been a director of RHASS for 13 years and is a strong supporter of the Royal Highland Educational Trust (RHET).
Many of the thousands of children who have visited Craigie’s over the years have come on RHET organised trips.
Despite being essentially an arable farm, there are always animals to look at and get to know about.
John and his wife Kirsteen run the business with John’s mother, Anne, now taking more of a back seat.
There is, however, every chance the next generation of Sinclairs will become involved.
John and Kirsteen’s daughter Sophie, 23, is helping out at present, although she is a professional curler for most of the year.
She was a member of Team Jackson which won the Scottish Women’s Championship last year and was ‘fifth man’ in the Scottish team at this year’s World Championships in Canada.
Their son George, 22, has just graduated from Edinburgh University in rural business management.
John says: “I have told him to go and experience life before he thinks about coming back home.” It is advice that John’s own father gave him at the same age.
And judging by the success of the Craigie’s Farm Shop project, it has stood him in good stead.