Every time I interview an artisanal food and drink producer, farmer or grower, I always ask them, at the end of our conversation, where they see themselves and their business in the next five or ten years. The answer is almost invariably the same:
“I would love to be able to supply my local Waitrose supermarket. I would love to see my product on their shelf. I would be so proud.”
I can almost mime the words as they speak, so used am I to these three sentences. It is no surprise however: with total sales of £2.6 billion, a grocery market share of 4.4%, 272 branches including 18 convenience stores and 85000 partners, the Waitrose story is one of success and growth, at a time when the economic forecasts all around us are in sharp decline. It is Britain's 6th largest grocery retailer. In 2012 Waitrose will be opening 20 new branches, and will be aiming to increase the 2300 “Made in Britain” product ranges sourced from 600 producers across the whole of the British Isles. The company has announced its long term aims to expand its opening to 400 branches by 2017 and doubling revenues to £8billion by 2016.
Waitrose regularly wins awards for product excellence and promoting and showcasing sustainable, environmentally friendly and humane agriculture, as well as treating their suppliers and staff with care and respect. Waitrose has a Royal Warrant to supply groceries, wines and spirits to both the Queen and Prince Charles.
So, supposing you live within a thirty mile radius, are a small, local, artisanal food or drink producer and you would like to approach the Waitrose buying team with samples of your work, how do you go about it? This article was written to help you in thre short steps, and I have also asked the buying team to answer more detailed questions below. You will find the website links I have provided very useful and comprehensive, but I did discover that many artisans do not even know these links exist. Many assume that supplying Britain's favourite supermarket is a "cloak and dagger" process, but you will, in fact, discover that they are very open to approach and extremely polite in their manner.
The Road to Waitrose
Waitrose have created a very comprehensive part of their website called the Small Producers Charter and their policy towards developing working relationships with small scale, regional suppliers is fully detailed. It is of course paramount that your product meets their stringent criteria for quality, taste, provenance, integrity, presentation, health and safety and point of difference. Your business could have as few as 10 employees or as many as 250, but you must be within 30 miles of one of their stores to qualify as local, as opposed to regional. The link is here.
Once you have read the charter and followed its guidance, you can see the list and map of where the 12 different Regional Food Groups meet. There is a contact number and website address. They are the first port of call for a new artisan who wants to prepare for a “Meet the Buyer-Meet the Producer” day. The food groups are able to fine tune how the artisan is able to meet all the criteria in the selection process, and Waitrose strongly recommend you go through them in the first instance. Some producers are "discovered" by other means, e.g. at farm shops, food festivals and county fairs, but in the main it is the regional groups that act as the main forums for introduction to the Waitrose buyers. The discussions about pricing, distribution, timing, changes required and potential sales will all take place at the producers-buyers' meeting. The link to the interactive map and Regional Food Groups is here. You need to select the region that your business is located in, and then make contact with the relevant person.
In order to have a comprehensive list of all producer "frequently asked questions" in The Foodie Bugle, I asked Tracey Marshall, Product Manager for Local and Regional food buying at Waitrose to answer six more detailed questions about their buying policies. Here is what I found out:
Question: Prior to approaching the regional food group contacts, just how big does an artisanal producer or farmer need to be before they can supply Waitrose? Are they allowed to start supplying their nearest town store initially, or does Waitrose only approve suppliers that are able to supply many stores all at once from the outset?
Answer: We have all sizes of suppliers in our local and regional range. Some suppliers are husband and wife teams supplying just one product to one branch and are happy to do so. We also have larger organisations that approach us about local sourcing as a way of getting a foot in the door to national listings. As long as a supplier can meet the requirements for their products then being a very small business isn't an issue.
The number of branches we launch in depends on the product, location and what the supplier can manage. We would rather start someone off small and extend their distribution when we are both ready than have a small supplier take on more than they can manage.
Question: Are there set limits per Waitrose store as to how many lines are carried for any one sector, for example: artisanal sweets, cereals, yoghurts or apple juices? Could an artisanal producer be turned down simply because the lines' limits are full in that particular year?
Answer: There is a limit to the amount of space we have instore and we decide which products represent our customer needs best. We are focussed on providing a range of truly diverse local products which represents the best food and drink being produced in each area. Product categories such as beer, for example, work slightly differently as the taste profiles are so varied that there is room for more.
Question: How important is it to Waitrose buyers that small producers have been in business for a certain amount of time, have done farmers' markets, food festivals and fairs and so on? How important is the story, the family and region in your decision making process?
Answer: It definitely helps if the supplier has been in the business long enough to understand their brand or product, but often someone will come along with something brand new that is too good to miss. The ideal local line will be made with local ingredients to a traditional regional recipe by people with strong ties to their local community, but taste is always the first consideration.
Question: Are there any particular sections of the market that Waitrose want to expand their offering in 2012, and they are actively looking for suppliers in that field, or is there always more supply than demand in every sector?
Answer: We are lucky to be in a position where we are never short of supplier enquiries. We do plan on extending our ranges, and it will mostly be in the regions where we have new branches opening.
Question: Does the Waitrose buying team actively go to food fairs, festivals, markets and foodie towns to see what small producers and farmers are making, or is there too much work already with the current list of would-be suppliers?
Answer: Yes, the local & regional team attend festivals run by the Regional Food Groups to see what is on offer. When we open branches in new regions we always make a point of visiting the local farm shops to see what is selling well there.
Question: If an artisanal producer or grower has gone through all your individual requirement stages but has been turned down, are you open about why they have failed? Are they able to learn from the experience and try again when they have put everything right?
Answer: We always try to give constructive feedback to the suppliers that are unsuccessful at our Meet the Producer events. Sometimes it's things that they can do to improve their chances of a listing with Waitrose at a later date, sometimes they're not right for us, but often we can give them some advice on who they should be pitching it to.
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