When a fire destroyed Brian Charlton’s rural site two years ago he was left with a dilemma. After a decade in the business, should he just pack up and take early retirement or should he take the plunge and rebuild?
While he sat among the ashes of his premises, just hours after the flames were extinguished, he decided he wouldn’t let his dreams go up in smoke along with his shop.
Over the next few days he formed a plan to get the site, near the village of Middleton on the A170 in North Yorkshire, up and running again.
And after going through the painful process of having to start again from scratch - including trading from a Portakabin for more than a year - Brian’s now happily back on track. And trade has never been better.
"After the fire lots of people were coming up to me and asking if I was going to pack up," says Brian.
"We really had been in the depths of despair, and it makes you wonder what’s going to happen.
"But we had so much support from everyone and that’s what kept us going. Our staff, our customers, our suppliers, Londis - everyone was fantastic. And when we were trading from the Portakabin we had a lot of support from local people. Everyone rallied round. It was like the Blitz!"
== up in flames ==
Brian’s nightmare started on a chilly November evening in 2005. He and wife Joan also own a number of buildings behind the garage, one of which contains their dairy supply business.
At the time they had rented another of the buildings to a company which sold cross-country bikes. And this was where the fire started. An electrical fault on one of the bikes is believed to have led to fumes escaping, which ignited. And the fire quickly spread to the back of the garage.
At 7.30pm staff in Brian’s shop noticed black smoke and alerted the fire brigade who managed to stop the fire spreading. But although they sent 12 fire engines, the front of the shop was severely damaged by the smoke and water, and the heat warped the steel girders in the building.
"Unfortunately, I was in Leeds at the time. I got a call from one of the girls in the shop telling me there was some smoke in the shop but there was nothing major to worry about.
"Then I got another call a bit later. This time she said she thought I’d better come over," recalls Brian.
"The drive took an hour and a half and I just kept thinking what the hell am I going to find?"
Brian, who had spent 10 years building up the business, was devastated when he reached the site.
But in true Yorkshire spirit, he wasn’t going to stay down for long.
He says: "We were only out of action for about 10 days and then we were up and running in the Portakabin - it was a miracle really, even BT got us fixed up with new phones straight away. We just decided we weren’t going to be beaten."
While they were revamping the shop, they also did some work on the forecourt, which got 13 new pumps and, more recently, a car wash.
Brian first moved to the Middleton site because of his other business, which sells machinery and cleaning equipment to dairy farmers. It had been a garage since at least the 1930s and lastly, before Brian took it on, it had been a Ford dealership which had fallen into receivership.
Brian set about turning the old car showroom into a shop, getting Londis involved from the early stages. And he continued to run his dairy business as a sideline.
Today, Brian is full of praise for his staff, who stuck around after the fire to make sure the business kept going.
"We only lost about a third of business, not bad considering we were trading from a Portakabin," says Brian.
"It was a difficult time but I can’t thank my staff enough. You can set the thing in motion, but you need dedicated people to run it."
== local request ==
He is also indebted to his customers and their loyalty. So much so that before re-opening last December he held a meeting to find out what they wanted from their new shop.
One popular request was for more local produce and fresh foods. The result is the shop’s Yorkshire Corner.
Joan is mainly in charge of this, spending time sourcing products from reliable local suppliers.
It’s hard to miss this section of the shop due to the large green ’Yummy Yorkshire Here!’ sign hanging over it, visible from the shop entrance.
Although it only has a few shelves, they hold a treasure trove of all things Yorkshire: Whitby gingerbread, beer from the nearby Cropton Brewery, as well as locally-made crisps, biscuits and jams and pickles.
The shop itself is now 50% bigger than before the fire, at about 1,700sq ft, and acts as a mini supermarket with a great selection of food, wines and spirits, household goods, toiletries and car care lines.
"We’ve turned the ashes into a good site for people to shop at," says Brian. "We didn’t want to be just a top-up shop where people could only get the basics. We’re competitive, have lots of offers and charge normal supermarket prices." He believes that the Londis brand has helped them stay competitive.
"We’re committed to Londis and it’s great that they don’t have a problem with us selling local stuff," he says.
The site gets passing tourists during the summer as it’s on the edge of the National Park boundary and the moors, but the majority of trade comes from locals living nearby.
Fuel sales are 90,000 litres a week and the shop is bustling on a daily, and nightly, basis. It’s open from 7am to 10pm from Monday to Saturday and 8am to 10pm on Sundays.
"We aim to be a convenience store with petrol pumps attached. Very few people come in here just for fuel - but I’d say about half of people come in just for shopping."
Buoyed on by his triumphant comeback, Brian is now planning further expansion for the future.
"We’d like to branch out into other things. We want to set up an area where we can bake our own bread rolls and serve hot food," he says.
"We’re also looking into selling garden items like plants and seeds.
"And there’s loads of space round the back so we could expand it round there if we wanted to.
"I’m still enjoying the business," he smiles. "The sky’s the limit."