As transformations go, it is impressive. Since 1980 when the Fell family became tenants of the Bolesworth Estate in Cheshire, they have turned their business from dairy farm to award-winning ice cream producer to what is now arguably the most visited attraction of its kind in the UK: The Ice Cream Farm. With its psychedelic ice cream trees, strawberry waterfalls and artful child-friendly branding, it is a long way from the humble beginnings when director Jonathan Fell first moved to the site as a boy with his brother, Graeme, and his parents, Tom and Margaret. Back in the 1980s, as demand for their ice cream grew, they built a viewing gallery so customers could see the cows being milked and doubled the ice cream parlour in size to cope with demand. Over the years, farm buildings were adapted to increase facilities to entertain and house evergrowing visitor numbers. The business had been a success. But by the early 2010s, with annual visitor numbers approaching the 500,000 mark, Jonathan knew some dramatic investment was needed to keep the business growing. In 2014, collaborating with the estate, Jonathan embarked on an ambitious £5m development project to transform the site into what it is today – an adventure park for young families with the ice cream parlour the ‘shining beacon’ at its centre.
One of the biggest challenges for a development of this size was always going to be planning. Jonathan says: “Dialogue with the planners in the first instance was crucial – to be really honest and open about what we wanted to achieve, and answer every question before it was asked. “At the end of the day, we were creating employment and helping the economy in a rural area, and we ticked every box – it was the redevelopment of an existing site.” This is where collaboration with landlord the Bolesworth Estate played a part, drawing on the estate team’s expertise. “They had a lot of experience in planning, while my experience was limited – I’ve got a lot more now, though. I think it’s that comfort of having a partner there that can guide you through what can be quite a challenging and complicated process.” With the changes to the business, they negotiated a new lease with their landlord – Jonathan was investing a huge amount in the project and they reached an arrangement that suited both parties.
Aside from winning planning consent for the redevelopment, it was important to get the branding right. The distinctive ice cream motif, the cartoon characters and the look and feel of the attractions themselves were all painstakingly realised. Among the new parts that keep little visitors entertained are indoor play area ‘Honeycomb Canyon’, ‘Daisy’s Garden’ and the motorsports-themed ‘Silvercone’. Jonathan says: “It all stems from the product. We had to look at ways we could create an identity for what we were doing because there was more competition. We had to look at what we were and how to create an identity for that, and clearly that all stems from the ice cream.” Cheshire Farm Ice Cream remains a family business, and Tom and Margaret still play a pivotal role. With Jonathan dealing with the day-to-day running of the business, Graeme acts as production manager.
With a product like ice cream, they always felt it would sell better in a leisure environment and now the business is focusing on control of that environment. It was a deliberate decision to make something that appealed to young families, rather than the ‘cream tea demographic’ because that’s where they felt there was most scope, and – for now at least – less competition. Jonathan is proud that The Ice Cream Farm is a free attraction – the biggest of its kind in the North West. But making it a success depends on the average spend per visitor – it relies on a carefully planned design. “People can come here and not spend a penny. We’ve got to be clever. We have an ethos that we follow, but we’re a commercial business and we have to get that margin.”
On the day of our meeting, Jonathan had spent the previous day on ‘traffic control’ – a challenge in itself for a business with so many visitors. It had been a hot bank holiday Monday with 7,000 people through the gates and he had caught the sun. But long hours and graft haven’t taken the shine off his drive to realise the possibilities of the future. While Brexit poses uncertainties – not least potential price changes to raw ice cream ingredients – he feels that the business is well placed to capitalise on growing tourism trends in the years ahead. He says there is “huge opportunity” for more sites across the UK.
THE NEW SEASIDE
“There’s growing confidence that rural areas are the new seaside. If you can put things in place for young families to entertain their children, they will be used. This is where I’ve gained the confidence, certainly with our business model, that ‘if you build it, they will come’. Because as long as you do something to a good standard and it is well managed, there is no reason why they won’t come.”
JONATHAN’S TOP TIPS
• Do your research and analyse the market
• Do something you know well
• Don’t be too proud to ask for help