Why engaging chefs makes good business sense

Chef preparing fruit and vegetable dishes copy

Foodservice eating out produce on plates copy

As eating outside of the home remains on an upward curve and celebrity chefs continue to inspire home cooks, PBUK explores how strengthening the lines of communication between chefs and their fresh produce growers or foodservice operators is the key to getting more fresh fruits and vegetables on plates.

“It’s not enough to be just a greengrocer anymore, you need to be a category champion,” Andy Weir, head of marketing at Reynolds Catering Supplies, one of the UK’s leading fruit and vegetable distributors, tells PBUK.

“We are our customers’ eyes and ears for all things fresh produce and they turn to us when they need advice. It’s no accident that our strapline at Reynolds is ‘more than just a greengrocer.’”

Danny Griffiths, commercial director at Accent Fresh, the premier supplier of fresh produce to East Anglia’s foodservice industry, is in agreement.

“A lot of suppliers don’t tell chefs, caterers and foodservice operators what’s available, what’s in season, what’s good, or what problems have arisen,” he says.

“We’ve got about 2,000 products in our portfolio, whereas chefs might only think we’ve got 400, and there is constantly new stuff or new season produce coming in.”

With some chefs being more knowledgeable than others, keeping the lines of communication open is critical, says Lincolnshire’s celebrity chef Rachel Green.

“As a chef it’s incredibly important because we need to know what’s going on,” explains Green, who has made a name for herself as a passionate ambassador of British produce, especially vegetables.

“The seasons are dominated by the weather so one year a product might be available earlier or later or in higher or lower volume. Suppliers have got to be more in touch.”

According to Green, suppliers should also be knowledgeable about food and menus to enable them to recommend alternatives for chefs.

“I’ve been using one fruit and veg supplier for 20 years,” she notes. “I can pick up the phone to him and he’ll tell me what the markets are doing, and if something’s not coming in, he’ll suggest using something else.”

Although plant-based diets and flexitarianism are on the increase already, Weir says it’s down to produce growers, suppliers and foodservice operators to help their customers capitalise on these trends to get even more fresh fruits and vegetables on plates.

Green concurs, pointing out that the fresh produce industry should engage more with chefs since they, in turn, can shape the eating habits of the general public.

“Consumers are always looking for something new and they want to replicate what they’ve seen on menus – kale and micro greens are an example,” she says.

“I don’t think producers are particularly good at selling themselves. Sometimes they don’t understand what a great product they’ve got. They should shout more about the wonderful produce they have available.”

And while it’s hard to talk to every chef every day, Weir, Griffiths and Green agree that chefs do want and will use information provided.

What details to share

For a busy grower, supplier or foodservice operator understanding what chefs might need to know might appear a tall order. But it doesn’t have to be complicated.

“Reynolds’ customers come to us for all manner of advice,” notes Weir. “Tips around seasonality, varietal development, storage instructions, menu ideas and preparation tips are just a few examples.”

Griffiths says Accent Fresh tries to send out as much information as possible to give chefs a breadth of inspiration.

“We try to tell our chefs what’s available and what’s good, what’s finishing or what’s starting to help them plan their menus because production here [in East Anglia] can be different to other parts of the UK.”

In general, Green says a great starting place is an informative website which details product seasonality, import availability, recipes, storage tips and other suggestions.

“Have a really good website for chefs to read with a seasonal calendar they can print off and put up in their kitchen or office and show other chefs,” suggests Green.

“It’s about providing ideas and concepts for chefs to make their own decisions. You could collaborate with others in your sector to achieve this. This type of information would appeal to the general public as well – consumers do look for information on company or trade websites.”

Green says chefs also want to know about new products and varieties, and their inherent character differences.

“Strawberries are a really good example – we want to know what the different varieties taste like, which dishes they are best for, when the late varieties come in, what the flavour difference is between a later and earlier variety, and any new ideas,” she explains.  

How to share information

With chefs working irregular hours, online is often the best method of communication.

Green says she communicates primarily via social media and email, often in the early hours, and has gained a lot of information that way, as well as from websites, newsletters and blogs.

Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are all ideal mediums for sharing instant photos of products in the field to remind chefs about what’s being harvested, what’s currently available or what’s new.

“Perhaps growers and suppliers should also host more online forums to have discussions and live chats about certain products,” Green muses.

Foodservice companies like Reynolds and Accent Fresh are already very active on channels like Twitter. But both prefer the personal touch.

“Reynolds likes to work face to face with our customers where possible,” Weir claims. “No two businesses are ever quite the same and it’s important that we understand the customers’ needs first, in order to provide the most appropriate information.”

In the last couple of years Accent Fresh has focused on improving the lines of communication with its diverse customer base, putting a lot of resources into social media and Twitter in particular. Even so, customers are actively encouraged to visit the company warehouse to see for themselves what’s available.

“I encourage our sales team to go to the warehouse daily as well because what was good yesterday may be different today,” notes Griffiths. “And I text those chefs I have numbers for.”

Reynolds also does a great deal of work to engage and inspire the next generation of chefs.

“Our chef director, Ian Nottage, is the National vice-chairman of the Craft Guild of Chefs, and he can often be found working with students at local schools, as well as catering colleges up and down the UK,” says Weir.

Why communication counts

With everyone operating in a competitive marketplace, Weir says by working together, all parts of the supply chain can run better.

“We’re all better informed and more efficient,” he states. “Reynolds has built a business on working closely with its customers – communicating and inspiring chefs is so important. We like to see ourselves as cross-pollinators.”

Norfolk’s Accent Fresh is currently reaping the rewards of its investment in communication, with a third warehouse expansion planned to satisfy demand.

“We put the effort in to create the dialogue,” points out Griffiths. “In the last 12 months we have grown between 12-15% year-on-year. Trust is critical –– it’s probably one reason we have strong customer loyalty.”

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