AS the country prepared for lockdown, those who could, dashed to shops and supermarkets to buy essential items. With shelves soon cleared, attention turned to other ways to source vital supplies and when it came to flour, many people looked to Charlecote Mill at Hampton Lucy, where historic machinery is still working the good old way. Richard Howarth put the questions to miller Karl Grevatt. Some of the answers might surprise you…
When did you realise the situation would create a surge in demand for your flour?
Pretty much as soon as loo rolls went out of the news it became apparent that flour was going to take their place. Who would have known that flour would become the must-have ingredient, pretty much above everything else?
How big a surge in demand has it been?
On a normal week to Coventry I might carry between 500kg and 750kg of flour and maybe 250-400kg for a Leamington delivery. I then have a few small deliveries on top of that. At the moment I am carrying 1,000kg – the maximum my van will take – on every single delivery.
On top of that I would normally deliver perhaps 80 small bags a week to local shops. I am doing over 200 bags a week as I try to keep all my local stockists supplied.
Has it just been local customers and shops, or are you seeing demand from further afield?
I have had requests from every corner of the country – I’ve even had an enquiry from Turkey. My biggest order came from Sheffield – needless to say I declined that to focus on my local market.
I have been prioritising the local area and have turned away almost as much business as I have accepted in order to protect availability for my local and loyal customers. Orders have been on a strict first come, first served basis. I currently have about six to seven weeks of back orders – normally I can easily provide all that is ordered in the same week.
Have you been able to increase production?
Yes. At the beginning of March I took in a ten-tonne grain delivery that would normally last between six and eight weeks. Three weeks later I had to get another delivery in.
At the start of this, the water levels in the river were really good. That allowed me to run two pairs of stones comfortably using both of my water wheels at full capacity. Since then we have had a very dry spell and the water levels in the Avon are now falling, meaning that I can only run one pair of stones at a time.
How has the machinery coped?
It is holding up but it is a real worry to me. In a normal week I can spread my time between milling, packing, delivering, cleaning and maintenance. At the moment, something has to give and as I cannot stop the first four, it is the maintenance that could start to suffer. All of my machinery is original and whilst it was built to be robust, it is now hundreds of years old.
Have you been able to call on some extra help?
I have a loyal band of volunteers but many of them are of an age that is considered vulnerable, so I felt I had a responsibility to them to ask them not to come to the mill for their own safety. That said, Shashika Poopalasingham has come into the mill pretty much every day for the past four weeks to help me with lots of jobs.
Also long-term volunteer Jeremy Whyman has been going to the mill when I am not there to do things like cleaning out the mill stones. The last piece of help that has been invaluable has been help to reply to all of the e-mails and orders and to keep the website updated. I am normally absolutely fine with just an order book and a ballpoint.
Have you had any feedback from grateful customers you’d like to share?
Believe it or not, I have had a fair amount of abuse, attempted bribes, guilt trips etc from people who think I should be able to supply them with flour immediately. My more loyal customers though have been very grateful. I am getting regular boxes of chocolates and other food gifts and a large majority of customers are understanding of the wait.
Anything else you’d like to add?
All of my traditional milling colleagues up and down the country are facing increased demand. I find it quite ironic that most traditional mills were put out of business by the big commercial mills. Now the tables have turned but because there are so few of us now there is no way we can replace the capacity of those huge factories.
Let us hope that once supermarkets have flour on the shelves again the public remembers that we kept going, supporting local farmers and literally trying to keep bread on the tables of the nation.
If we are not supported in the good times, we might not be here next time we are needed.