One wholesaler is about to create Birmingham’s second-largest development, writes ELIT ROWLAND
You simply can’t drive past East End Foods’ £10m Aston depot without wanting to take a look inside. When the state-of-the-art site first opened last year, it attracted a number of visitors, including some outside its traditional retail customer base.
“When we first opened our doors, foodservice customers started coming in to have a look,” says Jason Wouhra, company director. “We spoke to them about what they needed and adapted the range according to their needs.”
And when these customers were asked whether they would switch to East End if the wholesaler stocked the right range, the answer was yes. A year later and the depot now serves a mixture of high-end restaurants, fish and chip shops, fast-food establishments, and bars around Birmingham. “Foodservice has been a hot topic for a while, but now that we’ve started to really get behind it, we’re getting great results.”
But succeeding in foodservice takes time and commitment. For Wouhra, it’s about having a completely customer-centric approach. “We put together a small customer focus group and ask them what they use, instead of just listening to suppliers. We keep our range really tight and only stock what they tell us they want.”
It’s difficult to believe that despite East End’s investment in foodservice, the channel only accounts for 10-15% of sales. But the future looks promising, “In five years’ time, we could have a dedicated foodservice wing – there’s huge potential.” But growth will be steady and customer-centric, explains Wouhra. “We will grow the business based on what our customers tell us that they need.”
As well as boasting a 120,000sq ft cash & carry, there are also other plans, including a ‘food academy’, for the depot, which have attracted publicity since its launch. With traceability high on East End’s agenda, particularly with its own-brand products, the business wants to go back to the “roots” of its products and teach students the processes involved in making high-quality ingredients.
“My uncle spent time in India, researching how the use of pesticides in foods can be reduced,” explains Wouhra. “We look at what farmers of our products in the UK are doing and, where required, alter their methods to get a better quality result.” He hopes the academy will enthuse the next generation of retailers to be more professional and “compete more aggressively with the multiples. We want to show retailers that if they do it right, retailing can be very rewarding.”
In addition to the academy, East End has also announced plans to develop a technology centre on the site, enabling students to see how food is grown. “We’ve invested twice as much in Aston than we needed to because we are looking 20 years ahead,” says Wouhra. “It’s important to enthuse the next generation of retailers, otherwise you risk losing your business.”
One of the most exciting growth areas for East End is own-brand products. With 13,000 SKUs, Wouhra is proud of the company’s credentials. “The brand itself is trusted – we manufacture and produce everything here in the UK. The traceability and consistency of the product is brilliant. We clean all our herbs, spices, rice, beans and pulses eight times.”
East End’s distributes its own-brand range to multiples as well as independent retailers, but Wouhra argues that the independents have a competitive edge.
“The multiples don’t carry the huge range that independents do – Asian cooks can’t use the limited range that they offer – multiples simply don’t understand the category the way that independents do.”
One of the group’s most popular own-brand products is the Tikka Masala marinade, which has a mixture of 26 different herbs and spices, compared with an average of 12 for other brands.
When it comes to giving business advice, Wouhra says that wholesalers could benefit from having a more optimistic outlook. “Wholesalers tend to have a ‘glass half empty’ approach. But if you monitor your business well, there’s a lot of success to be had.”
One of the biggest opportunities he sees for wholesalers serving independent retailers is helping them to improve their chilled offering. “If you look at chilled in the multiples, they stock everything from fresh soup to cold meats and fresh pasta.”
Although limited spacing is often cited as a challenge in convenience, it all comes down to effective merchandising. “Our Highgate depot is 20% the size of Aston but we have an extensive range because of our disciplined merchandising. You can get a good selection into a small area as long as you cut out the lines you don’t need.”
Wouhra also points out that a good chilled range can often be difficult for wholesalers to get hold of. “The supply chain isn’t giving us what we need, but if they did, there’s no guarantee it would get pulled through – it depends on how well the category is merchandised. The retailer needs to be switched on.”
While speaking to customers is an important way to build a solid business, the effective use of data also presents opportunities – Wouhra will be addressing this subject in his presentation at the Landmark conference in May. “I will be talking about how, as wholesalers, we can use data to better understand our consumers. We could definitely be using it more effectively to drive sales.”
At the end of the day, no matter how customer-centric your business is, statistics don’t lie. “At the moment, we rely more on ‘ground knowledge’, but sometimes what customers say to you and what they do are two different things.”