By Nick Glass

Ken McClelland of St Leonards Grocery is retiring after 31 years. “Bloody Hell! That’s the end of era!” was the reaction of Brighton wholesaler, Andy Griffiths of TG Fruits on learning that his longest serving customer (and an old friend) was giving it all up. Rather more surprising perhaps is the name of Ken’s successor. Giles Perrin, Principal of the leading local private school, Claremont, is buying the business as part of his pension plan.

Anybody who has ever shopped at St Leonards Grocery – at the sea end of London Road – will know Ken. There’s his cheery manner, his ready ‘Sid James’ cackle/ laugh and his rosy cheeks – and his ownership of the sort of face that could well have featured as ‘The Grocer’ in a Victorian pack of ‘Happy Families’. In recent years, his wife, Alison has stepped back a bit, increasingly exchanging one range of greens for another – Highwoods Golf Club in Bexhill. But Ken has manfully stuck at it – setting up the shop display from 7am, often behind the till, shutting up at 4pm, making home deliveries three to five days a week, ordering the stock and doing the accounts “after tea” as late as 9pm. “Nobody knows what goes on behind the scenes,” says Ken wistfully. In the old days, he regularly had a morning nap in the armchair in the basement.

Ken and Alison outside the shop

At 67, Ken McClelland is old enough to remember those pre-supermarket days when there were four grocers in St Leonards – two on London Road and two on Kings Road – as well as two others in Silverhill. Ken’s shop is now the last specialist grocery in St Leonards. As Alison tells it with a laugh, over time, they’ve both got “sick of the sight” of fruit and have largely given up eating it. 

Giles Perrin, 48, and his partner, Gillian Wilson, 55, intend to “keep the business exactly as it is” but will just give the shop “a new sign, a lick of paint and a bit of a lift”. Gillian comes from a family of farmers and is a very keen cook. A few new products will be added – salts and infused oils and the shop will become a pickup point for meat from Primal Grazing near Forest Row, run by Gillian’s son, Jack Ayley. 

Teresa Parsons will remain behind the till as she has since 2011. It was she who told Giles Perrin that the business was up for sale. Living just further up London Road, Giles loves to shop locally and is a regular customer. Teresa seems to have done a great sales pitch. Giles was told – if he hadn’t noticed already – that the shop was doing “a roaring trade” and that Ken had “a cracking turnover”. Ken, being Ken, wasn’t prepared to give us the figures.

Ken and Alison both acknowledge a huge debt to their son, Craig, for giving the shop a radical makeover in 2011. He joined the business after leaving Thomson Airways where he’d been a flight attendant or ‘trolley dolly’ as he liked to call himself. As Alison remembers, “Craig said he had good ideas and he did. He brought enthusiasm.” 

Plastic boxes were thrown out, paper bags introduced. Old lino was ripped out and original floorboards exposed. There was a new fridge for local cheeses (Sussex Camembert and Brie) and Northiam Dairy milk and yogurts. Craig sourced as much local produce as he could: apples, pears, juices and jams. He also changed the name of the shop from K.A Fruits (K for Ken, A for Alison) to St Leonards Grocery, promising “Farm Fresh Fruit, Vegetables and Country Delights”. It worked. Alison noted “a better clientele through the door”. Business picked up within a year – by some 30% according to Ken – and has never looked back.

Ken and Alison have witnessed many changes in the last 31 years. The area has become “more multi-cultural”. Ken says that the most radical change has been our eating habits, with more exotic tastes in fruit and vegetables. He mentions “all those squashes” and “multi-coloured tomatoes” (red, orange and purple). “You never quite know what’s going to work, like the cauliflower/broccoli hybrid, romanesco,” he says. He shows me the weekly e-mail from TG Fruits on his phone. The special offers include spooky red flesh apples for Halloween and graffiti aubergines (“aubergines with stripes”, he says matter-of-factly). 

Of course, as a grocer in St Leonards, you can’t escape petty theft. Alison says that a honeydew melon “was nicked from the shop only last Friday”. Ken doesn’t mind so long as it’s just an apple or two and “not the crown jewels”. But one year, someone made off with a Christmas tree from outside. And Ken once chased a man down the street who’d bolted with a whole tray of potatoes. Like some Carry On movie, Ken caught the thief before he reached Norman Road and wrenched the tray back. 

At the time of writing, the sale was still with solicitors. But Giles Perrin looks destined to add another string to his bow: school principal, cricket captain, classical singer and now, grocery owner. He says that he intends to work behind the till on the occasional Saturday to meet customers and learn about the business. Ken and Alison are just impatient for completion. They’re planning to take a three-month break to think about their future. It will certainly include travel and more golf. Ken’s handicap is 17, Alison’s is 26. Alison says that Ken might not admit it but “He will miss the shop. He enjoyed doing it.”

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