The collapse of John Pettit: When 125-years of history just isn't enough

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 23 Oct 2017

ONE hundred and twenty five years of trading has disappeared from the high street in one fell swoop. The knife, it appears, has hit the block for the final time, only it is the business, not brisket that now bears the open wound.

The closure of John Pettit & Sons came as big a shock to Grimsby shoppers expecting to pick up tonight’s tea or weekend roast, as it did the wider business community.

Like Ramsdens Superstore, Cosalt and others that have gone before it, the butcher has been the local name that everyone has grown up with, as much an icon of the town as the various landmarks that define it. Even the monochrome carrier bags were a thing, when indeed carrier bags were allowed to be so.

But now it is no more, having ceased trading on Thursday, surprising and disappointing in equal measure those in search of steak, looking for a leg of lamb and buying their beef over the weekend, and no doubt this morning too.


John Pettit butchers, in Bethlehem Street, Grimsby, which has closed down after 125-years (Image: Rick Byrne)

Speaking briefly to John Pettit, the third generation butcher who made such a mark, and retired and passed on the business a decade ago, disappointment it had come to this appeared evident as he gracefully referred us to his son-in-law, without passing comment. Andy Johnson, who took over having worked under him as shop general manager, saw off a recession, even opening a second retail outlet in Cleethorpes, but that closed earlier this month.

Attempts were made to speak with him, but – as often is the case in these desperately sad circumstances – a statement was issued through Grimsby recovery and insolvency specialist Kingsbridge Corporate Solutions, called in to handle the winding up. Five sentences confirmed what was feared as inside the closed store staff removed window displays from around a proud haul of silverware.

Within them the reasoning. A “recent loss of significant contracts to supply the catering trade from which it has been unable to recover”.


Andy Johnson, managing director of John Pettit butchers before the closure

Has it borrowed against this work? Was this supply, with Pettit well known to provide the materials for many hotels and restaurants’ finest dishes, not separated out of the retail business, or had it reached the stage where it simply could not stand alone?

All questions that may well not get answered, as a line was drawn. Loyal staff and customers thanked. The latter can, will and have already gone elsewhere, but those who made the cuts, served at the counter and delivered in the dark blue fleet of wagons are facing up to a bleak Christmas.

Without the inside track it can only be speculation, but the surprise loss will steer this into the topic of conversation.

Such a prime location will certainly come at a cost in rates, and while the 125 years was toasted ahead of the August “BBQ” bank holiday, Mr Johnson was then at pains to point out the benefit of an independent butcher over a supermarket.


John Pettit's butcher has been in the family and on Bethlehem Street for generations

Provenance has undoubtedly returned as a key consideration in the customer psyche, but even with all that has come before with BSE, Horsegate and the latest chicken scandal, it has done nothing to stop our reliance on the big four.

Perhaps the prime location was more of a hindrance than a help too. While it put Pettit’s front of mind when driving through, did it just sow the seed for the “local butcher” be it in Scartho, or Cleethorpes, or Freeman Street where you can pull up, purchase and be off on your way once again? Free of car parks or queues?

Four years ago, on November 5, 2013, Pettits opened in Cleethorpes, in the place of another failed butcher, Pat Steer, but it failed to ignite, and fizzled out completely earlier this month. At the very top of the avenue, it wasn’t the most accessible again, with strong established competition further down the road and on to Oxford Street.

Steer’s had been liquidated after more than 40 years of trading, and what may prove to have been a last resort to win market share, didn’t last a tenth of that time for Pettit.


Paul Macdonald, butcher at Pettit & Sons, at work with a pork shoulder before the closure (Image: Jon Corken)

Diets are changing too. Meat consumption is falling, but not at a level where it should impact on the footfall here. Statistics aired at last week’s Humber Seafood Summit told how in the three years the last data was available from (2012 to 2015), our weekly diet of meat has dropped 6 per cent from 989g to 929g. Sadly it wasn’t all heading seafood’s way, with fish up 1.3 per cent from 144 to 146g – still a solitary portion a week.

It could be this, or it could be other factors masked from public view, that have led the contract losses being the final straw, but the impact feels as though it reaches far further than the undisputable devastation for a dozen families.

Calls are already being made to save the Lincolnshire Sausage recipe, and questions posed privately as to whether the business could be bought and operate better, maybe leaner, in new hands.

Lawrence Brown, chairs North East Lincolnshire’s private sector led Visitor Economy, Service and Retail Group, the area’s strategic link between business and the local authority.

He said: “I think it is disappointing when any business closes down. It is a dreadful shame as it is a long-established business that has been in Grimsby for 125 years, and I feel for everyone employed. Clearly it was a business decision that has had to be made.”


Changing face of shopping: A 1950 view of Grimsby's Old Market Place taken from the roof of the Corn Exchange

With stories such as this, it is always a trap to fall into by labelling it “popular”. Clearly if that popular, it would be able – you’d hope – to scale down and perform purely as a retail butchery.

“If we want town centres to thrive then it is up to us as residents to spend money in town centres, that’s what it comes down to,” Mr Brown continued.

“If we want town centres to compete and have the shops we want and facilities we want, we need to spend our money, and if we do, all the other retailers will see it is the place to be.

"If we are constantly looking to get something off the internet because it is a pound or two cheaper, it won’t. I would urge people to spend money in the town centre. If we have a strong core the rest of it is generally strong. The core of the area is Grimsby town centre.”


Engie are set to move into New Oxford House, the former home of Wilkin Chapman

The shutters come down too as 170 more potential customers will soon arrive just down the road, as Mr Brown, the chartered surveyor who heads up Scotts pointed out.

Wilkin Chapman’s former office, New Oxford House, is being overhauled to welcome the local authority’s development partner Engie in. “They have stepped up to the plate and are moving 170 staff from Europarc to the town centre,” Mr Brown said. “That’s 170 people who will potentially buy a sandwich, a birthday card, be active in the town centre, and that’s good, that’s what we need.

“It is now up to us to shop there.”

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