Lisa Whitmore’s path to entrepreneurship began when she walked down the wedding aisle.
“I married an Englishman in 2000,” she recalled. “Nigel was always missing his favorite foods. He couldn’t find his favorites, and if he did it was at a store with a small sampling.”
Whitmore, who had previously managed retail franchises for the likes of Godiva and Sunglass Hut, recognized the potential for a grocery store offering items from the British Isles that would serve both expatriates from across the pond and Americans who enjoyed the local cuisine and snacks while on holiday abroad.
“There is a huge Irish community here,” she explained. “And I was surprised at how many Scottish and Welshmen are in the area. People go on vacation and fall in love with the chocolate over there — they don’t use artificial colors or flavors. Here in the States, the temperatures are so varied that is can get really hot, so they use wax in our American chocolate to help stabilize it so it won’t melt as quickly.
“They don’t do that with the British or Irish versions,” Whitmore added. “That’s why it tastes so creamy — it’s like real milk.”
Whitmore first opened UK Gourmet in Newtown in 2003 — and was initially greeted with skepticism. “People were shocked and would ask, ‘Is there enough British food?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘This place is saturated.’”
By 2016, UK Gourmet outgrew its space and relocated to a 1,400-square-foot retail store at 78 Stony Hill Road in Bethel, along the Route 6 shopping district. “The original space was about one-third of this size and I never had a stock room before,” Whitmore said.
Throughout the store, Whitmore has stocked brands that cannot be located in neighborhood American supermarkets, including the Batchelors’s brand of Chip Chop Style Mushy Peas and Marrowfat Peas, Ben Shaws Dandelion & Burdock soda, Mrs. H.S. Ball’s Peach Chutney and the Tayto line-up of crisps. (Remember, in the U.K. crisps are potato chips and chips are French fries.) Whitmore’s line-up of Cadbury chocolates are imports and not the U.S.-made version from Hershey’s, which owns the Cadbury brand name.
Whitmore’s freezer selection includes British-style bacon — the generously thick cuts, she observed, and not the “streaky bacon” that is fobbed off in this country — plus bangers and Scottish bridies, a type of meat pastry. However, those items were not brought over from overseas.
“You can’t import meat — that is the only thing,” Whitmore admitted. “However, these are made by authentic Irish, Scottish and British families here in this country.”
To obtain her goods, Whitmore deals with wholesalers and food import specialists. “I let them do the heavy lifting,” she remarked. “They deal with customs and the FDA and getting things approved. We always make sure we get our stuff through proper importers.”
While President Trump’s tariff policies have yet to impact her prices, Whitmore noted that the foods for sale at UK Gourmet are at a somewhat higher price than their U.S. counterparts: for example, a can of soda or a bag of crisps can cost $2. Still, there are enough people willing to spend a bit extra: Whitmore runs an e-commerce operation that ships across the country, and she is aware of motorists who seek her store out during vacations.
“I hear that when people from upstate New York plan a trip before the holidays, they will drive through to us and then go spend the day doing something else like Mystic,” she said.
UK Gourmet also sells merchandise related to the British culture, including the traditional Christmas crackers that are a staple of Yuletide celebrations. The store experiences an elevated level of foot traffic during the year-end period. “We do about 50 percent of our business in about six weeks,” Whitmore said. “It’s intense.”
Whitmore has also experienced a new wave of customers courtesy of the PBS broadcasts of “The Great British Baking Show,” which has spurred interest in would-be pastry chefs eager to replicate their favorite TV challenges.
“A lot of people come in, especially parents with their kids, and look for special ingredients,” she said. “We have the flours and special sugar, because their sugar is a little finer.”
Still, there is that old negative reputation connected with British cuisine — especially when compared to the culinary delights across the English Channel on the continent. But Whitmore insisted that today’s British fare is representative of the multicultural influences that made a positive impact on the national dishes.
“If people are nervous about British food, they shouldn’t be,” she said. “The flavor is there. There are so many fun and interesting foods to try.”
And if anything, Whitmore is guaranteed that her husband Nigel has nothing to complain about during mealtimes. “Now he can no longer say that he’s missing his favorite foods,” she laughed.