Paul Hill catches up with Birchall Foodservice in the north west of England
“My great grandfather ran a general store in 1904 before starting a baking delivery service a year later. That’s how this company began,” says Justin Birchall, the managing director of Birchall Foodservice – a company fully aware of its history, yet still keeping a firm eye on the future
This original incarnation of the company delivered a mere four products – yeast, flour, eggs and cream – a far cry from the 5,500 it deals with today. It then went from strength to strength before being made a limited company in 1939 after Justin’s grandad was sent
off to war.
Five generations of the family have since been involved in the running of what is now a specialist multi-temperature foodservice wholesaler, represented by the Country Range buying group.
“Having been based in Trafalgar Street in Burnley for some four decades, we first moved the business to its own purpose-built building at the Network 65 Business Park in 2001,” Justin explains. “But we moved into our new state-of-the-art facility in January 2016 at Cobalt House, which I believe is one of the most modern wholesaler premises in the country.”
With a huge open-plan window in the “Google-esque” office displaying the warehouse below, the Birchalls make an effort to bring each department together in order to feel part of a collective. “We have made huge efforts in transforming ourselves so that we’re a modern company with modern ideas. This whole facility is proof of that,” explains director Louise Birchall.
As well as the main depot and headquarters in Burnley, the business also has three satellite distribution sites across the country. These serve caterers in care homes, healthcare, education and hospitality. “Focused on local markets, we provide access to one of the most comprehensive, next-day delivery ranges in the north of England and Wales, including grocery, chilled, fresh, frozen, dairy and non-food items,” she says.
In recent years, Birchall has managed to differentiate itself by being able to cater for every possible consumer need. “Our consumers are savvy people, they understand there’s been a shift in the current trends,” explains Louise. “We are fully aware of how to facilitate that. It is our job to allow our caterers to respond to customer habits without limiting the other customers they serve.”
Birchall is also a forward-thinking business from a personal standpoint. “I feel like we’re unique and very modern in how we treat our staff. Customers are important but we’re not ashamed to say our employees are more important,” Louise explains.
“We leave our employees to get on with their jobs to do what they think is best for their roles. This leads to a better work ethic and I think it is the way all businesses, not just wholesalers, should operate.
“This way, our staff are working towards one person and that is themselves. They’re responsible in driving themselves forward.
“We also have a mental health councillor who comes into the office once a week,” she adds.
The business is currently in the midst of planning for the future, following the acquisition of a piece of land next door. “This will allow us to fulfil our future expansion requirements, and now we’ve secured the site, we need to analyse data in order to see what area to expand,” says Justin.
A change in the vehicle fleet could also be on the horizon along with an expansion of Birchall’s frozen output. “Consumer requests are changing with orders becoming more frequent and smaller, which could lead to a change in our vehicle specifications,” he says.
“Also, fresh produce, frozen and chilled foods are growing substantially and this is having a further impact on logistics.”
However, like all foodservice wholesalers, Birchall is in a constant battle with suppliers in its quest to provide easy-to-read nutritional information on packages.
“With consumer dietary requirements getting ever-more complicated, areas such as allergens or free-from need to be more clearly signposted to avoid any major issues,” explains Louise.
“Customers and chefs need to be able to know the details straight away, but that isn’t always communicated in the most efficient way possible.”
The rise of Amazon is also cited as an issue, but one that may present opportunities. “It’s one hell of a model. However, this is a service business and Amazon’s delivery is a completely different beast to wholesale delivery. They’re definitely going to stir up the nest, but will they take the market over? I don’t think so,”
“You can’t be naïve enough to not think it may change the industry,” adds Louise. “Some new ideas may come out of it, such as the delivery of unique or rare food items.
“But generally, they’re not experienced in things such as temperature control. The KFC episode showed everyone how complicated this industry can be.”
In this ever-changing wholesale landscape, Birchall Foodservice is setting itself up to compete with whatever the future may hold, according to Louise. “We’re maintaining ourselves as a people’s business,” she says, “because wholesale is a people’s industry.”