RETAILERS ARE benefitting from a passion for local food, but some caterers are eyeing the strong and growing market too, Footprint talks to BaxterStorey's Ian Platt.
The government's green food report took a few by surprise with a recommendation for farmers to grow chickpeas and spices for “UK curries”. This would reduce reliance on imports, help cut emissions and also open up new markets for British farmers. A little far-fetched it may be, especially for farmers who pride themselves on their wheat, lamb or potatoes, but there is every chance it could work. Why? Because people are hungry for local food.
The market research firm Mintel estimates that local food sales are expected to hit £6.2bn. Tesco and Asda are aiming for hundreds of millions in local food sales, while the government has also pledged to procure more local food for its 1,100 hospitals, 30,000 schools and 140 prisons. But, as seen in last month’s Footprint analysis of government “buy local” policies, using small suppliers can mean big headaches. “It is a fine line between supporting the product and overburdening these businesses with unrealistic expectations,” said Jane Wakeling, the regional sourcing manager for Compass Group UK & Ireland.
The traditional route for larger caterers is to consolidate the supply chain, using fewer, bigger suppliers – some based overseas. This may save money, but it can shackle the creativity of chefs and result in a less personalised service. That’s why BaxterStorey decided to buck the trend.
“Chefs with autonomy – that’s what it’s all about,” says its supply chain manager, Ian Platt. “Our model is based on giving every chef, at each of our 500 or so client sites, the freedom to source their own food.” And unlike some competitors with big central buying teams, Platt’s team at head office numbers just five.
BaxterStorey chefs can design menus and choose ingredients locally from, on average, three butchers, two fishmongers, two bakers and two produce suppliers. They can be “incredibly responsive” to clients’ needs, says Platt. It also makes commercial sense: “Our chefs prepare their menus after careful consultation with their local suppliers,” he says, “so they are designed around food which is in season – and therefore plentiful and inexpensive.”
If this seems akin to letting the kids loose in the sweetshop, that’s where training comes in. “Our small head office team supports the chefs by vetting all suppliers before they can become part of our approved supply chain,” explains Platt. “It’s very important for us to protect our company’s ethos of ‘farm to fork’.”
Born and bred in rural West Sussex, Platt has long been a keen advocate of British farmers. “There is no legislation telling us to provide British bacon to our clients but this is a core product that we want to lead from the front with.” It makes commercial sense to go further sometimes. BaxterStorey’s egg procurement policy provides a case in point.
In January 2012 battery farming was banned in the UK, replaced by eggs from “enriched cages”. BaxterStorey’s parent company, WSH, chose to become the only foodservice company to stock free-range eggs as standard. “We buy 8.5m [RSPCA Freedom Food] eggs each year from our Chorley-based farmer,” says Platt. It was a brave decision based on ethics rather than economics, given that free-range was initially about 4% more expensive. But it paid off as supermarkets began promoting enriched- cage eggs, resulting in a supply shortfall and a price increase for the catering sector that crept towards what BaxterStorey was paying for free-range. “Our cost has remained steady because our supplier arrangements were in place well in advance of the new legislation.”
Platt believes that there is a strong market for local food. Data from the researchers IGD last year backs him up, with 36% of shoppers prepared to pay extra for locally produced foods. In fact, local is expected to be the main driver for “ethical purchasing” as the recession continues. But at the moment it’s largely the retailers – and BaxterStorey – that have cottoned on to this.