Beautiful Community – Michael Dart Interview
‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,’ poignant words written in the past that seem to sum up the present.
It is often during an overwhelming situation that we see courage and a spirit of tenacity emerge. Humankind demonstrating a resilience and community togetherness that is breath-taking and beautiful.
Sometimes it’s the seemingly smallest acts that capture the imagination of the nation; gathering momentum and snowballing into something monumental. We need only to look to the marvellous Captain Tom Moore for confirmation of that.
One business that has managed to harness the positive during the pandemic is Darts Farm; the ‘unique lifestyle shopping destination with a farm at the heart’.
Grow managed to catch up with one of the owners, Michael Dart, to chat about food, farm and a few topics in between. We were wondering how the magical Darts Farm has been faring since lockdown; we needn’t have worried. In fact, Michael and his team have been so busy, we had to steal him away from his workday. Despite all non-essential retail areas and the restaurant having had to close for lockdown, Darts Farm is still a hub of activity.
Adapting With Agility
At the beginning of the crisis, Michael quickly realised that there was a gap that needed filling in the community. Many of the larger supermarkets were unable to cope with growing demands which left some of the most vulnerable in society unable to place online orders. Enter the prestigious farm shop selling locally grown, wholesome food, ready to be delivered right to the door (whilst maintaining social distancing measures of course). What could be better than that?
The team at Darts Farm created an online business, developed the website, distribution area and warehouse in just a week. Talk about agile!
And that goes for the staff too. Michael said,
‘Our restaurant team and gift team, are now box packers. We’ve gone from nothing, to literally, hundreds of orders a day. It’s incredible.’
Changing their business to an online shop, although managed so swiftly, hasn’t been done without putting in a lot of thought. Michael continued,
‘We’ve done it slightly differently to a supermarket online offer. We tried to recreate the experience of going to Darts in our online experience.’
Offers such as the, ‘Send some cheer’ hampers which are designed to do exactly that.
‘A little chocolate box, tea, coffee, gin, we have a whole range of them. You’ll be amazed at how many people are cheering up others, those who are sat at home not being able to get out.’
Dart Brothers’ Pioneering Ideas
But where did it all begin? Michael, one of three Dart brothers who run the shopping destination and farm, says it all started back in the seventies. Their dad, Ronald Dart, created ‘Pic Fresh’ having seen it in California, and pioneered the first ‘pick your own’ in the UK. He was a great believer in seasonal eating and local produce. A man ahead of his time, it seems.
On Michael’s return from Harper Adams University in Shropshire, he saw the potential to grow the farm shop, open a restaurant, and eventually came up with the idea of creating a destination experience. He said,
‘The logic was that shopping wasn’t a job, shopping was something that people did for pleasure as well as function.’
The family business grew from there, working with many local suppliers to bring in other products like milk, eggs and butter. Michael said,
‘Some of the suppliers we’ve still got like Mary Quicke from Quicke’s Cheese and some amazing – even award-winning – local companies that are still going.’
‘We realised that if we mixed the right companies, the right values and our own artisan food production we could create something special, and we did it.’
The importance of local community has been highlighted to many of us, during the current crisis, but it is something that has been inherent at Darts Farm.
‘Darts was so far ahead of anything really like it; it was going before ‘Taste of the West’ was invented. We started seeing the importance of local and to be honest we couldn’t understand, at the time, why it wasn’t a big thing. We thought, “Why is it not important to support local food companies and local farmers?”’.
Team And Community Spirit The Dart Way
The team at Darts Farm have been spending lockdown trying to give a little back to the community that has supported them over the years. Impressively, they recently raised over £2,500 from customer donations (online and in-store) to enable them to give Easter Tuck boxes to Exeter Food bank to distribute to families in need in the community. This was done in collaboration with the amazing network of local food and drink producers which they work with.
The community have responded with enthusiasm to the new Darts Farm offering, loving the connection and of course the fresh local produce. Five staff members have been allocated to the task, spending all day doing around 30 deliveries. People are longing for connection, many living in isolation since lockdown. Michael added,
‘When they get on the phone, they want to talk. Some of these people are frightened, some are lonely, they are worried. Having the power to be able to help them feels good.’
Michael told us that team morale at Darts Farm has never been better, with many of the staff enjoying the camaraderie that has bonded them together. They’ve been busy, with some working seven days a week from early until late. Michael said,
‘It’s never felt so good. We’ve got waitresses working in the farm shop, packing vegetables. Chefs, who were in the restaurant, helping the butchers pack meat boxes and cut meat. Every staff member has been flexible and willing to step up to the mark. It’s all hands on deck and we’re so proud of what we’ve achieved together; I can’t believe it!’
During lockdown, Michael has also been busy with some alterations, building a cider house together with Sandford Orchards, which will produce small-batch cider.
‘People will be able to see the old press making cider, real hands-on stuff. Come and help make cider, whilst choosing some amazing meat, like Tomahawk Steak from our Darts Farm Ruby Red cattle!’
Don’t mind if we do!
Michael Dart Optimistic
Michael Dart hopes that once the world travels beyond the current crisis that things don’t quite return to the way they were. His dream is that people remember the community spirit that they experienced during lockdown, that they continue to support each other and look out for one another.
Looking after ‘our villages’, the people next door, the neighbours who have become more than a face and are now an acquaintance, or a friend even. He would love to maintain the old-school values of buying local quality products rather than shipping things from around the globe.
‘The optimist in me hopes people enjoy the time and keep many of the values after the pandemic.’
If you would like to get in touch with Darts Farm or to place an order, pop onto the website: dartsfarm.co.uk
Interviewed by Joff Alexander-Frye
Written by Stella Nicholls
Photos supplied by RAW Food & Drink PR