Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER
If a single shop can embody a country, its history and in some ways its very spirit, Fortnum & Mason is it. A very English company with a very English way of doing things, F&M is famous for its tea, wicker hampers filled with luxurious foodstuffs and for its iconic Piccadilly windows, but is perhaps most famous for serving the British upper classes — for over 300 years.
A lasting formula for success was laid out by F&M’s founders, ensuring its survival. It was this: know your customer and what he or she wants, better than anyone else. The cream of British society expect faultless service and high quality products; chosen meticulously, beautifully presented; traditional favourites and something new. Even as its actual client base has evolved to include the vast middle-classes and tourists aplenty, F&M has never wavered in this strategy of producing top product for top strata customers. As one F&M customer remarked in 1925, “It is so nice to be treated like a duchess while one is buying a pound of coffee.”
In 1707, an enterprising young footman in the Queen’s household – given permission to collect the leftover candle wax each night after the royals had left the dinner table – transformed his sideline of trading royal wax into a growing business by joining forces with his landlord, Hugh Mason. Part of a respectable middle-class family of tradesmen and servants, William Fortnum knew what was considered ‘best’ and how to get it: his network of family experts in the domestic sphere spread from wealthy Oxfordshire to Asia. While Mason’s stable yard provided a means of getting goods in and out again, Fortnum’s relations provided the two entrepreneurs with the finest teas, coffees, wines, oils, paper, inks and silk handkerchiefs available at the time. The store remained in Fortnum family control for 5 generations.
Many of F&M’s core products have been around since its inception. Tea, being the first comestible sold, is still one of its staples. Fortnum’s blend of Earl Grey tea was allegedly beloved by the Earl himself. Pickles and preserves such as ‘Gentleman’s Relish’ (described on pack as ‘anchovial alchemy’) and classic English marmalade are also among favourites. Fortnums’ beautiful wicker picnic hampers were introduced by the shop to the early Victorians. The F&M branded hamper quickly became de rigueur at the events of the social season, where its the size and contents were (and continue to be) a status symbol at the RoyalAscot races, the Eton-Harrow match and Henley Royal Regatta.
Currently priced from a reasonable £35 for a ‘’Tea at Four’ hamper to a rather more pricey ‘Fortnum’s Formidable’ for £500, today’s hampers have evolved to encompass more everyday events: Children’s hampers with ‘Tuck Box’ and ‘Midnight Feast’ themes sit alongside the ‘Gentleman’s Hamper,’ the ‘Ladies Pamper-Hamper’ and summer picnic hampers with names like ‘The Picadilly’ and ‘St-James.’ These house the finest of Fortnam’s food hall: vintage champagnes, old fashioned and exclusive sweets, foie gras, luxury cheeses and biscuits as well as gifty things like perfume, toys, candles and creams.
Despite selling ‘traditional’ luxuries, F&M has refused to settle comfortably into dusty old age. The shop has always been good at finding new things – products, combinations, flavours – and at presenting them in a novel and enticing way. At George V’s silver jubilee in 1935, F&M assured hostesses that, if one had an Indian prince coming to dinner, they would supply all the food, cooked according to Hindu or Muslim dietary laws, and served by turbaned staff, if appropriate. Floris, the luxury perfumiers, today located round the corner on Jermyn Street, got their start at Fortnum’s, as did the designers Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes and Ferragamo’s shoes. The rather more humble Heinz baked beans were introduced to Britain when Henry Heinz convinced F&M to take on a few cans. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes also made their British debut in F&M’s food hall.
Today, Fortnum’s are perhaps the only large food retailer in Britain who continue to take risks and do things differently. Champions of British food and farmers but also global in their reach, F&M’s buyers are encouraged to go out and find small independent producers of ‘curiosities’ to get what they ultimately want. Fortnam’s ‘rose petal jelly’ is handmade by one woman in Oxfordshire: when the roses in her garden run out of petals, there is no more jelly to be sold that year. The shop’s coffee buyer recently undertook an unusual project — the ‘laying down’ of fresh coffee beans, just as you would a bottle or case of wine – an experiment with an unknown outcome. Jonathan Miller, the shop’s ‘sweet grocery buyer’ had another such bold idea to tie in with F&M’s tercentenary: he thought it would be rather nice to “bring home” the countryside bees who made F&M’s honey in the gardens of Shropshire. Taking the idea of local food production to an extreme, the F&M bees’ palatial, custom-made hives (featuring gold flourishes and Roman, Mughal, Chinese and gothic porticos –no kidding!) were placed on the roof of the Piccadilly building. The bees made their return from the countryside by London black cab (where the partition from the driver proved useful) and are now able to “fly high above Mayfair, visiting the grounds, gardens and squares of the best addresses in London, gathering rather superior nectar.” Which other department store in the world would ever allow such eccentricity?
F&M’s staff and the exemplary customer service they provide are legendary. In the 18th and 19th centuries, unmarried male members of staff lived above the shop—on hand to supply needy customers at any time of night. Such dedication did not go unrewarded; in 1846, one of the Fortnam family, Richard, left a substantial legacy to his loyal employees. Nor has this loyalty dwindled over time. Chris Blackwell, a theatrical set designer from New Zealand joined F&M in 1973 and over his 32 years at Fortnum’s, made their shop windows world-renowned. Blackwell treated product display like theatrical artistry. Arthur Lunn, who served in F&M for close to a century, famously took a course in Pelmanism to help him remember the birthdays, preferences and phone numbers of all his customers’ (the King of Norway among them). In return for this assiduousness, F&M has remembered his name: “Mr.Lunn’s savoury biscuits” are now a staple of the food hall. Gaius Backholer – due to retire in 1939 after 50 years service – stayed on to serve throughout WWII. When he finally left in 1946, the Princess Royal (now known as Queen Elizabeth) called at the shop to say farewell.
Royals are not the only F&M enthusiasts. Dickens despatched his butler to Piccadilly for his favourite game pies when he finished a novel. Fortnum’s offical shop historian discovered a letter Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clemmie during the first world war, in which he longs for a hot water bottle and a case of Fortnum’s whiskey. The PM apparently came in to the shop himself for own-label champagne and was rather partial to their Dundee fruitcake.
Fortnum and Mason’s descendants ran the shop until the turn of the 20th century, when a management buyout resulted in new ownership, and in 1905/06, F&M became, for a spell, a limited company. The Weston family quite recently brought F&M back to its roots in private-family ownership. In 2007, Fortnam’s celebrated its tercentenary, and made sweeping changes to an institution that has not wavered from its core values in years. The premises at Piccadilly were given a facelift in keeping with its regal and elegant history; the food halls were expanded to include fresh foods; and its less relevant departments closed down.
Today, F&M continues to play to its strengths as London’s top supplier of luxury foods and gifts. A tour of the shop’s non-food floors would have you discover superb quality leather travel cases; bespoke perfumes; perfect wedding and Christening gifts like china, glassware and silver; and classically English goods, like the John Jacques croquet set and Hunter’s Wellington boots. The shop’s new Parlour restaurant is now the place to enjoy a famous ‘Knickerbocker Glory’: an ice cream sundae enjoyed by generations of (spoiled) English grand- and god- children at Fortnum’s old ‘Fountain’ restaurant. The Minghellas, the family who supply F&M’s ice cream –their son was famous director, Anthony –have created flavours to reflect the store’s famous wares, like its ‘Sandringham blend’ coffee and ‘Amedei’ dark chocolate; named after the grandmother of one of F&M’s longstanding chocolate suppliers, Tessieri.
One can still ‘take afternoon tea’ in any of Fortnum’s restaurants, a classic ritual made up not just of F&M’’s finest tea; but finger sandwiches, cakes and scones, and even canapes. The St. James’s restaurant features armchairs ready to fall into, and the tea menus “change with the seasons, to make the best of seasonal ingredients as well as to reflect cultural events.” Earlier this year, F&M ‘s chocolate cakes were adorned with sunflowery icing, to tie in with neighbouring Royal Academy’s Van Gogh exhibition.
On the 4th floor, in a quiet corner behind a door marked “Beauty a la carte,” a host of treatments are available in the sanctuary of F&M’s beauty rooms, and although the women’s clothing department is no more, ladies can lose hours (or if you’re like me, days) among the sparkly counters of perfume jars and jewellery, colourful scarves, silky lingerie and night ware, magnificent hats and bags.
If you are accompanied by a gentleman on your visit, send him down in F&M’s wood-panelled lift to the 3rd floor, to wander through the leather goods, ‘games,’ grooming products, books, pens and stationery. Then swap places.
A few choice new services have been introduced; perfectly in keeping with Fortnum’s reputation and heritage. The shop’s restaurants now showcase products from the fabulous food halls, and if a particular dish is enjoyed, its ingredients can be purchased downstairs for re-creation at home. For nervous young men planning to pop the question, F&M ‘s ‘Proposal’ service will take care of everything: a romantic outdoor picnic with strawberries and champagne served by a liveried member of staff, umbrella at the ready in case of showers. Staff are still on hand to wrap and even carry your purchases out to your car in advance of Christmastime, and the creation of bespoke hampers or requests for special assistance are never frowned upon or unusual at Fortnum’s. Staff genuinely seem to relish answering any and every customer enquiry, like: “Tell me about this violet creme chocolate/vintage of wine/obscure sort of tea leaf…” This is one shop that knows what it stands for and that has every intention to be here, at 181 Piccadilly, doing more of the same for 300 years to come. At least.
Unique Boutiques would like to extend special thanks to Dr. Andrea Tanner, Fortnum & Mason’s archivist and brilliant copywriter, as well as to Resonate PR and F&M’s marketing department.
Some pictures shown here feature products which are part of F&M’s current exhibition: “Handmade: An Exhibition of British Craft”, from April 22nd to June 20th, 2010. More information on this exquisite display of goods made by British artisans can be found here.