Perceptions in the food industry, like any walk of life, are easy to acquire. Problems arise, however, when that perception is wrong. Trying to convince people that their assessment isn’t strictly true is easier said than done. With Brighton’s Tastables having recently marked its first anniversary of being acquired by London-based First Choice, Produce Business UK heads to the seaside to talk to the fresh produce supplier about how the company is striving to demonstrate to local customers and potential clients the many additional benefits it now offers
Mark Stables, the boss at the much-loved family business, is all too familiar with the discrepancy between what the perception of suppliers outside London is and the reality.
“Everybody has this image in their head that only London companies can do things properly,” he sighs from his busy office in Brighton’s vibrant Wholesale Fruit and Flower Market. “[They think] that local companies are just a bit of fruit and veg and that’s the limit.”
Tastables certainly debunks the well-worn myths about companies outside the M25. Since Mark’s dad, Tim, founded the company in 1962, it has firmly established itself as one of the best suppliers on the South Coast. So when the time finally came for Tim to hang up his apron and gloves, it was no surprise that a number of London companies were interested in purchasing Tastables. Brighton, after all, is a dynamic and cosmopolitan city these days – its London-on-Sea moniker is a fairly accurate summation of Brighton’s standing in the 21st Century.
And as people who regularly eat out have flocked to the seaside, some of the capital’s best chefs have followed them. Consequently, Brighton’s restaurant scene is one of the most vibrant and diverse in the UK.
It was this reason, among others, that attracted First Choice, one of London’s principal suppliers of fresh produce to the hotel and restaurant industry in the capital, to purchase Tastables. It helped, of course, that Stables was already working alongside First Choice’s managing director Dan McCullough at New Covent Garden Market in London.
“Mark was a key factor, definitely,” explains McCullough. “But, coincidentally, I had looked at Tastables in the past. It had a fantastic reputation as one of the best suppliers around. I liked the idea of delivering to Brighton – I could see the opportunities – but didn’t want to do it from London.”
Stables confides that while a number of London businesses expressed an interest in acquiring Tastables, it was only First Choice that was really sensible in its approach and recognised Tastables’ full potential.
Bringing in the benefits
So it came to pass that on December 1, 2014, First Choice acquired Tastables. Sensibly, Stables had already returned to his father’s company to ease the transition. He had a chance to see what shape the company was in and what needed to be done. The resultant changes have been dramatic – a new computerised system was installed (70-80% of invoices were previously handwritten) alongside a new fully automated telephone system – but Stables was on hand to allay any customer concerns.
“Some customers were a little sceptical about the changeover to start with – they’d dealt with Tastables, as Tastables for a number of years,” he says. “Some people had it in their heads that prices were going to go up dramatically – some rumours were spread that we were going to be delivering from London, and that would be reflected in London prices and what have you – scaremongering basically to put off our customers.”
And that wasn’t the case?
“Not at all,” Stables responds. “It was always about Tastables being a local company in Brighton, that’s been in Brighton and trading in Brighton for over 50 years, and keeping that, but bringing the benefits of a bigger company. That was what we had to get people to understand – that there were going to be benefits to it. It was getting people to realise that.”
In the space of one year, Tastables has been fully modernised as an agile supplier ready to meet the exacting demands of chefs and its other customers in the 21st Century.
“Logistically, we have a new set of vehicles,” Stables explains. “We’re putting a new van on the road every two to three months. We’ve also simplified things – we’ve streamlined suppliers. The quality of the produce that we’re using and the variety that we’re using has increased. There was always going to be more scope there for different suppliers and different products.
“And for the type of customers we’re trying to attract we were going to need to broaden the range of products and the speciality side of things to draw them in and show them that we’re able to do this. That it’s not just London companies who do this. We’ve got a team of buyers based in the UK and abroad in Milan and Paris – it’s about having access to those buyers and bringing in those products. We didn’t have that before.”
McCullough continues: “It was about meeting the expectations of chefs, and diners. We’re used to serving demanding chefs. We understand what they want. And that’s the opportunity at Tastables.”
A wider supply scope
One of the changes initiated in the last year has seen Nancy Meara come on board as a member of the sales team. A former chef, she had recently worked at Secretts Farm, supplying restaurants and hotels. She explains that Tastables’ core business hasn’t fundamentally changed. It still supplies a number of schools, colleges and universities in the area, supper clubs and fruit and veg sellers, alongside restaurants and pubs, but there is more scope since the takeover.
“We’ve got a bigger buying power now,” she explains. “We’re more competitive. We can get out to more places than ever before. And with the daily delivery from New Covent Garden Market we can offer a wider choice of produce. If the business had remained as it was – supplying Brighton – I wouldn’t have come on board. Mark wants to expand, but he doesn’t have the time to go out and meet new people, follow up on leads and enquiries.”
To that end, Tastables has expanded its social media presence. Meara says the vans are a good focal point in getting the company’s name out there, but engaging with social media, in particular Twitter [@Tastables_BN1], has expanded the reach.
“Twitter is definitely a new way of obtaining business,” she confirms. “People do get in touch via social media.”
Another tool Meara has implemented is a monthly newsletter detailing what products are coming into season, what are about to finish and what specials are available. Many chefs have been appreciative of this, especially those who are interested in quality, provenance and the like.
“It’s about building relationships,” she notes. “We also encourage chefs to come down and meet us. It’s a nice way of introducing the chefs to the company. Some people aren’t too bothered, they might be too busy and as long as they get their veg and it’s a good price, they’re happy, but others like to come in and chat to us.”
The local angle is another reason why First Choice purchased the company. As McCullough notes, being closer in proximity to producers means you work more effectively with them.
“You have more control of the product you receive,” he explains. “When there are one or possibly two other points in the chain before you, you don’t have as much of a say. If you can communicate directly to growers, you get more control. It’s much better.”
It’s clearly a success. McCullough is effusive when he says Tastables’ first year as part of the First Choice family has exceeded all expectations.
Stables clearly agrees: “The business has come on leaps and bounds. People are taking notice. We’re attracting the customers we wanted to attract. I think the reason behind that is because we’re more in people’s faces. We’re using Twitter and social media. We’re doing more advertising and using word of mouth. A lot of chefs are moving down here from London and they’re looking for people that can offer something a little bit more, rather than the other suppliers down here who can just do basic fruit and veg.”
And there are still opportunities. Some chefs who have moved to Brighton are still using London suppliers. Stables suspects that a few don’t think the local companies can meet their discerning requirements. That, then, is the challenge.
“It’s about educating them,” he says. “Letting them know that we’re on their doorstep and that we can give them that service – probably even a better service. We can give them second deliveries, third deliveries. It’s about us being able to give them what they are promoting.”
It is all about perception then. But you sense it’s a battle that Tastables is well on the path to winning.