Wholesaler spotlight: Brakes

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Can Brakes take on Booker with the UK’s first foodservice cash & carry? asks Elit Rowland.

It’s not unusual for general grocery cash & carries to diversify into the foodservice market, but no one expected delivered foodservice specialist Brakes to hit back with the launch of its own cash & carry. Was the move a moment of madness or a clever strategy to claw back the business that Booker and others have been moving into for some time? 

Operations director Martin Sandler left a job at Costco to run the new depot. He says that there is still growth to come in the out-of-home food market and he is passionate about the new format. Booker will be the main competitor. “Booker’s concept is around CTNs and retailers, but no one is doing a cash & carry that’s just for caterers. We ­believe this is a first.” 

Fast facts

  • 4,000 SKUs, including 800 frozen and 300 fresh fruit and veg
  • 40 employees from 14 different countries
  • 10% cheaper than delivered service
  • 250 fresh meat SKUs

The depot describes itself as a ‘professional food market’ and is just a stone’s throw from Therapia Lane tram stop in Croydon, which is close to other cash & carry operators Bestway, Dhamecha and Booker. But Sandler says that the business is differentiating itself using in-store advice and training, a greater depth of product range and a strong focus on service. 

“Caterers don’t just come here to grab a bag of frozen chips,” explains Sandler. “We have a professional chef and kitchen where customers can get recommendations about which cut of meat to use for specific meals, for instance, or how to cook it and what accompaniments to have.” 

Samples are cooked up and handed out daily to customers with advice on how they should appear on menus and what to serve them with.
Food demos take place weekly and customers are invited to enjoy a cup of own-brand Brakes coffee.   

The location of Croydon in Surrey for a cash & carry is well considered. With an eclectic mix of ethnicities and restaurants, it’s a great testing ground for the new model. One of the first challenges was to employ a team that could reflect the diversity of the customer base. 

“We have 40 employees, covering 14 different nationalities from Bangladeshi to Filipino,” says Sandler. 

The depot has a strong fresh proposition: 300 fresh fruit and vegetable SKUs and 250 fresh meat SKUs. Customers have the option to buy single packs or cases, which helps to support smaller businesses. 

The fruit and vegetable room is kept at 6-8ºC which is considered the perfect temperature. But step into the butchery and the temperature goes down to 4ºC. 

“We get daily deliveries of fruit and veg to make sure it’s fresh – sometimes even twice a day,” says marketing director David Webster. The depot also stocks other “foodie stuff”, such as truffle oil, samphire and exotic seafood. 

A diverse range is not something that Sandler has always been used to. 

“At Costco, we used to have just a handful of cakes or puddings, but now we have up to 140 different frozen desserts. We also advise caterers on how to serve the same product in a number of different ways.” 

The business offers customers 14 different meal ‘concepts’. “We can support all of them, from hot dogs to frozen yoghurts, with everything a caterer needs, from point-of-sale material and ingredient advice to gross profit,” he says.    

In foodservice, a stable temperature is a big deal, particularly when transporting fresh, chilled and frozen goods. The Brakes food market offers customers free ice packs with every cooler bag to help keep products at the right temperature. 

“We want to protect the integrity of the food chain. That can be hard sometimes, especially if you’re stuck in a Croydon traffic jam in the summer heat,” Sandler says. 

[pull_quote_right]Booker’s concept is around CTNs and retailers – no one is doing a cash & carry that’s just for caterers. We believe it is a first[/pull_quote_right]

Customers can replace the defrosted packs with frozen ones when they next come in.

One of the main advantages of the depot for Brakes’ customers is being able to deal with last-minute bookings, which is particularly useful for bars and restaurants that need to order late at night. 

“This means that they can be consistent with their offering and have good availability,” says Sandler, adding that cash & carry customers also get a 10% reduction on cost compared with delivered. 

But do busy caterers have time to visit a cash & carry? Sandler says they enjoy food and like seeing, touching and tasting it. “Some customers come in every other day.” 

The plan is to get Croydon right before expanding. “We want to open more, but we need to get the recipe right first,” adds Webster. 

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