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Food and drink hampers in Dorset sent around the world

PUBLISHED: 14:38 17 December 2014 | UPDATED: 14:05 25 March 2015

Founders of Virginia Hayward Hampers Geoff and Gin look at some products in the sample room

Founders of Virginia Hayward Hampers Geoff and Gin look at some products in the sample room

Archant

A Christmas gift inspired the Hayward family to start selling food and drink hampers alongside their Dorset dairy farm. Thirty years later Virginia Hayward is a hugely successful business that sends its luxury hampers around the world

The Hayward family business: son Sam Hayward, Geoff and Gin, son-in-law Dan Haysom and his wife AliThe Hayward family business: son Sam Hayward, Geoff and Gin, son-in-law Dan Haysom and his wife Ali

Down a pretty country lane just off the busy A30 it is just possible to find the discreetly located hamper company, Virginia Hayward, in Stour Row near Shaftesbury. You need to look carefully though, as it’s nestled amongst some 30,000 trees planted over the years to ensure its now sizeable business buildings do not spoil the surrounding countryside views. That is the level of thought that goes into everything they do.

‘Discretion’ could be Virginia (Gin) and Geoff Hayward’s middle name – it has influenced everything they have achieved at their family business over the past thirty years. If you ask about the top London stores Virginia Hayward supplies you will get a knowing nod but no more, making it even more tantalising to see the array of colourful designer hat boxes and baskets destined for some of the world’s leading stores.

Sitting around the farmhouse kitchen table, where the very first hampers were packed in 1984, it’s hard to envisage that beyond the idyllic farm courtyard and cottage gardens lies a hamper empire. The huge and loyal workforce (65 full time staff rising to 150 seasonally), pack some 385,000 hampers for Christmas and the warehouse holds upwards of three million food and drink products during the festive peak.

So how did it all begin? Gin met Geoff at Seale Hayne Agricultural College in Devon back in 1965. They shared a love of farming and with Gin being a local Shaftesbury girl it seemed only natural to take the opportunity to buy Blynfield Farm, at Stour Row, in 1975. By that time they were married and had spent three years living and working in Scotland. They fell in love with Blynfield, despite the farm buildings being derelict and the dairy herd long gone. Over time they brought new life to the farm, and another couple of children joined their eldest son Sam along the way too. Two nearby farms were added to the home acreage and they were operating two busy dairy units during the glory years of the British milk industry, when we still had a Milk Marketing Board and free school milk was the order of the day.

Wayne Stevens (warehouse manager) with Sam Hayward (sales director) in the packing roomWayne Stevens (warehouse manager) with Sam Hayward (sales director) in the packing room

Nine years on and a Jacksons of Piccadilly hamper given to them as a Christmas present from a friend triggered an idea that changed the course of their lives forever. Their kitchen table hamper business was born. Gin and Geoff still laugh about the very first hamper they despatched – because it failed to arrive on time! Not a habit they chose to repeat but an early eye-opener into the potential pitfalls of a business many see as an easy opportunity. They still reminisce over the half a bottle of port and stilton hamper that failed to arrive one Christmas Eve 25 years ago; despite the destination being Plymouth, they sent a replacement hamper by car in order not to disappoint somebody’s grandad on Christmas Day. Virginia Hayward is now renowned for its outstanding customer service, ensuring treasured baskets and boxes are safely received by thousands of businesses and homes across the land, all year round but especially at Christmastime.

Until 1996 Gin and Geoff managed to run both the dairy farm and their growing hamper business. Buyers visiting the farm to discuss their hamper orders, often donning wellies on arrival, were as likely to see a calf being born as they were to choose the right sort of shortbread!

Hampers that travel the world often take a little bit of Dorset with them, as Virginia Hayward is a strong supporter of West Country food and drink producers. Its Taste of the West Hamper is full to brimming with local names including Thomas J Fudge, Olives Et Al, House of Dorchester, Perry’s Farmhouse Cider, Godminster, Ford Farm and Moores biscuits to name but a few award-winning producers.

The business moved up a gear when a major London retailer saw the quality of what Virginia Hayward was doing and commissioned gift hampers from them. Very soon orders came from other top stores and the hamper business rapidly expanded. The company’s first warehouse was built in 1988 and was 3,000 square feet. Thirty years on warehouse space has reached 140,000 sq ft over two sites, with the original milking parlour now a hive of telesales activity. A dedicated dance hall sized buying room has thousands of fine food and speciality products lining the walls. On enquiring whether the buying room also serves as a family larder the consensus was samples can only be eaten when out of date, although everyone agreed that does make for delicious perks of the trade!

Some of the thousands of products in the sample roomSome of the thousands of products in the sample room

The quintessentially Dorset farmyard and its outbuildings is now fit to bursting, which is why in 2015 Virginia Hayward’s hamper HQ will move to a new purpose built site at Little Down near Shaftesbury. Gin and Geoff will then be able to reclaim something of the original home they fell in love with all those years ago. But one wonders whether they will miss all the hub-bub?

The next generation is very much part of the business, as is evident by the exuberant family ‘hamper chat’ around the kitchen table, looked on by impossibly gorgeous grandchildren (they have eight!) who were nibbling very grown up savoury biscuits – obviously new buyers in the making. For both Gin and Geoff that’s very exciting. “You either have to build a business to sell it or hand it over to your children, although it wasn’t taken for granted that any of them would want to be involved,” says Geoff.

Their son Sam is Sales & Marketing Director, and such is the scale of things that son-in-law Dan (married to daughter Ali, who also works for the business) now travels the world, sourcing baskets that have become a trademark and importing them to Dorset by their thousands. A walk about the warehouse is nothing short of basket heaven, with the range expanding since the acquisition of the Grand Illusions designer home accessories brand, which runs alongside them at the farm.

There’s no sign of Gin and Geoff handing over the reins any time soon; they are still very much a part of a family business that has borne their name proudly for thirty years. With such passion and commitment it’s no wonder that Virginia Hayward has grown into one of the most highly respected companies in the luxury food and wine hamper industry.

To see the full range of hampers and gifts please visit their website virginiahayward.com.

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