Meet the Member: Harlech Foodservice

Harlech Foodservice’s development kitchen is a treasure trove of different tastes and flavours.

Lined with products and equipment to extract the best from them, the kitchen is a place for the Fairway Foodservice member to test NPD and hold demonstrations for customers. It’s essentially the nerve centre that drives the entire business forward, with expertise at the heart of the work done there.

Heading up the kitchen and Harlech’s three-man culinary team is Head Development Chef Steve Williams, a former chef – and customer of the foodservice wholesaler – who owned two restaurants in north Wales before selling and moving up the supply chain into wholesale.

Williams – alongside the company’s purchasing department – is charged with making sure the wide breadth of Harlech’s customer base is supplied with the best-quality products depending on their needs, and also sources items that might help them steal a march on their competition.

And with demands on foodservice wholesalers increasing with UK consumers turning into a nation of foodies, the best-performing companies are the ones that offer more than just the basics. Williams’ approach seems to be working and as he opens his kitchen to Wholesale News, he reveals the secrets to his success.

1. Sourcing quality is key

“It’s important to have the right quality of products for your customers. There’s only going to be a small percentage of people who are going to buy the proper top-end stuff, for example – you might sell Italian truffles to customers twice a year if you’re lucky – but the fact that you can get hold of that quality produce and all the brands in between, shows that you’re reputable and know what you’re doing.

“Having been a Harlech customer, I know what it’s like to be on the other side, and the range of products we’ve now got at our disposal is huge compared to what was available a few years ago.

“Now we see ourselves as a one-stop shop, so you can get your basic foodstuffs, cleaning materials, crockery and glassware as part of your normal delivery, as well as beers, wines and spirits.

“You can also get some of the top-end products from us that you’d usually have to go hunting around for, but now you can get them in your normal delivery. That breeds confidence in the customers because they feel more relaxed that you’re dealing with the right brands to offer a quality range.”

2. Innovation makes a difference

“We stock a range of products from a market-leading brand called Sosa that a growing number of top chefs are using, but can also help our customers working in care homes and other sectors as well.

“Sosa provides ingredients for food and drink to add natural aromas, plant extracts, texturisers and fruit into dishes quickly and easily. The ingredients only need hydrating or changing in temperature and they can change or add a completely new texture or flavour within minutes.

“We go into care homes, in particular, to show cooks how to use Sosa ingredients because they’re so good for people if they can’t eat something that’s either too thick or thin in texture. They’re so easy to use and there’s a massive range that means you can rustle up recipes quickly that people with dementia or a similar condition may not have been able to eat otherwise.

“It’s a range that is useful for customers of all levels and is easy to store, so really adds to the range that we’ve got to offer.”

3. Keep up with the trends

“You need to keep an eye out for new trends to make sure your range offers what consumers want. Having a good network of people that we deal with is important, although some things are brought in by suppliers that do a lot of market research. When we’re sent new products, you can start to see a pattern developing when similar flavours or products appear regularly.

“It’s important to keep up to date with suppliers because they put so much money into market research, and go out to speak to chefs and people in the street to understand what their food influences are and get an idea of what’s going to be big next year. It’s like fashion: some people drive it, others follow it.

“There is a company called Baum + Whiteman that does a report every year on food influences that I always read. It can be a bit like predicting lottery results, sometimes it’s right and other times it’s wrong, but if you see a pattern developing generally, you know that that’s a trend that’s coming.

“If you look at certain restaurants, particularly Michelin stars, they normally set the tone. If you can find out what sort of products they’re using, they usually filter down through skill base and customers trying emulate that at their own price point.”

4. Never stop improving

“Whoever your end user is, if they’re looking at increasing their prices, they need to justify it, so they need to invest in their products – and we’re finding this is happening more and more.

“A good example of the sort of thing I’m talking about is the standard of salads that people produce. Previously, you could get away with a bit of iceberg and big slices of normal tomato, but now consumers want rocket, herbs, cherry tomatoes or sun-blush tomatoes. Then they expect a certain type of vinegar. Similarly with gin, people don’t just want the normal variety, they want flavours or a certain type of distillery.

“Of course, there are some places at the lower end that just do it cheap, cheap, cheap, or a chippy that can’t change its menu too much, but nowadays most people are upscaling all the time to try to get better quality when they eat.

“For some restaurants, they’ll be reacting to new competition in the area so they have  to up their game, and that all starts with getting the right products. We’ll also offer to take a look at their menus and support them with improving that too.”

5. Why not offer even more?

“Harlech sells everything from mop buckets and cling film, to top-end Italian truffles and everything in between, but we offer more than just products to our customers.

“If somebody picks up the phone to say they’ve ordered some products for next week and mentions they need something else, we’ll do it and we regularly hold demos on training days for our customers.

“I recently got a call from a customer who wanted some help getting their pastry chef to take it up a notch and because of the network of suppliers we deal with, we’re getting some industry experts to spend a couple of days with him.

“The customer will pay a premium for that training, but it also locks him in as a customer because we’ve been able to support him in other ways. If we can do it for them, they’ll pay it forward, so it works both ways.

“At the end of it, the chefs are learning a lot more about the product and have a lot more confidence in us to take those skills and put them on their menu, so their offering goes up in quality and we’ve helped to make it happen. You can’t advertise that, but the customer knows it.”

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