The end of the greasy spoon

nick walden

Nick Walden tells Tan Parsons why fine dining beats a fry-up.

Ashton Farms sales director Nick Walden has seen turnover grow by up to 25% consecutively over the past four years, and he expects to hit sales of £2.6m this year. This represents a huge surge for a small family business that has been going for almost 30 years.

The recent uplift has come from setting firmer geographical boundaries for deliveries and a conscious decision to target more premium foodservice outlets. It also represents a generational change, with Nick taking the baton from his father as the strategic leader of the business.

He says: “In a nutshell, we’ve moved from greasy spoons to farm shops and fine dining. We were seeing a decline in turnover. My dad and uncle – along with Bernard, the other chap who works for us – their types of customer were disappearing.

“When I do our old-school rounds, the types of places we go into are Chinese takeaways or greasy spoon cafés in seaside towns where there’s still tar on the walls from when you used to be able to smoke in there.”

Now Walden is successfully changing the customer base to upmarket pubs, restaurants, hotels, village shops, farm shops, caterers and private schools. These are the customers demanding quality dry and fresh ingredients. He sells to chefs who like to cook, rather than pubs that want to put something in a microwave and wait for it to go ‘ping’.

In the past, it was the norm to deliver to a typical customer once a week, but the goal now is to have customers who want daily deliveries of premium fresh, dry and frozen products.

His proudest achievement is growing the business by proving to the doubters that it is possible to sell fresh products that are short on life. “Oh, they’re short on shelf life! Well, let’s find a customer to sell it to then.”

The business started out as Waldens Eggs, which supplied eggs, cheese and butter to local businesses, schools, hotels and hospitals. In the early 80s, with the disbanding of the Egg Marketing Board, it lost 60% of its business.

In 1985, Ashton Farms was set up. Back then, the product list fitted on an A4 sheet of paper, but fast forward 30 years and the business now offers customers more than 2,000 different lines. Cheese and eggs are still packed on-site, giving customers the option of having their chosen products supplied in any shape or size.

Nick spends a good deal of time sourcing top quality products and building relationships with suppliers. Being a member of Confex has been “instrumental” in this regard and the extra buying power has made “a genuine difference”.

“We want to sell premium products. We feel as though there’s a better margin to be had on them. But we don’t want to be so pretentious that we seem as though we’re telling people this is what they should use. We want to sell what people want,” he says.

As well as offering a much better product range, Ashton Farms is now far more specific with the area it targets. Previously, the team regularly sold to businesses more than 40 miles away, but the aim now is to deliver within a 20 mile radius of the warehouse in Semington, Wiltshire. This helps the wholesaler to play to its strengths as a local business.

“As a salesman or someone who’s switched on, you are always looking for an angle or a way to make a bit more money,” says Walden. “I want to make my area impenetrable for anyone else – because if a customer wants something, I want them to come to me based on service and price.”

This is one way Ashton Farms has the jump on some larger operators. Team member Tania Evans is the person customers speak to when they ring up. She always remembers them and can have a laugh and a joke. But it’s also about deliveries and customers like Ashton Farms’ drivers.

“A national operator might come in and just dump something by the door in the dead of night. But we can deliver into somewhere and put stuff away on the shelves and they like it.”

But growing rapidly comes at a price and there are two major challenges Walden faces as he takes on more customers and deliveries. The first is how to maintain service levels: it is impossible for the drivers to keep stripping soft drinks out of their packaging and putting them on the shelves when it takes so much time.

The biggest challenge, however, is managing cash flow. Walden says: “My dad will quite happily tell me that before we grew, 60% of our trade was cash. Now it’s 80% credit and 20% cash.”

To help manage the inherent risks of offering credit, the business has taken on another family member full-time who is responsible for keeping the customer accounts under control.

The next steps will be to grow the business on the internet, starting with click & collect and potentially moving into selling cheese online.

“That would be the nationwide and worldwide thing. We’ve got the stock, so why don’t we go on the internet? It seems stupid not to.”

The burning question is how far this business could expand if it keeps going like this. Walden has set the goal of growing turnover to £25m over the next 12-15 years.

“There’s a lot of ifs and buts and we have to keep our eye on the ball and not be complacent, but I don’t see why we can’t achieve that,” he says.

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