You can’t miss him – a bearded figure, bag in each hand, padding round the village streets in trainers and shorts. He’s the voluble entrepreneur Keith Gill in his workwear, excelling in his third business, gathering food supplies and happier than ever.
Before sitting you down to chat, he leads you up the garden path (so to speak) at his 1788 home, to help gather the day’s eggs from his eight free range chickens. Here’s a food specialist par excellence, all skill and no pretension. Whether it’s the humble crisp, snacks more esoteric, tasty meals bagged for cooking, or nowadays a breakfast that partakers home and abroad eulogise online, Keith Gill is so accomplished a provider and advisor that this September he’ll be awarded by Hertfordshire University, his alma mater, an honorary master’s degree for his contribution to the food industry. “Surprised? Chuffed to bits,” he laughs, confessing pride in his rich Durham accent.
One of two entrepreneurial restorers of confidence to Derwentside, two years after Consett Steel Works and almost 4,000 jobs were lost (giving the area 35% unemployment at that point), Gill has just celebrated a one-year husband and wife business partnership solidly successful in running its bed and breakfast hotel, The Old Post Office, on Front Street, Lanchester.
Keith and this old stone village dating to Roman times are perfect partners too, both having great stories to tell. He and Pauline moved there from nearby Iveston in 2002, and in April last year decided to fulfil an idea they’d shared – “buzzing away, it was” – for a few years.
Keith was working from home as a food consultant while Pauline continued teaching English and drama at Grindon Hall School in Sunderland. Converting their home into a B&B gives both an attractive alternative to retirement, and redeployment of bedrooms in their large home now that their grown-up children have left.
While Pauline brought her teaching to an end, Keith who’d just finished a major project, put his consultancy aside temporarily and has run the B&B with strict orders from Pauline – “my wonderful wife who knows me well” - that under no circumstances was he to have anything to do with the cleaning or ironing.
But making and changing beds? No problem. As for breakfasts, Keith’s in his element. It wasn’t just his past experience of running successful food companies, nor his intimate knowledge of nutrition and passion for local produce that has enabled him to raise the standard (in both senses). It’s also that he’s enjoyed cooking for 50 years. “I used to make a piperade when I was 13. Mum encouraged me.”
Within two months of setting up at The Old Post Office, the Gills were in business. Standards were soon recognised when it found itself, alongside Bistro 21 and Headlam Hall, named Highest Quality Assured and Local Produce Champion at the Durham Taste Awards. That distinction accompanies a gold four star rating from the AA and outstanding praise on consumer websites.
The atmosphere is English country cottage. To keep up the post office motif they designed, with Pauline’s inspiration, themed guest rooms now known as Penny Red, Penny Black and Twopence Blue. “Pauline’s fantastically creative in gardens and décor,” Keith says. “And a house dated 1788? You can imagine – old values, old big rooms. Plenty of space, not only for a king size bed but for a superking in one case. Even with cupboards in, guests have rooms like a four star hotel suite without four star prices.”
En suites were fitted, a fifth bedroom made a guest lounge, and success is underpinned by a recent complementary boom of dining-out venues in this village only eight miles from Durham City: Italian, Greek, pub grub, a rumour of Indian soon to come, and only two miles away from the outstanding Chinese restaurant, the Pavilion.
Keith started stocking chickens last May, provenance of ingredients having absorbed him throughout his working life. Neighbour Paul Crinnion makes “fantastic” home made sausages and prepares bacon produced only 10 miles away. His partner Fiona converted what had been a retail butcher business into a little bar and restaurant, but Paul still butchers wholesale and “knows his trade”.
Another friend of 20 years or so, Lesley Hughes, makes the biscuits and bread. “Lesley and I Introduced porridge for winter,” Keith says. “We got the idea of a fruit compote. People love it. Also last January she made 20kg of marmalade from Seville oranges our local greengrocer Ray Emmerton supplied.” Another long term acquaintance, Ian Kennedy, supplies fish from his business in Durham’s covered market place - kippers and smoked salmon from Craster.
With all this (plus the eggs) Keith offers three main breakfasts: English grill; smoked salmon and scrambled eggs topped with chives; and poached kippers with poached egg nestling. Seasonally he does a baked egg on a herby tomato and mushroom nest in a ramekin. He lids and bakes it for 15 minutes.
“It comes out beautiful,” he promises. So does his Eggs Benedict. So Keith blogs the supremacy of eggs for breakfast; how they’ve been around hundreds of years, are high in B vitamins, good for the brain and eyesight, have nine amino acids in - a little pocket super product.
B&B’s attraction is the opportunity to chat. Keith explains: “We’re both gregarious characters. So we tell people a bit of our story and they tell us a bit of theirs. Very pleasant. It restores my faith in humanity. I hadn’t realised how jaded I’d become in business dealing with apparatchiks of the corporate world.”
He little disguises this scorn from his experiences with United Biscuits, which bought Phileas Fogg. “Phileas Fogg was poorly treated by United Biscuits,” he declares. “They had a gem and screwed it up. They didn’t understand a brand like that must be nurtured. They kept putting in marketing mechanics without soul, working to a timetable sales guys want. ‘Now week 37. Start planning for a promotion in week 45.’ Not what’s right for the brand, or how to engage more with consumers?’
“We’d instinctively built the customer profile - knew the customer journey. That’s integral to progressing any brand. We started Phileas Fogg before Powerpoint, before computers, before Excel spreadsheets. We had Lotus 1-2-3. No mobile phones, internet or email. You promoted through advertising - very expensive.
“And you lacked levels of engagement, never knowing how much of your potential audience was actually affected.”
It’s different now as Keith exploits new technology. “Broadcast to narrowcast with technology, I call it – social media, fragmented advertising within the market, feedback now possible. It’s incredible, so different. It not only helps brand building but, in a small operation like this, it’s a great market place if you do it right.”
He feels many in business don’t yet realise the true value. “They build a website then do nothing with it. We constantly try something different, refreshing it, putting elements of our reviews on it. If we write about the Red Room the comments made are other people’s - not ours. We blog about our suppliers, our food, about eggs being nutritious, and history of the post office.
They use “front desk agencies” such as Booking.com, Evivo, Expedia, Hotels.com, Laterooms.com. Trevago, AA, and Bedandbreakfast.eu – “a broad church giving direct contact.”
Villagers bring business personally on behalf of visiting relatives or friends, while the website draws bookings from Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Portugal and Argentina. Parents of graduands booked eight months ahead of Durham University’s awards ceremony this year, and the website also extols local events and attractions, such as test cricket, Durham Lumiere, Beamish Museum, Magna Carta; Keith always finds something. And as an ex-rugby full back with Durham City and Rosslyn Park, he remains team minded.
For all it demands ingenuity it’s a different work pattern from when he and Roger McKechnie, with whom he’d worked earlier at Tudor Crisps, developed two manufacturing operations from greenfield start-ups, employing 390 people (250 at Derwent Valley, 110 at Tanfield Food Company). Despite his culinary expertise, he’d graduated in applied engineering and was initially an electronics consultant for Sweda, which was making scanning devices - forerunners of what supermarkets use now.
Returning to the North East in 1977, he joined Tudor’s personal administration, reorganised staff then joined the marketing team, which he was running within two years.
Derwent Valley Foods opened in 1982. Getting its advertising right was challenging.
After six years Bartle, Boogle and Hegarty, an international advertising agency was brought in. They were intrigued that Derwent Valley used authentic machinery, flavours and recipes for its exotic snacks: tortilla chips made on kit bought in Mexico, real chilli and real cheese. They felt it remarkable that authentic snacks from around the world should come out of Medomsley Road Consett. They explored a juxtaposition of authenticity and eccentricity.
The market storming Phileas Fogg was thus born. “Pay Attention! Authentic snacks from Medomsley Road, Consett,” was the rewarding order regularly barked out on television.
Derwent Valley Foods was sold to United Biscuits in 1993 for £27m-plus. In 2003-4, Keith and Roger set up Tanfield Food Company using thermal processing: putting ingredients in a pouch and sealing it. As long as temperatures and pressures were right, the food would cook as in a steam pressure cooker. The advantage: 12 month shelf life - no need to chill or freeze. It inspired slow cooking and tasty options: rabbit in elderflower sauce, for example, Herdwick mutton stew, beef carbonade.
All ingredients were from trusted producers. The farmers’ pictures were put on the pack, focusing on provenance and traceability. Look What We’ve Found was not only a brand but promised excitement. “It was trying to relate a voyage of discovery to find great producers,” says Keith, “similar to Rick Stein’s TV programme about food heroes.”
By the time this enterprise was recently sold to Symington’s, both he and Roger, 74 now, could retire if they wished, having attracted a big investor who brought in management. But Keith’s “interesting journey” continues.