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Suppliers: Protect your sources

19 April 2013 by
Suppliers: Protect your sources

Establishing and maintaining a network of suppliers takes effort. Joanna Wood discovers how to get the best results

Sourcing suppliers can be a daunting task, whether you are taking up your first head chef position, maintaining a quality level that has already been established, or simply heading up an extremely busy operation.

If you are taking over a new job, you usually inherit a list of companies, so the first thing to be done is to check them out. Go through them all and taste their produce, whatever it is, then make a judgement on whether they fit in with where you want to go with your cuisine and operation. And if you've already established a network because you've been in an area for a while, still do the same.

George Blogg, executive chef at the boutique hotel TerraVina in the New Forest, inherited a suppliers list when he took over at the hotel last October. He was new to the area, although he had grown up in neighbouring Dorset, so after going through his inherited list as a kick-off point, he set about tracking down as many new, local producers as he could.

Local knowledge "It is difficult," he says. "But you just have to ask around. Ask everyone." In reality that means talking to fellow chefs in the area, where possible, picking up local knowledge from diners, asking some of your existing suppliers to recommend people, checking out local industry shows - even checking out local farmers' markets - these can, of course, vary in quality around the UK, but can often pay dividends.

Blogg, for instance, made contact with a local Hampshire cheese-maker, Lyburn, at a farmer's market in nearby Winchester. He had a chat with the producer, who now ages a particular cheese for a longer period exclusively for him - thereby developing its taste and giving Blogg something unique for his restaurant. The same cheese producer now supplies Blogg with milk, too, albeit in a roundabout way. "They're not allowed, legally, to supply me directly, but they told me which dairy supplier they give their extra milk to - and I get my milk from them now."

The point is, you have to be pro-active. And that can also mean just keeping your eyes peeled (Blogg spotted a sign for local tide flour mill just down the road from him and is now investigating getting in the flour for his bread), or doing a bit of research on the internet.

Nigel Boschetti, executive chef at London's Grosvenor House hotel, isn't averse to Googling to hunt down a specialist supplier. He did so recently when he needed an American brand of crackers for the base of a cheesecake served at the hotel. "After a lot of scouring I found someone and got in 200 boxes the other day," he says.
Boschetti also makes 
use of his mobile phone when he's out and about, snapping pictures of any produce or product that catches his eye, be it when he's eating out at another 
restaurant, idly walking past high-street delis, or even on holiday. He follows up leads when he's back at the hotel.

Because Boschetti heads up the food operation at a big hotel, with many outlets and a huge banqueting operation, it means small operators are usually out of the question for core items as he needs reliability of both produce quality and quantity. Also, as the Grosvenor House is a JW Marriott hotel and part of a big chain, it has nominated suppliers which Boschetti has to use. However, he has still managed to introduce additional, new suppliers to his network and continues to look out for niche producers.
For big operations, in order to keep suppliers on their toes, he recommends doubling up on sourcing core produce such as fish, fruit and veg, or meat. "Competition is healthy," he maintains. "We've just taken on a second meat supplier, partly to give leverage and best price."

Martin Burge of two-Michelin-starred Whatley Manor hotel, near Malmsbury in Wiltshire, agrees there are benefits from doubling up on certain suppliers. But he warns about how to manage this type of situation.

"The only way to do it is to get two sets of prices in, then compare them before negotiating verbally with the guys - and always be up front," he says. "If you are devious, it will rebound on you."

There will always be occasions, he warns, when something goes wrong, when a supplier phones up and says he has forgotten to put X on a delivery - and can he deliver tomorrow instead? If it's a trusted and hitherto reliable supplier, Burge advises cutting that person/company some slack (after checking the kitchen can cope without the produce in question). "He'll go the extra mile for you when you have an emergency."

The key word is trust. A chef needs to trust his supplier to deliver what he needs; the supplier needs to trust the chef isn't going to mess him around or screw him into the ground on price and make his business untenable.

"Sometimes you have to say, 'no I can't afford it'," says Dominic Chapman, the executive chef of the award-winning Royal Oak, Paley Street, near Maidenhead. His current supplier network, which includes 
many local businesses, has been built up over his seven years at the Royal Oak, but like most chefs, when he took over the kitchen he brought in companies he trusted that he had worked with previously, including well-regarded larger businesses. "Your own experience is very important," he says.

He adds that it's sometimes difficult to know when to use local suppliers or national companies of repute. "You need to find people who are commercial and can keep up with your needs and that can be difficult with local producers." The bottom line for him, as for most chefs, is quality of produce - closely followed by service (essentially the ability to deliver specs), reliability and price. For this reason he uses small producers' food in specials and retains larger companies, for example, for supplies of core items.

It's worth saying why trying to source local producers is a good idea, particularly when your business is located in the country. Local terroir can give your cuisine an identity, a personality that distinguishes it from its competitors. Buying local means field-to-plate times are shorter, and the produce that bit fresher and because of lack of travel costs it can also mean you get a good-price deal, particularly if you go direct to a farmer or market gardener. This isn't always the case, of course: larger companies often deliver a better-price deal. You just have to make a call on each individual supplier.

The luxury of accessing good local producers isn't always available, however. In Darlington, James Close of the Raby Hunt has found it an uphill struggle to uncover them in the three years since he took over his pub-restaurant. "This area is very tricky. It's hard to get people to supply us on a daily basis in a cost-effective way locally," he reveals. For this reason, he uses a northern-based national company for his mainstay supplies but he's gradually unearthing quality local producers.

Luckily for chefs in Close's predicament, suppliers often contact them direct. Pitches can come in from large companies or even, if you are in the country, from amateur fruit and veg growers with surpluses. The response to either should be the same: try the produce; if it's good and the price is right, use the supplier. If you can spare the time to visit a supplier, even better: you'll get a clear idea of whether or not they are suitable for you if you see how they operate. And you'll develop the relationship with that supplier in the process.

In fact, it's a good idea to visit mainstay suppliers regularly, even get them in the restaurant to eat, to foster your relationship. Experiencing each other's environment makes for a better understanding of what it takes to achieve your culinary aims. Aim for one supplier visit a week, or, failing that, one per month. Difficult, admittedly, if you are working more than 10 hours a day or based in a city, but at least talk to them if you can't achieve this.

As 2010 Roux Scholar Kenneth Culhane, who took over as head chef at Richmond upon Thames's Dysart Arms last July points out, there is no getting away from the fact that your relationship with your suppliers is "the backbone of what drives business". He strives for, "firm, honest, and courteous," mutual dealings, which incorporate "attention to the details that you require… efficient paperwork that keeps you updated with seasonal changes, and a fast response to mistakes and problem solving."

Culhane, who has worked in London's financial centre in the past, stresses the necessity to have precise order sheets. If you do this you are more likely to get the delivery you want, while if there is a blip you'll have a paper trail with which to question the supplier. Whichever way you look at it, a perfect supplier network depends on communication and an acceptance that you will always be striving for that perfect network and always on the look-out for new raw material to improve your own product.

Problem solving the steps

  • Before you do anything else, pick up the phone and talk to the supplier. Or better still, visit him.
  • Remember - 
the relationship is 
two-way: if there is a 
genuine reason for a glitch, cut the supplier some slack (you'll be repaid in future 
if you have a crisis by 
having the supplier 
on side).
  • Don't be afraid, though, to change a supplier if he makes inadequate excuses or continues to slip in 
his standards.
  • Always know 
the market price of produce, so that you can point this out if necessary.
  • Do consider 
having an unofficial system and communicate it to your supplier - eg, three strikes and out.

Finding suppliers - A checklist

  • Ask fellow chefs in the area (and your own chef friends/acquaintances) for recommendations.
  • Check out farmers' markets.
  • Ask your local diners if they know of producers and suppliers.
  • Go to local trade shows (local businesses will exhibit at these).
  • Use the internet to do research for suppliers/specific products.
  • Keep your eyes peeled when you are in your local area (eg, for signs for local flour mills, etc).
  • Make it your business to find out if your area is famous for any particular produce.
  • Use social media such as Twitter, but always check up on any approaches made by suppliers to you via the medium, and on recommendations from people you don't know well.
  • Use trade directories.
  • Get a balance between national and local suppliers: it's the key to quality, consistency and volume.
  • Don't forget suppliers you've used successfully in the past.
  • Don't forget to check out accredited bodies for leads - eg, the Soil Association, ISO 9000, the Marine Stewardship Council and the SRA.

Ensuring quality

  • Make sure your specification is clear.
  • Understand each suppliers' own terminology (and use this to make your spec clear).
  • Talk to your supplier, all the time - preferably in person, so he understands what your restaurant needs.
  • Always taste and test the product of any new/inherited supplier before using them.
  • Always make regular visits to suppliers' or producers' premises (farm, warehouse, central processing unit); they'll appreciate it and so will you.
  • Let your supplier know when there has been a problem.
  • Make sure you are on the highest level of service the supplier operates.
  • Consider having more than one supplier for core things such as meat, fruit and veg. Healthy competition can ensure quality and cost effectiveness. But be honest with your suppliers.
  • Don't be afraid to send things back if the spec isn't right, or produce isn't up to scratch.
  • To ensure quality, have checking systems (at the delivery door of a hotel/kitchen, and again when an order is unpacked for use in the kitchen).
  • Review suppliers on a regular basis 
(eg, annually).

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