Paul Hill travelled to Northern Ireland to talk business with Henderson Foodservice
The description ‘convenience store’ doesn’t really cover what you find in Ireland. Walk down any high street north or south of the border and you’ll quickly realise how different shops are to their counterparts across the Irish Sea.
With the contract to supply all of the food-to-go ranges of Spar stores in Northern Ireland, Henderson Foodservice has played a large role in the evolution of these stores, helping the wholesaler to experience double-digit growth in the process.
Based just outside Belfast in Newtownabbey, it is one of four indigenous companies operating under the Henderson Group banner.
However, the first incarnation stems back to 1967, when it was established, originally as TNB Limited (named after the then-managing-director and founder, Thomas Norman Brownlee), before being acquired by the Henderson Group in 2004.
“Convenience stores are chalk and cheese compared with mainland UK,” explains business development director, Mark Stewart-Maunder. “The difference between a coffee shop, café and convenience store is constantly blurring, with people now using these stores as food outlets. We supply all the ingredients to these.
“I can’t really explain why they’re so different to England, Scotland and Wales, but I know consumers’ habits can vary quite a bit. The main meal consumed in Northern Ireland is the Ulster fry, whereas in Great Britain it is the chicken tikka masala. So, varying tastes such as this may well play a part,” he adds.
Every channel in which we operate is experiencing double-digit growth
Food-to-go is just one of many channels the company supplies to. “We probably
operate anywhere you can think of that sells or distributes food,” explains sales director Kiera Campbell. “Whether that be hotels, cafés, nursing homes – we work within a large amount of areas. Better still, every channel in which we operate is experiencing double-digit growth, which is great news for our business.”
Growth and expansion
Throughout the past five decades, the company has seen consistent growth in turnover, staffing, size of operation, and infrastructure.
Investment has been a factor that has not only supported its growth, but also enabled the company to evolve in step with the ever-changing demands of the foodservice sector.
This has come in the form of acquisitions such as BD Foods last year. “This strengthened our product portfolio, specifically in the hotel and high-end restaurant business,” says Stewart-Maunder.
“February 2019 then saw further expansion with the acquisition of the multi-site Food Co in Lisburn and Ashbourne. Both acquisitions present substantial opportunities to increase our customer base across the island, and we’re always acquisitive if the opportunity presents itself in the future.”
Other investments have included state-of-the-art, multi-temperature warehousing facilities, a growing fleet of more than 50 vehicles, an order capture and picking framework, and a new online ordering system.
Furthermore, despite being nine years into a 20-year plan in its current premises, Henderson Foodservice has already begun constructing a new building. “We’re bursting out of the seams here, which is why we already have a new £16m warehouse being built down the road. We’ve consistently achieved double-digit growth over the past eight or nine years, and that’s accelerated in the past few years,” explains Stewart-Maunder.
With 18 £100,000 trucks also set to be purchased in 2019, the investment is relentless. “In order to keep up our quality service, we’re required to continually keep evaluating our infrastructure,” says Campbell.
“We want to expand through the web and have revamped our ordering system over the past 12 to 18 months,” she adds. “We had a simple system before, but now we’re up to 13-14% of our orders going through the web, and that will only increase.”
Henderson also has its very own coffee brand, Barista Bar, which is now one of the biggest in Northern Ireland, and there are plans to bring it to UK mainland stores. “We have 455 machines in 380 sites. We gave birth to it five years ago, nurtured it carefully, and are now really excited to be bringing it to England with our partners Thomas Ridley,” says Campbell.
However, despite double- digit growth and continued investment, operating as a wholesaler in Ireland does come with a set of challenges, the main one at the time of writing being Brexit. “We trade north and south of the border, so we have to be prepared for every eventuality,” Campbell says.
“But we don’t actually know anything yet, so the uncertainty is the most annoying aspect. Nevertheless, we are preparing as well as we can.”
With a track record of investing when necessary, Henderson Foodservice will no doubt be prepared for whatever political situation it finds itself dealing with, enabling it to continue on its upward trajectory.