4th May 2021
Best Health Food Shop was founded in 2015 with its first shop opening in Shoreham by Sea in 2016. The company now owns five shops, two in Tunbridge Wells and three in Sussex, and is set to launch an online shop in June. We catch up with founders Melanie and Len to hear their story.
“Len and I met back in 2000 when I worked for his parents’ company as a temporary receptionist and Len was at University in Oxford studying for a joint honours degree in Exercise & Health, and Sports Coaching. I had just left a great job working in an accounts department for a London television company where I had worked for 5 years but had decided to leave in order to go travelling with my sister.
Working for Len’s parents (Len’s mum is a very well-known respected Nutritionist and Author specialising in Women’s health; Dr Marilyn Glenville PhD and his Dad runs a successful nutritional supplement company) was my first foray into this world of alternative health, nutrition and wellbeing. Unlike for Len, this way of life had been something he had been born into.
When I returned home to Tunbridge Wells after travelling, I returned to work for Len’s parents on a permanent basis. I worked there as Operations Director until 2009, when I joined Atman Clinic in Tunbridge Wells and ran their clinic and nutritional supplement business. In 2014 I set up my own business consultancy, working for small businesses providing finance, operations and HR support. Len graduated from University and set up a successful Website Marketing company, specialising in helping alternative health companies - including his parents’ company.
Len and I worked together over the years and also became friends, but it was not until 2014 that we became a couple and decided to pool our knowledge, skills and resources to hopefully set up some sort of business where we could work together. Our solo business ventures were successful but didn't want to continue being 'consultants' in the long term. We wanted something tangible and something that we could utilise our nearly 30 years of experience in the natural health industry, as this was both our passion and how we both lived our lives.
Len was living in London in 2015 and I was still in Tunbridge Wells, but I'd visit most weekends and he lived close to some amazing health food shops - Wholefoods, Planet Organic, As Nature Intended. These were unlike any I had seen outside of London and I'd visit as often as I could. I was always surprised at how different they were to the ones I had visited in other towns and areas previously. These ones always felt to me to be quite intimidating places to be, with an image of being old fashioned, perhaps a little unwelcoming with an array of weird and wonderful products that I had no clue about and an overriding smell of lavender! The London stores were bright and airy, modern, welcoming with a whole host of amazing products and knowledgeable, friendly staff.
This sparked an idea for us both on how we could use our shared knowledge and passion to bring something like these London stores to other areas. We decided that given we did not have much actual retail knowledge (except for my huge love of shopping!) that it would be a better idea to buy an existing shop / business that we could learn from and hopefully improve and expand from there. We were lucky enough to find 3 shops for sale within a reasonable distance from where we were based. We decided in our naivety that we should in fact buy all 3 and as a couple who like a challenge, this would be a great way to start! Oh, how little we knew!
Buying a business (let alone 3) is not an easy thing to do, and certainly not when you have no track record in retail or health food shops, and you are trying to convince people to lend you vast amounts of money! We learnt all this the hard way and our first purchase quickly turned from dreaming of buying 3 at once to just about getting a deal with one! It was a baptism of fire but one we learnt a huge amount from. We eventually purchased Sugar & Spice health food shop in Shoreham by Sea and opened the doors as the new owners on 16th September 2016 - having put our offer in for the business in October 2015!
We both worked in the shop with some help from a friend, every day for 6 months to learn the ropes, get to know all the customers, suppliers, products etc. We didn’t change anything as it was a successful established business, and we didn’t want to risk upsetting anyone. So, we kept everything in the shop the same for those first 3-4 months while everyone got used to us (except upgrading the till system and getting the internet. We were also trying to keep our other solo businesses running as we were not taking a wage or any money out the shop – so we would take turns in going out the back of the shop to the ‘office’ and work on our other bits whilst learning the ropes in the shop.
Those first 6 months were long and tiring as we worked 12–15-hour days trying to keep all the plates spinning. We planned to rebrand and relaunch the shop as Best Health Food Shop at the end of January 2017 and we planned a big relaunch do with Len’s mum – Dr Marilyn Glenville cutting the ribbon and doing the grand unveiling of the new shop front and signage. It all went so well, and we had great support from all our lovely customers there.
Gradually over the next year we slowly began to make other changes - new shelving, new brands and products, introduced our new Reward Card Programme and the biggest change of al, hiring a team of staff so we could step away a little and concentrate on growing the business. I was desperate to open a shop in Tunbridge Wells but we had a bit of a way to go before we were ready to do this.
Shoreham was going well, and we had manged to get a lovely team working there and who were taking the main workload off us. We were still running our other businesses too so still lots of going on. But in January 2017 we decided that we were ready to take the next step and use everything we had learnt so far and open a shop totally from scratch in Tunbridge Wells. Location for us was the key factor. We always wanted to be in areas that are not town centres but are smaller secondary hight streets so that we can become a community shop and really become part of the local community. We also did not want to affect the other health food shop right down in the High Street as we knew the owner there and are not in the business of directly competing with other small shops trying to make a living!
As I had worked for Atman Clinic who were just off St Johns road and still had ties with them both professionally and personally this area was one I visited frequently. I also spent a lot of time there as I went to TWGGS myself, so grew up there. I had always seen St Johns as a great location that had a great feel to it. Perfect for a shop like ours! At the time there was not much in the way of empty shops (oh how times have changed in just a few short years) So we put a note through all the doors of the shops to ask if they would let us know if their leases were coming to an end soon. We hit the jackpot with the antiques shop as it was in the exact location we wanted!
We moved in and after three months of setting it up, lots of late nights and blood sweat and tears we finally opened the doors on 17th October 2017. Len’s mum cut the ribbon for us and we gave out goody bags and had a great turn out. It was as slow burner there as people got to know us – and another few months of working the shop ourselves while we recruited the right team. We had moved to Worthing at this point as we had been renting there to be closer to the Shoreham shop, so we had a lot of travelling too!
We spent the next 2 years working on the two shops and constantly trying to find ways to improve them and keep them fresh and innovative. We were so enormously proud to win an award in 2018 for Excellence in Customer Service plus Best Overall Shop Experience by Better Retailing Magazine for the St Johns store, especially as it had only been open a relatively short amount of time. This kind of made all the hard work worthwhile and made us feel we were definitely on the right path!
2019 became known as the crazy year! I had started to run my consultancy business right down as the shops were becoming more and more work, but Len’s Website company was still going from strength to strength, so he spent a lot of time working on that as this was now our main source of income as the business was still too young for us to take money from it.
We opened 3 shops in 2019 between May 2019 to November 2019. Two of them were longstanding shops where the owners were retiring. Both of which we already knew, one of which was the shop in High Street Tunbridge Wells. The other one was Uckfield and then we opened one in a small area of Worthing too from scratch.
This was possibly the most stressful seven months of our lives! Everything from builders running off with all our money and leaving us stranded 2 days before we were due to open with a bare shop, staff problems, structural issues as well as some awful things happening to loved ones in our personal lives all at the same time. This was really a bit of a breaking point for us. That Christmas we both collapsed in heap and were forced to take some down time to try and recover both mentally and physically.
The start of 2020 was met with a newfound energy for us to focus on the shops – we had a staff reshuffle, a trip to Ireland planned in consultation with the National Association of Health Stores (we are both members of the NAHS, and also stand on the committee which is something we are very proud to be part of) both here and over there. We took all our managers over there to visit the health food shops there to gain ideas and talk with other store owners and staff. It was a fantastic trip and we got back literally a few days before the 1st lockdown in the UK.
It was crazy times – with all the panic buying! Customers were just stripping the shelves bare and our suppliers could not keep up. It was a crazy few month! Len and I spent many hours and days working on implementing call and collect system in all 5 shops, deliveries and trying to manage the ever-changing guidelines and protocols to keep staff and customers safe.
We have remained open throughout the entire pandemic and whilst we feel incredibly lucky to have been able to (unlike so many others) this has not come without its downside. Every member of staff has worked so hard over the last year to overcome their own fears, protect themselves and the customers and put up with abuse and unnecessary confrontations. As well as having to keep up with the constantly changing rules and regulations.
The cost to the company for complying with the government guidelines has been high, everything from protective screens, signage, masks and cleaning equipment and extra staff to cover etc. We were also not entitled to any funding after the 1st round as we were not forced to close, so despite further lockdowns then hugely affecting footfall and sales in all areas, not further funding has been allocated to shops that could stay open.
We have sadly seen some staff leave for various reasons due to covid, amongst a whole other host of changes in customers and how people shop. It has been challenging to say the least. As restrictions ease, we are hopeful that things will pick up and return to some sort of normality over the coming months, but we have a long way to go to get to this point and to recoup the losses from last year, but we remain hopeful and positive, as we always are.
Our latest challenge comes in the form of a large company deciding to open a health food shop practically opposite on the High Street in Tunbridge Wells. We are hopeful that this longevity and customer loyalty will see us through this worrying time. We will continue to do everything we can to improve the shop and give customers what they want to try and stay competitive and be there for another 22 years!
We love what we do, and we still have that fire in our bellies for this industry we work in. We love the alternative health world, the customers that come into the shops and the amazing feedback we get. We have really missed being able to interact with the customers with the restrictions being what they are meaning we cannot hold the events that we usually do. These are something we especially love to do as they help us to spread information about health to the local community and help educate them to make choices to empower them to look after their own health.
We are also extremely excited about the refill, reuse, recycle movement that is thriving in Tunbridge Wells and like to think we had a lot to do with that – as we were the very first store in the town to do refills for household, toiletries and food, and a few years later there are now 2/3 more shops that have followed suit which is amazing to see.
We are also hugely grateful to all our staff who do such an amazing job and have held everything together this last year. We are especially lucky to have welcomed my sister on board late last year as our Operations Director. We truly are a family run business and our Mum who passed away almost 20 years ago, would be enormously proud and pleased that my sister and I are working together.
We are also excited to be launching our website which Len has been working so hard on for us for over a year and we are enormously proud of it and hope the customers will love it too!
We all want to move forward and put 2020 behind us. We also want to continue with more shops, and we will always strive to be part of the local community and help bring a little slice of what we do to everyone we can, whilst staying a friendly and welcoming place to be and true to our roots".
To celebrate the Tunbridge Wells shop's 22nd birthday, Mel and Len are giving TN card members 10% discount in store at Best Health Food Shop in St John's and in Tunbridge Wells from 14th-21st May.