Recession is food and drink for Peckhams' Johnston

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FINE wines, continental meats and cheeses and speciality foods not usually available in the corporate, mass market supermarkets – who can afford that sort of stuff now everyone is tightening their belts?

While the high street tells its own tale of woe, the independent specialist retailers will be suffering alongside them. For every mass market Woolworths that goes out of business, there will be hundreds of small, unsung shops and restaurants that close doors with only a comparatively small but dedicated clientele to mourn them.

Last week, one such victim was McLeish Brothers. A combined deli, coffee shop and chocolatier, the Dundee-based group under its visionary new owner Stanley Morrice had ambitious expansion plans cut short by being put into administration last week, with a number of its shops put up for sale.

Despite the pervasive gloom covering especially the retail sector, it still remains the case that one's person's misfortune is another's opportunity. Yesterday, Tony Johnston, founder of one of central Scotland's most established specialist wine, deli and restaurant groups, Peckhams, confirmed he was looking at some of the McLeish sites. In addition to this, he is still on course to open two new Peckhams delis – one in Livingston and another on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, bringing the number of outlets in Glasgow to seven, and the number across the group to 13.

Johnston does not relish the failure of a potential competitor in McLeish, in fact he wants to see more independents thrive. Anything is better than another Tesco to his mind. Independent retailers like Peckhams, he believes, encourage the development of small and often local food producers and provide more choice for customers.

It is a recipe Johnston has followed since he opened his first deli in 1982 on Clarence Drive in Glasgow's West End. Expansion has been steady, and in addition to the popular delis, cafes and restaurants, the group has grown to include a food distributor, JW Munros, as well as a 60,000sq ft commercial kitchen in Govan. The company also does regular wine tastings, offers cookery classes and even hosts a yoga centre above some of the shops.

Johnston says he did not mean to be a "jack of all trades" but he has his principles. When he realised, for example, he could not source bread without chemical additives like mould inhibitors, he had to start baking his own, using recipes 80 or 90 years old.

Yet while recession stalks the British retail sector, it would be possible to fear for the likes of Peckhams.

The chill has already started to hit Bruntsfield, in Edinburgh, where Johnston first opened his doors in the capital in 1996. Despite it being a well-kept street filled with boutiques and speciality food retailers like chocolatier Coco and Peckhams, there are some worrying signs. "There have never been empty shops around here until now," says Karen Mackay, proprietor of one of the longest-standing shops in the area, children's retailer Nippers. "It used to be as soon as one came up with would be filled."

There are still lots of local shoppers in the area, she maintains. Bruntsfield is still a relatively salubrious neighbourhood. It is just they have a little less money to spend now.

This does not worry Johnston, who realises he may be tempting fate to call his upmarket – meaning more expensive – goods "recession-proof". But sales at the delis, up 2 per cent over the essential Christmas period, add ballast to his confidence. Two per cent is not, indeed, the best of Christmas retail periods, he admits, but it could have been much worse. His view is people are "dining out at home", buying deli specialities and ready meals and a nice bottle of wine rather than eating out at restaurants. Although this means the group's restaurants have been down, he admits, he is still pressing ahead with the group's growth.

The new stores he has planned will mark a new phase of Peckham's development. Peckham's made its name in desirable suburbs – Glasgow's West End, Bruntsfield and Stockbridge in Edinburgh.

Peckhams outlets are the sort of places that Scott Taylor, chief executive of Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, said makes up a place's "reputation for authenticity".

Now, with moves to Livingston town centre and Sauchiehall Street, Johnston admits he may be experimenting with the format but he is serenely untroubled. He has already been here before.

Johnston caused near consternation when he opened in less salubrious areas like Edinburgh's South Clarke Street or Prestwick airport. Yet these have proved to be a success.

Little doubt seems to have assailed Johnston in his career. He was only 22 when he launched his first deli, even before he graduated from University of Strathclyde's business school.

The group now turns over just under 10 million per year. He did book a 29,000 loss last year and he will be hit by the exchange rate on imports of European beers and wines. But his bank, RBS, is a supportive backer and lender.

Craig Wilson, Johnston's banker at RBS Commercial Banking, said: "Tony has all the characteristics you associate with successful entrepreneurs, which is hardly surprising since that is what he has proved himself to be over the last couple of decades. He knows his business extremely well and understands the sector he operates within intimately.

"His passion for the business and for the people who work there is infectious, and shows no signs of dimming."

As with any number of entrepreneurs, he knew from an early age he did not want to work for someone else, and he know what he wanted to do – to provide what he called an "Aladdin's cave" of goods that was open late. And unlike other similar entrepreneurs – David Whither and his Montpeliers Group in Edinburgh or Stefan King's Glasgow-based G1 group – Johnston has successfully straddled the east/west divide so that each city claims his shops, cafes and restaurants as their own.


TONY Johnston, 48, launched his modest deli-chain and restaurant empire when he was only 22 years old.

He raised the money for his first deli on Clarence Drive from his first business, a hamburger stand

Two years he bought out an off-licence several doors down the drive and reopened it as Peckham And Rye and in 1985 he opened a branch in Lenzie.

He opened his first restaurant, Change At Jamaica, named after the common lingo for passengers of the Long Island Rail Road passing through Jamaica Station in Queens, NY.

He sold off the restaurant and focused instead on opening Peckham's Underground in 2000 and another at South Clarke Street, Edinburgh.

In 1987 Peckhams opened at Byres Road, Glasgow. In 1993, he took over food wholesaler, J W Munro.

Expansion in Edinburgh then began.

He opened in Brunstfield in 1996 and then Stockbridge. A move on to South Clerk Street followed in 2004.

Johnston is married and has two sons.