For the latest in our miniseries about the great people driving the UK’s local food revolution, we spoke to Sarah Dunning, Chair of the Westmorland Family behind Tebay, the UK’s first family-run motorway services.
Arguably a trigger for the Extra Mile guide, Tebay was set up by John and Barbara Dunning in 1972 when they built a small cafe with good home cooking to serve the new M6 that cut through their farmland. Still true to the farm-fresh, home-cooked philosophy, Tebay has become a beacon for all travellers heading North (or South) serving up ‘proper food where you’d least expect it – on the motorway’. Its popularity is a real sign of the appetite for a break from the bland, dreary and expensive service stations we’ve come to expect on the motorway, and has seen the company expand into equally-lauded services at Gloucester and Cairn Lodge in Scotland.
Sarah left the City to take over the family business in 2005 and remains champion of the company’s local food ideal.
How did Tebay Services begin?
We are a second generation family business, which started in 1972 when the M6 was built through our hill farm in Cumbria and Tebay Services, our first motorway service area, was born.
My parents saw the arrival of the M6 motorway back in the 70s not as a negative but as an opportunity to diversify so they decided to open their own motorway service area serving homemade food in the 30 seat café and using produce from their own and neighbouring farms was the natural thing to do. The business grew organically and that original approach to food is still with us today.
Our farm still feeds our business and our farm heritage is important in everything we do.
How has the business grown?
We own and operate a number of unique motorway service areas on the network including Gloucester Services on the M5, Tebay Services on the M6 and Cairn Lodge Services on the M74. Alongside these we have several other businesses including Tebay Services Hotel, J.38, a truck stop, and Rheged Centre which is an arts and entertainment centre just outside Penrith. However, fundamentally we are a food business and we’re very proud to be one. We love food and how it’s sourced, how it’s made and how it looks and tastes is really important.
What makes Tebay, Gloucester and Cairn Lodge special places to stop?
The Farmshops at our motorway service areas are arguably the heart of each business as they provide a strong link to our farming heritage. Our people make our Farmshops really special, not just our colleagues but also the network of local producers, farmers, gamekeepers and artisans that supply them.
You’ll find a proper Butchery in both Gloucester and Tebay. In Tebay, beef and lamb from our family farm is sold and in Gloucester a selection of the best Gloucestershire meat is available. Our butchers provide an old-fashioned service and skill, offering great advice to our visitors. We work with a talented team of buyers who work hard to source the very best produce available.
What’s your food philosophy?
Our philosophy is simple. We make our own food for our Kitchens and in our Farmshops we form close partnerships with small producers who are doing something unique and brilliant. We need to understand the origin and history of a product to understand its quality. We look for the best product, but we always start local. We like things to be made as you’d make them at home, so we prefer traditional methods to those found in mass production.
Our approach to food has not changed from the simple ethos we worked to when Tebay first opened. It’s important to us that wherever possible our produce is local and seasonal and that our food is home-cooked. We make as much as possible in our busy kitchens every day. It means we can choose what goes into our recipes.
What were you doing before you joined the family business?
Working in the City…. not half as much fun as working in food!
What’s your favourite snack for car journeys?
I’m a sucker for snacks and it’s even better you can now find relatively healthy ones too! We have started stocking Primal Joy snacks. They’re gluten-free and never use grains, soy, trans fats or refined sugar and they’re handmade just down the road from Gloucester Services. Most importantly, they’re also delicious!
Interested? Read more about the Westmorland story here.