Nicholson’s Butchers has occupied the same premises on Whitley Bay’s Park View since 1914, when Charles Nicholson opened the doors for the first time. Today it is in the hands of Charles’s grandson, Doug, and great-granddaughter, Kathryn.
Kathryn didn’t join the family business straight away. After completing a degree in Food Science at Sheffield she worked in food development for large companies. After what she describes as a ‘random conversation’ with her dad one Sunday afternoon, she came back to work with him. They’re not the only family members in the business – Kathryn’s cousin Mark started off washing dishes on a Saturday when he was 15, and is now in charge of deliveries, as well as being a qualified butcher. Together they celebrated the shop’s centenary in May.
‘There’s not many businesses that can stand up and say they’ve been here a hundred years and are still going strong,’ Kathryn enthuses. There was a whole weekend of celebrations, including a barbecue for customers outside the shop. All the staff joined in, dressing in old-fashioned clothing with wing-collared shirts, aprons and bowler hats. They sold rabbits at the price they would have been in 1914 (16p, or around three shillings in old money), and customers who drew a winning ticket from a top hat on the counter got to pay for all their shopping at 1914 prices. One regular customer drew a winning ticket and got £104 worth of shopping for just £10. ‘He was over the moon,’ says Kathryn, ‘It was just a fantastic atmosphere in the shop.’
The celebrations weren’t confined to the shop. As well as the barbecue there was a horse and old-fashioned painted cart parked outside, which attracted a lot of attention. ‘The traffic stopped on the street,’ says Kathryn. The cart reenacted a delivery route, though didn’t actually make any deliveries. ‘We can’t have raw meat in a boiling hot truck any more,’ Kathryn laughs.
Nicholson’s may be expert butchers, but they don’t just deal in meat. Doug goes to the market regularly to get fresh fruit and vegetables, and they stock chutneys, jams, cooked meats and much more. There’s a bakery upstairs where they bake fresh bread at weekends, and they produce ready meals from scratch including goulash, lasagne and curry. ‘We don’t have everything that a supermarket would have,’ explains Kathryn, ‘But we do have everything for your Sunday dinner or your Friday night tea.’
Kathryn thinks that taking good care of their customers is vital to the success of the business, which is why they offer free delivery in the local area. ‘Especially as the customers get older, I think it’s really helpful for them to know that they can still get their shopping from a butcher they’ve used for 40 years.’ Nicholson’s customers aren’t just the older generation though, as Kathryn says that more and more younger customers are coming into the shop, particularly following the horse meat scandal. ‘More people are interested in where their meat comes from. They want to know what they’re buying,’ she says. Doug goes out to farms and auction marts, and all of Nicholson’s beef and lamb is Northumbrian. ‘We can trace our products from field to fork.’
What really has an impact on sales is what celebrity chefs are cooking says Kathryn. ‘Nobody ever used to come in and ask us for ox cheek, but now we can’t get enough,’ she laughs. The time of year makes a difference too – joints and stewing steak are much more popular in winter as people want rich comfort food. ‘As soon as the sun comes out we can’t make enough sausages and burgers and kebabs.’
So with 100 years of history behind them, what next for Nicholson’s? Kathryn is determined to keep developing the business along with her father, like her grandfather and great-grandfather before her. ‘I’ve got three really hard acts to follow,’ she laughs, ‘And I don’t want to stand still.’
140 Park View, Whitley Bay