Martyn Fisher discovers how a cabbie’s love of fresh chips led him to start his own wholesaling firm
The inspiration that alters the course of one’s life often comes in the most unexpected circumstances.
In the 1980s, Japanese video-game designer Shigeru Miyamoto formulated the idea for the Donkey Kong character while taking a bath. The game was a hit, creating the foundations on which Miyamoto’s company – Nintendo – could enjoy stratospheric growth.
The same decade, Stuart Howarth came up with the idea of starting a wholesale business selling prepared vegetables and potatoes while driving a taxi in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.
Transporting a number of restaurant owners in the back of his cab, he would ask them about his eating-out pet hate: “Why do you use frozen, rather than fresh chips?”
After discovering that it was because of time-pressures, he resolved to tackle the problem. With his wife, Brenda, he founded Stuart’s Foods in 1986.
Entering this sector was not a completely alien move – Howarth had managed the butchery and frozen food department at W&G cash & carry in Scarborough in the 1970s, which is now a Booker.
Having previously worked out of a few different sites and focusing solely on freshly prepared vegetables and chips, the couple bought their first property in Scarborough in 1991, and Stuart’s moved into serving a wider range of fresh fruit and veg.
The Howarths’ children, Samantha and Damian, joined the business in 1994 and 1998, respectively. Both have been company directors for more than 15 years, but after the retirement of their parents in 2014, Damian took over as managing director. His wife, Michelle, joined the business in 2016 and also plays a key role in the leadership team.
Today, Stuart’s Foods HQ is based in Seamer, in Scarborough. The site was purchased in 2006, coinciding with a period when the business had increased its presence in the dairy and bakery categories, and had expanded its geographical reach, serving a large portion of North Yorkshire and Hull, in neighbouring Humberside, its growing customer base including schools and NHS contracts.
Key to the subsequent growth of Stuart’s was taking on in the mid-00s the customers of another wholesale business in Scarborough called Rayfield. Then, last year, the business bought a wholesale business based in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, called S Clift Foods, which serves a number of pub, hotel and restaurant customers.
Between the two businesses, Stuart’s covers most of Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, East Yorkshire and Humberside – about 8,000 square miles in total.
What’s more, the business is opening a distribution hub near the A1 in Ripon, North Yorkshire this month. Damian Howarth says: “We will transport across from Seamer to Ripon and then we can offer a better service for the people over there, as the vehicles can go out two to three times a day. This move means we can go up to Newcastle and down to Sheffield in 75 minutes, which opens up new opportunities.”
It is all go at the moment for the business, as plans are in the offing to diversify the product range. “We do not do loads on the ambient side, but that is what we want to get into more,” Howarth says.
“We do drops to several customers in a number of regions with our usual products, so it is probably easier to sell other products to them and less costly, too. Fresh produce can be difficult for picking and processing orders, as you are splitting everything down and you have to weigh items.
“Dry goods do not involve this and when you split things down, it is probably higher value. If, through ambient goods, we can increase the average order value, we can up our profit. We can then feed that back to suppliers, customers and employees, and use it to try to improve where we stand in the local community.”
At present, ambient goods count for around 4% of what the business does. Howarth is determined not to move away from being a specialist fruit and veg company, but admits dry goods could overtake fruit and veg as the biggest contributor to turnover.
Howarth’s ambition is to have a turnover of around £10m in four years’ time, up from £3.5m. However, he will not try to force the business into growth it cannot handle: “We need to keep an eye on our growth,” he notes. “We have seen it before where companies grow a bit too fast and get caught out financially.”
With 40 staff and 19 vehicles across the three sites, the business has a strong network in place to keep growing. Howarth is keen to build up to having a transport manager, along with a team of business development managers, but he is aware that this is only achievable once the business scales up. The same goes for joining a buying group, too.
Having retained S Clift’s identity, cultivating a family-owned ethos is a fundamental part of the business’ strategy. “We are local companies and are respondent to turn things around quickly,” Howarth says. “But we are still big enough to get good deals and keep costs lower.”
He adds: “We have a vision and mission statement and we have 14 culture points, too, which makes us ‘us’. We want our team to be a part of the business and help the customers and suppliers, and work for each other rather than competing departments. Yes, we have to make some money, but we need our customers and suppliers to do the same, so we can all feed and support the regional economy.”
Howarth is immensely proud of what the business has achieved and is keen to carry on his parents’ legacy.
“In their first week, mum and dad took £15 in takings,” he recalls. “Now we want to be a £10m business. Who could have seen that coming?”
Snacks & Co.
Stuart’s is about to launch a box scheme for offices and workplaces. The scheme, called Snacks & Co., involves five options, including fruit, nuts and seeds, and cake boxes. It operates on a subscription model via a dedicated website, and deliveries can be sent out across the country. Initial trials of the scheme have proved successful, and Howarth and the team are hopeful it will prove to be a fruitful venture.