When John and Barbara Dunning were informed that a freeway would be built through their farm in a remote part of the U.K., they saw an opportunity.
They built a rest stop with a difference.
The freeway (known in the U.K. as a motorway) was to cut through the Dunnings’ land in the region of Cumbria, a county known for its Lake District National Park, a striking mountainous landscape.
And the Dunnings didn’t have much choice in the matter because the U.K. government issued them with a compulsory purchase order, meaning they had to sell their land for the road to be constructed.
It was the late 1960s and the Dunnings, then in their thirties, decided to put up a fight. They won their bid to lease back the land from the government and build and run a rest area — Tebay Services — that would be the first family-run motorway service stop in the U.K., and one that focused on providing local produce.
“My dad had done a lot of research because everything was at stake, and they had to get it right,” the Dunnings’ daughter Sarah Dunning said of Tebay’s opening, speaking to CNBC by video call. “They couldn’t afford for it not to work,” she said.
The rest stop, on the northbound carriageway of the M6 motorway, started life in 1972 as a place for drivers to refuel their vehicles and themselves, serving homestyle food in a 30-seat cafe alongside a small craft shop selling local goods. The Dunnings went into business with family bakery Birketts, a partnership that lasted more than 30 years.
Now, Tebay also has a rest area on the southbound carriageway, as well as a hotel and caravan park, and two shops that sell lamb and beef reared on the family’s farmland. It’s part of the Westmorland Family, a group run by Sarah Dunning, its chair, which operates two further rest areas — in the counties of Gloucestershire and Lanarkshire — as well as a community center with a cinema and cafe in Rheged, also in the Lake District.
The business employs around 1,200 people, has won numerous food awards and made revenue of £127 million ($162 million) in 2022, per its most recent annual report. In April 2022, King Charles III (then the Prince of Wales) visited Tebay Services farm shop to commemorate its 50th anniversary.
Most motorway rest areas in the U.K. are populated by big-name outlets such as Burger King, Krispy Kreme and coffee chain Costa and are run by operators like Welcome Break or Moto, but Tebay and the company’s other locations take a novel approach, Sarah Dunning said.
“We are a very different model to other motorway service areas. Where they partner with franchisors … popular brands that I suppose cover all customer needs, we don’t have any brands in our business,” she told CNBC.
“We have a farm shop, and a kitchen … and we make our own food, kind of simple farmhouse food. And in our farm shops we see ourselves as a platform really, for small food producers,” she said.
Sarah Dunning became CEO of Westmorland Family in 2005, joining after roles at investment company Rothschild and as a headhunter in the City of London. The Birketts retired and sold their shares in the business back to the family and Sarah Dunning’s sister Jane Lane took over the management of the Dunning’s farm.
Sarah Dunning will speak at the Oxford Farming Conference, held from Jan. 3 to 5, 2024. “Farming is facing huge changes … there’s significant energy behind regenerative farming, but actually that probably isn’t going to be everybody’s model going forward,” she told CNBC.
A new subsidy program has meant that some farmers in England have received lower payments than they did before Brexit, and three Environmental Land Management projects will provide incentives to farmers to regenerate land.
“Everybody’s trying to navigate the changes in the subsidies and find a way that enables them to farm in the way they want to farm, but also profitably,” Sarah Dunning said.
She is no stranger to challenges, having managed her family’s business during the global financial crisis of 2008 as the firm was raising money to build a rest area next to the M5 motorway in the southern county of Gloucestershire. “We couldn’t afford for it to go wrong … you go through these periods sometimes as a business and it’s your job to try and navigate through,” Sarah Dunning said.
Gloucester Services opened in 2014, selling food from more than 130 producers within 30 miles of the rest area and giving around £500,000 per year to local charities. In August, it was the subject of a six-part TV documentary show.
Sarah Dunning described the Covid-19 pandemic as having a “huge” impact on travel and hospitality firms, though the business has now exceeded its pre-pandemic turnover.
Her next challenge? The rise of electric vehicles (EVs), which require charging points and access to enough electricity capacity. “Like all transformations, there’s a high degree of uncertainty around it, both in terms of how fast it’ll go but also how the technology will develop,” Sarah Dunning said.
“Probably more than ever, electric vehicles will want to stop in locations that are pleasing to stop at, because you have to stop a little bit longer … we hope that we can find ourselves in a strong position, because people like stopping with us,” she said.