The southeastern firm wants to be the go-to venue for local foods, reports Tan Parsons.
This summer, foodservice wholesaler Thomas Ridley is opening a regional distribution centre (RDC) in Kent. It will create a golden opportunity for the Suffolk-based business to grow sales.
“We are already making deliveries into Kent but there are limits as to how many customers we can take on board from our current base in Suffolk, as we are not prepared to compromise our service levels,” says director Rachel Summers.
“We have potential customers waiting in the wings for us to take them on board from August onwards, which is all quite exciting.
“We would be a bit naïve to think we can continue being a successful, privately run business without expanding and pushing our boundaries. If we don’t encroach on other areas then others are going to encroach on ours.”
There will be a depot manager at the Kent site and a fleet of trucks manned by locally based drivers.
Managing director Justin Godfrey says: “Finding a freehold site has been our biggest challenge. As we are already operational in Kent, the next phase is simply a change in logistics, extending our current model to provide a mirror image of our existing service throughout Kent.”
Godfrey launched Thomas Ridley’s five-year plan in autumn last year, with the target of growing the main depot’s turnover from £44m to £70m. Sales from the RDC in Kent will be in addition to this.
Last year, Thomas Ridley acquired Elveden Fine Food and Taste of Anglia, which have been incorporated under the company’s ‘Local and Regional – East South Eat’ division.
Godfrey says: “Our aim is to stock and supply the definitive East and South East of England range of established and emerging brands and products. We wish to be known as the go-to venue for edible products from the East and South East – hence the range name East South Eat.”
Summers says Thomas Ridley is already “pretty strong” in garden centres and cafés but there are always more of these venues to go for.
“We now have a route into the retail side with our recently acquired local and regional range, in terms of picking up delis, garden centres, farm shops and farm cafés,” she says. “So it’s about selling in these product categories and gaining incremental sales.”
The company, which is based in Rougham near Bury St Edmunds, has traditionally enjoyed a strong trade with schools (both state and private), colleges and care homes. It is currently servicing 13 London borough school contracts, as well as schools in Essex and beyond. It also a nominated supplier to the Cambridge colleges.
This is an innovative marketplace with room to grow. Many schools, colleges and universities have separate accounts, says Summers.
“You might have the student dining room account and the café account. The majority are moving towards having separate dining and cafe areas to entice the students to stay on campus. This isn’t just for post-18/19s – this is also for students in private schools and colleges in particular. The café culture’s here to stay.”
She says schools increasingly have to provide attractive eating options on campus – a ‘funky café culture’, for instance – in order to compete with the high street.
“By keeping people on-site, schools and colleges can offer them healthier options and choice.”
Thomas Ridley is helping these establishments by providing a quality range at a reasonable price with an unbeatable service level. But the wholesaler is also looking to establish itself in areas that have not traditionally been its strengths. It now has the quality, depth and experience in its sales team to target fine dining, restaurants, the leisure sector and pubs.
Crucial to maintaining customer loyalty and winning new business is the company’s relentless focus on service. An 18-month voice automation project has been completed in the warehouse and the wholesaler now has service levels of 99.6%, handling in excess of 130,000 items per week. There have been weeks where the company has hit 100%, including during the busiest period in the run up to Christmas.
Managing director Justin Godfrey says: “Our prime focus throughout the phased implementation of the voice automation was to keep our service level at the top of the industry while coping with additional growth.”
Thomas Ridley has overcome shortfalls in service by forecasting ahead and stocking a minimum of three weeks’ stock from all suppliers, subject to shelf life; in some cases, they have up to six weeks’ worth.
“I believe this sets us apart,” says Summers.
The voice automation project is typical of Thomas Ridley’s attention to technology. With the challenges that caterers are now facing regarding allergen labelling, the wholesaler is able to produce bespoke reports for each customer, listing every product they’ve bought within a set period of time and the allergens these contain. They also have an online allergen filter for customers so they can search for products excluding specific allergens when shopping online.
Meanwhile, the wholesaler is implementing a click & collect service. Cash & carry customers (currently 4% of the business) will be encouraged to search for products and order online, where they can see all the product specs. The goal is to have this fully integrated into the business by autumn.
As a member of the Country Range Group (CRG), Thomas Ridley has benefits such as access to the group’s own-brand range, as well as contact with the CRG’s professional marketing and purchasing team.