A vision from an entrepreneurial founder is at the heart of many family businesses and that is certainly the case with the Steggles family. What started out with 10 goats has grown into a destination business with a Farm Shop, Kitchen Goats, Cheese, Skincare Products and much more besides. Paul Andrews spoke to Sam Steggles to find out more.
Sam was born on a farm and it is probably true to say that farming was part of his DNA when he was born. Sam loved life on the farm which was owned and farmed by his grandfather but it was sold when he was about seven. But by the age of twelve and still with a yearning to go into farming he was given some cows and as a youngster he sold their calves, sold pheasants to the teachers at school and ultimately bought a Simmental calf which was the breed that his grandfather had farmed.
As he got older, Sam completed a National Diploma in Agriculture at Harper Adams and then embarked on a role with Newquip Ltd which resulted in a job selling poultry equipment. A tragedy in the family with the death of his sister-in-law at the age of just 25 provided Sam with the push to pursue his dream. Sam began to realise that life was too short and started looking at his roots and to find a way into the agriculture sector that would be more directly involved than just selling equipment.
As Sam explains, “We went on a family holiday to Cumbria in October 2009 as a family with our young baby son and we came home with 10 goats! We were living in a ‘normal house’ at the time and soon realized that we never had the space to accommodate the goats and so moved them to a friends dairy unit that was no longer being used so the goats moved to Little Ellingham and the first kid goats were born in 2010.”
Sam is an entrepreneur at heart and when he sets his mind to something there is always likely to be an outcome. “I learnt how to turn the milk from the goats into cheese and started making goats cheese in the kitchen sink,” continues Sam. “The business grew as we made more cheese to meet demand and the number of goats grew from 10 to 300 in just under two years and we had the opportunity to move so moved to where we are today.”
Working a ‘day job’ whilst milking goats and making cheese took it’s toll after a while and so the decision was made to sell the goats and focus on the production side. However, goats remain an important part of the business today, with a herd of Boer goats greeting customers who visit their business today.
By 2019 the cheese business was blossoming and was producing tonnes of award-winning Norfolk Mardler and Wensum cheese with contracts supplying supermarkets, airlines, national pub chains and restaurants. Things were really positive and with an eye on the future Sam applied and was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship with his aim to investigate the growth of sustainable food businesses. In March 2020, as part of the research project he headed off to Australia but soon after arrival as Covid suddenly hit he was concerned that levels of food orders for the cheese were falling significantly as customers were cancelling orders “I initially knew that I needed to get home but all flights were being cancelled, delayed or re-routed and rather than wait I got a round the world flight home to see what could be done to support the business.”
Like many businesses, the pandemic was a massive challenge and for Sam it was no different. “I got home to lockdown and we had lost most of our cheese orders overnight. There was plenty of uncertainty but we think differently and were prepared to put up a fight.”
Entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and during conversations with his wife, Sam soon realized that people in the community were concerned about food supplies and other essential items. So, with quick thinking and a big dose of courage, Sam saw an opportunity and ultimately this was the moment that would provide the opportunity for the business to flourish going forward.
“We knew that the local community, like communities across the UK, were scared. The pandemic was causing real concern and so we took a leap and sourced products that the supermarkets were unable to, or were rationing, and created a safe place for people to shop. It all started from a small garden shed in what is now the car park, with a few trestle tables outside and some flour, pasta, toilet rolls and an honesty box,” explains Sam.
By sourcing products for the local community, the family, and the business, during such uncertain times, they provided a lifeline for many, even if it was one customer at a time in the early days to comply with all the regulations and to keep people safe.
As lockdown eased, customers questioned what would happen going forward and the decision was taken to make what is now fondly known as ‘The Goat Shed’ a permanent thing.
Sam and Caroline stuck to their core values and set out on their ongoing journey to ‘create smiles through food, farming and family’, something that remains at the heart of the business today.
As Sam continues, “For us, it is all about sticking to our values of sourcing quality, local produce, creating a safe and friendly environment and providing delicious, homemade food for our customers to enjoy with family and friends. The Goat Shed evolved and we sourced furniture, initially so that people could sit outdoors and when able to meet inside in person again, to furnish the Kitchen and make it a local destination and remain a hub for the community too.”
As well as continuing to make award winning cheese, skincare products and running the Kitchen and the fully stocked farm shop, they continue to invest in the business and also offer a number of holiday cottages set against the backdrop of a small, working farm so that guests get to experience rural life and get to make the most of the outdoors during their stay.
Innovation and ideas come readily to this business and using the space available in the barns saw a thriving festive market created. The space is now to be used for the extension of the shop with the addition of more products, a butchery counter and homeware items.
Like many family firms decision making is quick and agile. “We needed to make quick decisions at the start which helped us survive the initial downturn in demand for cheese and it was this that helped create the brand and gain the support of the local community,” explains Sam, “and the community have remained loyal and word has got out and people now come from further afield to see what we are all about, enjoy the goats in the field or to stay and shop with us too.”
The business is now open seven days a week and employs around 40 staff, providing plenty of opportunities too. Sam continues to look for new opportunities too and is building a business for the future. Recently a poultry business was added and they now have 70,000 chickens that provide eggs and they recently started a small herd of Simmentals. “We bought one cow and then realized it was unfair for her to be on her own so now are looking for a few more,” continues Sam with a smile, something else that is at the core of what this business is all about.
From the goats in the yard to the food and the way it is served by engaged staff who clearly enjoy what they do, putting a smile on people’s faces is important to Sam. “We love what we do but need to keep the consumer in mind and make sure that they have a great experience, leave with a smile on their faces and leave wanting to come back again. We have created a real community hub and a business that affords customers the opportunity to support and shop local, in a nice environment, surrounded by nature too,” he continues.
Goats and goats cheese were the start of the journey and very much part of the business today, as are the other aspects of what they do and nobody can question the commitment of a family that were close to losing the business when the pandemic hit, but a family that seized the opportunity and continue to build on the foundations that were laid during lockdown and have flourished subsequently.
Growth such as this comes with strong leadership, commitment and a desire to succeed and these are qualities that Sam is blessed with. He recently decided to swim the length of Lake Geneva which took over 26 hours to complete, certainly no mean feat and a mammoth swim, raising over £25,000 for Brain Tumour Research, a great example of what Sam is all about and clear evidence that supports the fact that when he puts his mind to something little will stand in his way.
Giving back and supporting the community is key to this business, demonstrating the importance of farming and supporting local as well as the importance of the connection that many family businesses have with the location and place in which they are based.
A great story of a family business that had to respond to incredibly challenging circumstances but has certainly made its mark and undoubtedly will continue to do so going forward, hopefully for generations to come.
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