Why Burntisland High Street is booming - could this be the future?

While the fortunes of Kirkcaldy town centre may have taken a dive in recent years, another neighbouring town is showing what could be a brighter path ahead.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 21st November 2019, 3:03 pm
Burntisland is filled with small businesses. Picture: Fife Photo Agency
Burntisland is filled with small businesses. Picture: Fife Photo Agency

Burntisland is one such success story, having missed out on the impact of national retail giants abandoning the area, because simply put; they were never there to begin with.

As Kirkcaldy’s big chains close in light of the rise of internet shopping, Burntisland’s High Street has long been populated by local independent traders, and now seems to be flourishing.

With the exception of just a handful of shops, all the stores in the main shopping area are small independent shops, many offering something different that provides an alternative to the online retail experience.

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Louise Humpington of Grain and Sustain.

One such shop is Grain and Sustain, which sells assorted dry foods and goods like rice, pasta, and nuts which can be taken away in your own container, thereby reducing single-use plastic bags.

Louise Humpington’s store also stocks items made by other craft traders, giving them a shelf to display their goods to potential customers.

It would appear that smaller businesses are more flexible than larger corporate entities, and therefore able to work together. Could this be the case?

“I think that’s true,” says Louise. “I also think that we recognise how hard it is as a small business to compete with the big retailers and so where we can support each other and build each other up, we do so.

Mark Braid, owner of The Roasting Project

“More and more people are seeing running their own business as a viable option rather than a corporate existence and mentality.

“There are huge benefits to having that flexibility if you are a parent for example, and there are also huge benefits to well-being and mental health where you’ve got more control over what you do, even if you work more hours you know you’re doing it on your own terms. Having come from a corporate background that’s something I recognise very keenly.” Louise spent a decade working in law as a financial service litigator before working as a troubleshooter for charities.

“It’s not just a commercial operation for us, it’s very much an education and advocacy initiative, which we run through our Facebook platform to give people the information they need to make really informed decisions about their spending choices, to make the most ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly choices.

“We’re not going to judge people or dictate what choices they make, but if they can be empowered with that knowledge they can make the best decisions.

Ross Macauley's fruit and veg shop.

So why Burntisland?

“Simply because it’s already a huge hub for people coming from further afield to do their weekly shopping, with the likes of Tom Court’s, Macaulay’s, and Sinclairs. They’ve absolutely led the field in bringing people to Burntisland.

“For me it felt like it was an obvious step to fill the gap so people could do their whole weekly shop from independent businesses now by providing all of the store cupboard ingredients on top of your fresh veg, meat, and fish. It’s working in a complimentary way rather than a competative way.”

“Future First, a market research organisation did a lot of research a few years ago around local perspectives on independent businesses and independent trades.

Jane Sine , manageress of Waverly cafe

“There is a perception of higher quality because people are giving themselves and are far more invested in the product selection so during uncertain economic times there is more of a propensity to support small businesses rather than large retailers, so with all the political uncertainty I think there is a really positive localism which is encouraging people to come to Burntisland rather than somewhere like Kirkcaldy which has all the big retailers.”

Further down we find another recent success story; local coffee house the Roasting Project. It has been in operation for around a year and things appear to be going well.

Brothers Mark and Gary Braid grew up in Burntisland, which is why they were keen to open the cafe there.

While the Roasting Project is carving out a strong following on the back of their food and coffee, Gary says that customers are willing to spend money in independent businesses.

“I think people want to buy locally,” he said. “Whether it’s luxury items, or cosmetics, people want to treat themselves.”

“Where we can we buy locally,” adds Mark. “We get our butchery meat from Tom Courts, we’ve done a little bit of veg with the shop across the road, and we now supply Grain and Sustain with coffee.

Callum Sinclair , owner of Sinclair Fishmonger

“If we can support each other we do, because as well as supplying business-to-business, you then find yourself using them to buy produce for home because you’ve built up a bit of a relationship so it sort of self-generates.”

“With the grocer, the fishmonger, the gift shop; you’ve got people who are super-passionate about what they do. They all love their own product and I think just being around people like that is infectious and is good for the town.

“It’s quite a creative town,” adds Mark. “Even just in the last 12 months we’ve seen how much of a creative vibe there is going on here.

“There are good solid locals that you have supporting you, which is amazing.”

But the recent number of small businesses opening up over the last few years is nothing new in Burntisland.

Gordon Sweeney, of the Waverly Cafe, says the popular eatery has been on the go for 16 years.

The cafe does a strong morning trade, selling breakfasts and hot rolls to sit in or takeaway.

Gordon is in no doubt that the shop has built up a strong local following.

He says: “We’ve got everything here. We’ve got the butcher, the bakers, the fishmonger. You go along Kirkcaldy High Street, there’s nothing.

“Small businesses are hard compared to bigger businesses because they’ve got a monopoly and a much bigger fundbase to run their operations.

“We’ve got a lot of local regulars. It’s all word of mouth. And we’re a cheap shop. I’d rather be cheap and full than dear and empty.

“We do a lot of homebaking now; we make our own pies, sausage rolls, soup, stovies, scones, and tablet.

“People know what they’re getting. It’s the local regulars that are here every day – that‘s what your business is based on.”

Tom Courts took over the butchers on the High Street three years ago, and a string of awards followed.

Tom feels that traders benefit from each other’s presence. He said: “I think we helped push a snowball off the top of the hill.

“We brought a bit of footfall to the town centre which benefited other businesses, who invested in their businesses – for example Macaulay’s grocers across the road, Sinclair the fishmongers, we have a new ice cream shop down the road, and the Roasting Project now, and all these businesses collectively have brought more people to the town centre here and that benefits everybody.

“Back in 2012 I looked at opening a shop on Kirkcaldy High Street opposite Marks and Spencers, but the actual overheads were prohibitive.

“It would have been impossible for me to make money.

“It was going to cost the best part of £120,000 per year in rent and rates, and that’s before I open the door, pay electricity and staff costs. It was a non-starter.

“Here in Burntisland, I own the shop, it’s of a size that I don’t pay any rates. It’s zero here versus £120,000 there. It’s a no-brainer.

“Plus I’m from the area. We put a lot of effort in, and the majority of people that come through the front door; we’ve got to know their names and we appreciate every penny that’s spent over our counter and we try and make sure that’s communicated to the customer.

“We don’t claim to sell the cheapest, but we do claim to sell the best.

“If you do the job right you’ll always do well. But you’re up against it in places like Kirkcaldy because of the overheads and the lack of parking etc.”

Ross Macauley, of Macauley’s Fruit and Veg Merchant says there are a number of factors which are driving the success of Burntisland High Street. He said: “It’s all down to community, which is quite strong here. It’s a really nice vibe between the people and there are a lot of independent businesses and we’re all bringing in the best produce we can find.”

“Not having the big supermarkets can help, but that’s something the town would never allow I think, because of the problem they have in Kirkcaldy with retail and the big supermarkets.

“Everything seems to work together, people try not to do the same as other people. We all promote each other’s businesses, whether it be on social media or word of mouth – and that just keeps building and building.”

l A Christmas market will take place on Burntisland High Street on December 7.

Butcher Tom Courts.