Local couple Nicola and Magnus Johnston only got the keys to the sprawling premises, which for generations housed Smith’s of Lerwick, shortly before the virus reared its unwelcome head.
But a tenacious attitude – combined with the help of their two supportive families – has seen the couple undertake a power of work to transform the middle section of the former clothing store into a classy modern larder packed full of fresh, dried, chilled and frozen goodies.
Having vacated the two separate properties they previously occupied a few hundred yards along the street, the shop is the first part of their conversion of the spacious building to be completed. For now it is accessible via a side door on Norna’s Court, and the larder will soon be accompanied by a takeaway area facing onto the street and offering coffee, crepes and artisan Shetland ice cream.
On the third floor will come a workshop to continue production of the Shetland Fudge Company’s established fudge, puffin poo, jams and marshmallows, with an adjacent space for their popular chocolate-making workshops. A little further down the line the third floor will become home to an airy café flooded with natural light.
Nicola and Magnus acquired the fudge business in 2014 but always had visions of an all-encompassing project under one roof, going on to establish the first incarnation of Island Larder in what used to be the Beervana off-licence in summer 2017.
“This is exactly what we wanted to do,” Nicola says. “We just didn’t have anywhere big enough before. I knew the fudge shop inside out and that was a good place to start because we both really believe in the product. The events side of stuff has grown naturally, organically alongside the business, but having a fine foods store was the vision right from the start.”
The couple, who have two young children (Calum, almost three, and Willum, who is not yet one), long ago identified that there was a dearth of food shops in the town centre selling a wide range of Shetland produce.
Their concept is to identify quality suppliers within the islands wherever possible. Where items cannot be found locally they look to Orkney, the Hebrides – and failing that the Scottish mainland or beyond. With a healthy growth in the number of small-scale producers they are able to stock fish, meat, eggs, dairy, bread, tea, confectionery, sauces and more from these shores.
Those items sit alongside artisanal offerings including Orcadian vinegar and kombucha from Aberdeenshire, while a vast array of spices and more than 90 dispensers for assorted rice, pasta, pulses and grains can be bought by weight. There is space for a Shetland Farm Dairies glass bottle refill station too.
Substantial freezer space is given over to an extensive range of nutritious, chef-prepared ready meals – free of processed foods – from London-based COOK.
Always mindful of their business’s environmental impact, Nicola and Magnus say that once Covid restrictions are lifted people will be able to bring along their own containers, dispensing with the need for brown paper bags. In addition to using compostable materials, they are seeking to phase out the use of plastic wherever possible.
They intend to stock several different local bakeries’ produce. They’ve been delighted with the supply from Waas Bakery, which has “gone above and beyond” with a mixture of loose loaves selling out on Tuesday, their first day of trade
Given the stresses and strains of getting any new business up and running at the best of times, it hardly needs saying that the Covid lockdown presented some formidable obstacles.
“It’s the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced, probably,” says Magnus. “It’s been tough. Obviously we got the keys before Coronavirus was an issue and we had a plan… every single thing went out the window in one fell swoop.
“We had to come up with different ways of making things work. The work that’s gone on here has just been totally ‘wing it and see’, getting people in when you can because you had to keep them separate.”
Had they not already been so far down the line it is likely, Nicola concedes, they would have called the project off altogether.
“It was too late! If we hadn’t committed we wouldn’t have done this, because it’s the uncertainty of the future – nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s hard to think of no tourists, it’s hard to think of no shopping on the street at Christmas time, it’s hard to think of how long this is going to last and how do we sustain that.”
Of their eight full and part-time staff, all but one have been furloughed. It means Imogen Young, who has continued working and is pictured below, has the run of a cavernous staff room all to herself (Nicola jokes she has been telling her “you need to enjoy it while you can!”)
The tourist season is traditionally the biggest earner for the fudge shop and while there “might be some people visiting Shetland, it’s not going to be a tourist trade” in 2020, Magnus reflects.
Compounding that blow, outlets on the mainland are without tourists too so orders have not been forthcoming from the likes of prestigious Edinburgh department store Jenners, while they’ll also have to wait a little longer for a new deal to supply Historic Scotland’s sites to bear fruit.
But getting the shop up and running has provided a real morale boost – hopefully for the wider small business community as well as themselves – and there’s lots more to come.
“The workshop area upstairs is not far away,” Nicola says. “Then we can open our online shop for Shetland Fudge – everything can be made there. We’re realistically about two months away from having the street food takeaway. As for the café upstairs, we’re waiting to see whatever happens with cafes and restaurants.”
The couple, who must surely be feeling some strain but retain a harmonious, relaxed demeanour and frequently finish one another’s sentences, will await further information on the easing of lockdown before finalising the café’s layout: “Until we know that kind of stuff there’s no point spending money on an unknown,” adds Magnus. “At least with the shop we know we can open it and we can sell groceries.”
They are full of gratitude to their two families for “helping in so many different ways – they’ve made it possible for us to do this”, says Nicola, while there has been a “phenomenal amount of support” from the wider community: “The best wishes and the congratulations and the positivity that we’ve received, it’s been pretty overwhelming!”
Indeed, a social media video posted on opening day racked up over 13,000 views within 24 hours. Mindful of that, Nicola and Magnus are now resolved to giving something back to the community.
“There’s so much that Shetland has to offer. We’d like to be able to showcase that and give people the option to buy local,” Magnus says. “There used to be butchers, bakers, fishmongers on the street – it’s changed but we’re trying to bring a little bit of that back.”
Nicola adds: “This is such a hard time for everybody and especially small businesses, and now we need to support each other more than ever.”
- The Island Larder is currently open from 11am-4pm Monday-Saturday.
- A massive thank you to Sophie Whitehead for providing such a brilliant selection of photos.