Approaching a public sector body to enquire about supplying it with food is fairly straightforward, although the tendering rules themselves can be complex.
Caroline Plane of Larch Consulting said it came down to relationship marketing and making the effort to call purchasers to introduce yourself and your business.
Every council provides the phone number of its buying department on its website, while many other public bodies advertise tenders in the local press.
Meet the buyer events – usually for a small fee – are another valuable way of making contacts.
“One of these is worth 50 hours spent on the web,” said Ms Plane.
Plenty of public bodies keep a database of interested suppliers, while some private companies also offer to list a producer’s details in a searchable database.
Farmers should be sure it is worth paying for this service before parting with money, however.
Tenders over £145,000 have to be published Europe-wide under EU regulations, and every one is listed on the Tenders Electronic Daily website at http://ted.publications.eu.int/official.
As a rule of thumb, businesses are wasting their time if they bid for contracts whose annual value is more than 25% of turnover.
That may not discount the larger tenders, though, because the value is for the life of the contract and not yearly.
Generally speaking, the smaller the tender, the simpler the bidding process.
For instance, many councils accept an oral quotation for tenders up to £5000 and a written one up to £15,000.
However, larger values entail a more formal bidding procedure and often require the potential supplier to pre-register for a restricted tender.
In that case, a company would be asked to fill in a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire to demonstrate basic financial and technical suitability.
Where to find opportunities
Many companies fail at the PQQ stage because they don’t fill in the paperwork correctly. Remember to return any supporting documents that are requested and elaborate on policy issues where possible.”
Even small companies will be expected to take a position on key policy issues such as equal opportunities, health and safety, environmental protection and quality.
“Don’t go to town,” says Ms Plane. “If you are fewer than five people, you don’t need a big document, just a one page company statement saying you adhere to the right policies.”
For small contracts, the public sector is less demanding about a supplier having three years of audited accounts, but experience will be necessary.
“Get references and letters of recommendation from existing customers, if you can. If you are a new company and don’t yet have a track record, go for a quick win in the private sector.”
In the end, Ms Plane adds, winning a public sector contract takes time and effort, but the rewards can be great.
“They take their time because they want to be sure and can’t afford to waste taxpayers’ money.
But they’re excellent payers and they’ll always need suppliers, even in the worst of circumstances.”