Interview: The supplier going straight to source

Collectiv Food wants to help foodservice businesses rebuild after the pandemic with a model based on fairness, transparency and sustainability. Nick Hughes speaks to its founder Jeremy Hibbert-Garibaldi.  

If the coronavirus pandemic does accelerate a move to shorter supply chains, as has been advocated in certain quarters, then Jeremy Hibbert-Garibaldi is one step ahead of the competition. In less than three years Collectiv Food, the London-based foodservice supplier Hibbert-Garibaldi founded and runs, has gone from a standing start to working with over a thousand producers and hundreds of operators through a model based on direct sourcing and supply chain transparency. It has also pulled off the impressive feat of growing its client base during lockdown by serving new verticals, including retailers, and winning new customers.

How has he done it? And does Collectiv Food present a future model for sustainable foodservice distribution?

Hibbert-Garibaldi followed an unusual route into the foodservice sector via forensic accountancy. He spent seven years fighting corruption in extractive industries in Africa before joining the team investigating the accounting scandal over overstated profits that rocked Tesco back in 2014.

Tesco subsequently bought Britain’s largest wholesaler Booker and it was Hibbert-Garibaldi’s immersion in retail and wholesale supply chains that persuaded him of the need to change a model he saw as inefficient, opaque and with an imbalance in power between buyer and seller. “The basis of what we do is about trying to make the food supply chain more transparent, direct and fair,” he explains.

Collectiv Food was founded towards the end of 2017 with an initial focus on building direct relationships with producers. “I thought that would be the easiest part of the business but actually it took a long time,” says Hibbert-Garibaldi. “It’s still a relationship-based industry and you need to win trust from producers.”

Fast-forward almost three years and Collectiv Food has won the trust of more than 1,000 producers from across the world who supply a diverse range of fresh foods, from hake sourced from a small family-run business in North Cornwall to Iberico pork and New Zealand lamb.

Sourcing lamb from the other side of the world might surprise, and disappoint, those who equate short supply chains with local production. But although local options are commonly available should customers request them, Collectiv Food’s ethos is built around closeness of relationships rather than geographies. “We always go to the source,” says Hibbert-Garibaldi. “For meat we might be working with the farmers or the abattoirs when you need cuts and pre-prepared products. If it’s fish we might be working with fishermen or the companies on the ports doing the filleting and preparation. We only work with people adding value to the chain – no intermediaries, no importers, no distributors.”

Hibbert-Garibaldi says producers are in the rare position of knowing who is buying their product. “It seems strange but most distributors don’t tell you who their customers are so you never know where your products are going and you never get feedback. We’re recreating the social link between the two sides.”

The “sweet spot” for Collectiv Food’s target customer is small and medium-sized mid-market restaurant chains with more than two outlets but not at the scale where they are household names. Banana Tree and The Big Easy are two examples although Hibbert-Garibaldi says he wants to do more work with smaller independent restaurants.

Because of the lack of supply chain intermediaries he claims customers can expect to achieve savings of between 5-25% on ingredients depending on the volume and product. This does not, however, come at the expense of producers who Hibbert-Garibaldi says are paid “more and better” than market averages with small producers paid at the point of order to help with cash flow.

Beyond its price proposition, Hibbert-Garibaldi hopes Collectiv Food will increasingly win business for its commitment to sustainability, which he believes is still high on the industry agenda despite the disruption caused by covid-19.

Distribution is one area where Collectiv Food is trying to find a better, more efficient way of moving products from the farm to the kitchen. Its delivery model takes big lorries off the roads by using empty capacity in smaller vehicles already making journeys in and around urban centres. A new “points of distribution” innovation, meanwhile, involves positioning chilled storage containers in under-utilised urban spaces in key locations within London.

Perhaps the most ambitious work involves a plan to take transparency to the next level by rating producers based on their sustainability credentials. Hibbert-Garibaldi wants to use Collectiv Food’s knowledge of its supply chain to arm customers with the information they need to make conscientious decisions about who they source from and is in the early stages of developing a sophisticated impact assessment model with the help of one of its venture capital investors, Mustard Seed.

Collectiv Food currently has around 100 data points ranging from operational basics like punctual delivery and product safety, through to differentiating features such as organic certification or innovative packaging (free) solutions. Hibbert-Garibaldi talks of a future scenario where producers are given a rating out of five and are incentivised to move up the scale; meanwhile under-performing producers could face exclusion from its network.

He has also had “very early discussions” about developing a consumer-facing label that would enable restaurants and other clients to talk to their own customers about the sustainability of their supply chain. “It’s really early days and we need to grow more and have more data points, but we want to create something that is motivating for both sides,” he says.

As for all foodservice businesses, the coronavirus pandemic came as a shock to Collectiv Food. With restaurants forced to close it moved quickly to diversify its customer base. “We didn’t create this newly innovative and automated food supply chain just to work with restaurants,” explains Hibbert-Garibaldi. Collectiv Food has started winning business with customers operating in different verticals – catering companies, suppliers of meal kits, ready meal producers and retailers, all of which require a consistent supply of ingredients. It has even launched its own direct-to-consumer brand, Farmshop, via Deliveroo, which was launched to support ethical producers during lockdown.

After taking a big hit initially Hibbert-Garibaldi says restaurant customers are starting to return and customer numbers in total are higher than they were pre-lockdown.

For the moment, London remains its focal point but with a model suited to serving cities, Collectiv Food is looking at expansion opportunities. Work is already underway to enter the Parisian market with Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen also under consideration.

With its agile business model it feels apposite to ask whether Collectiv Food could develop into a marketplace for producers who have lost an outlet for their products due to coronavirus and are finding it hard to access conventional foodservice or retail supply chains? Hibbert-Garibaldi rejects the idea of a pure marketplace but says he would like to develop “free tools that we can offer to producers to better manage excess stock or production capacity”.

It’s another example of original thinking that is shaking up a sector which – part through circumstance and part through design – is currently ripe for disruption.

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