Barbara King: Food Drink Devon
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos supplied by RAW Food & Drink PR
Barbara King has an air of refinement, experience and poise about her. With an impressive career in retail which has spanned over decades and taken her to almost every continent on earth, she is an expert in her field and is at the top of her game. For the last nine years she has been Managing Director of The Shops at Dartington as well as, more recently, becoming the Chair of Food Drink Devon, a membership-based organisation which celebrates the very best of food and drink within the county of Devon. I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with Barbara, taking a tour of The Shops at Dartington and sampling a little of the excellent produce that they sell there. Needless to say, it was an incredibly pleasant afternoon.
A retailer by profession, Barbara was trained, in her words, “100 years ago” within the gold-standard John Lewis Partnership training programme. Subsequently, she travelled the world living and working in Hong Kong, Africa and America and becoming somewhat of a turnaround specialist within struggling retail environments. Eventually, she moved back to London and then, nine years ago, moved to Devon to take on the position of Managing Director of The Shops at Dartington, which were undergoing a revamp at the time.
A lifelong lover of good food and drink, Barbara told me how, when she arrived in her new role nine years ago, the immediate thing that struck her was how beautiful and bountiful Devon is as a county. It was no surprise to her, therefore, that, when she started carrying out her initial analysis of the retail offer at The Shops at Dartington, that the standout element of what their customers loved and what made the local offer unique was, you guessed it, food and drink.
As a result, Barbara moved the location of the food and drink shop to the most prominent position at the top of the site, into a sizeable and flexible warehouse-style building. She then went about packing it full of some of the tastiest, most well-sourced and ethically-produced food and drink available on the market (60% of which is made right here in Devon). It has the feel of a Food Hall in a high-end department store and I could spend a full day in there without even batting an eyelid. It really is an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of goodies.
As Barbara began to put her stamp on The Shops at Dartington, her collaborative and celebratory approach attracted interest from likeminded people and it wasn’t long before she was approach by the then Chair of Food Drink Devon to ask if she would come on board as a Director.
Food Drink Devon is a membership-based organisation which exists to celebrate the very best food and drink that Devon has to offer. With around 250 members, the organisation serves its members by promoting their products – both in the region and further afield – whilst also encouraging collaborative working and partnership between members at every appropriate opportunity. With a calendar of training, networking and social events throughout the year, activity culminates in an annual awards ceremony where entrants have the chance to win a coveted and highly sought-after Food Drink Devon award – a mark of excellence in the world of food and drink. This year, their awards are being held at The Imperial in Torquay and previous venues include High Bullen Hotel Golf & Country Club, Deer Park Country House and Exeter Golf & Country Club. There are usually about 250 tickets up for grabs which sell out within ten days.
As the only food and drink membership organisation solely dedicated to Devon, Food Drink Devon are unashamedly evangelistic about their members and their mission. Barbara gushed,
“We think Devon is the best and we’re not ashamed to say it! The amazing thing about Devon is that there is such volume and variety of locally produced food and drink. There is something for everyone. Whatever your preference, restrictions, desires or fears with food, the Devon food and drink scene can cater for your needs with a variety of excellent products readily available.”
“As well as celebrating the incredible producers of Devon within the county, a really important part of our mission is to go and celebrate and spread the word about these fantastic products in other parts of the country. By telling the general food and drink story of Devon, individual producers win too.”
I found it particularly interesting discussing food and drink with someone who knows both the London and Devon foodie scenes in such depth. Barbara was able to see the trends and the links between the different parts of the country, commenting,
“There is a growing ‘new food economy’ here in Devon, heavily influenced by people moving away from big cities elsewhere in the UK, leaving other professions and turning their hands to their food and drink business dreams. Compared to London, you can get twice as much, at half the price and better quality in Devon!”
When I asked Barbara about her take on why Devon is such a hot-bed for food and drink giants, she replied,
“There are some of the best farming and fishing practices in the UK in Devon. This makes for industry-leading meat produce that people pay a pretty penny for elsewhere in the country. But it is right here on our doorstep. The quality here is just astounding. How fresh everything is. How different meat, fruit and vegetables taste here because of the favourable soil and climactic conditions. There is something special even in the very earth and water that we get our food from here in Devon.”
“For example, if you told me twenty years ago that I’d be predominantly drinking local wine made in Devon, I would have laughed at you. But the county is now producing some of the leading wines in the UK and, in some cases, the world. I’m constantly amazed by what comes out of the earth and what people do with it here in Devon!”
On that note, as our time together drew to a close, we walked up the hill to the aforementioned Food & Drink shop and Barbara walked me around, showing off the fine produce which they stock. This included many collaborations that The Shops at Dartington have secured with small-batch producers who produce goods and then allow The Shops at Dartington to label the goods and sell under their name.
One such partnership is with Devon Distillery who make small batches of gin exclusively for The Shops at Dartington who then sell under their own brand. Not only this, but Devon Distillery have set up a micro-distillery within the Food and Drink shop, where they make gin, offer gin-making classes and have even made some globally award winning Dappa (the Devon equivalent of Grappa) and Devoncello (the Devon equivalent of Limoncello).
This level of collaboration is often not found in the food and drink industries but, as a social enterprise, The Shops at Dartington are owned by The Dartington Hall Trust, which is a registered charity and all of the profits from the shops go back into the Trust as a charitable contribution. It seemed to me that the non-competitive nature of The Shops at Dartington likely attracts collaboration and partnership compared to the sometimes-cutthroat world of corporate food production.
With what I have been told is trademark generosity, Barbara wouldn’t let me leave without a small gift, a loaf of locally made bread and some Raspberry & Gin Jam which I may or may not have polished off in the weeks since. My time with Barbara was illuminating, informative and inspiring. I left thankful for and proud of the unique food and drink offering that we are treated to daily here in Devon. Sometimes we take the things right in front of our nose for granted but, when it comes to Devon food and drink, I for one am going to try my damndest not to.
To find out more about Barbara King and Food Drink Devon, follow @FoodDrinkDevon and @ShopDartington on Twitter to stay up to date.