Suzie Horne visits Foodari, a food business that has moved from the virtual to the real world.
Two brothers who are passionate about local food are putting Kent produce into homes and on to restaurant and canteen tables across London and the south east.
Jonathan and Tom Parker (pictured) started Foodari in 2007 as a social networking initiative for food enthusiasts to exchange ideas and recipes.
In spring 2009 they made the move from virtual to real food with their first deliveries. Rapid growth since then means that the area served by the company has expanded. Turnover is set to reach £2m and the business will make its first profit this year.
Fresh and local is the key message. “Our unique selling point is local provenance – fresh and local is better than organic and far away,” says managing director Jonathan.
“We are trying to connect farming with the rest of the food chain. An increasing number of customers, particularly contract caterers, want food miles and provenance information.
“That provenance is worth something and enables restaurants and others to be able to market themselves through that connection.
“One of our biggest challenges is the perception that we are expensive.” But as the customer base grows, that perception is being eroded.
“Our prices are competitive with the major supermarkets and on seasonal produce we can’t be beaten.”
Finding great local produce is the easy part – getting it to the customer in the right state is the challenge, says Jonathan.
“Working with local farmers is a great advantage because when there is a sudden peak in demand, they can often supply us at short notice. At a food festival recently we sold out of Romanesco cauliflowers and we were able to say to customers that our grower was cutting them right then and that we would have more in a few hours’ time.”
A visit to the company’s website shows the high value it places on local supply, with growers’ and producers’ stories being told in short profiles detailing what is grown and produced where and by whom.
Crucial to the success of a local food business is understanding both producer and customer, says Jonathan. “It’s so important to understand how suppliers and customers operate, what the pressures are for them. How the timing of collections and deliveries affects them is a good example. “Some suppliers will invoice, some don’t, so you must have very good recording systems in place so you can track what’s come from where. It’s not just a question of financial management but traceability too, which is very important for our customers.”
Stability is also important for both suppliers and customers. “Our marketing and pricing is more stable than many other outlets, it’s just not fixed.
“Because we remove various links in the chain, we get a better price for our customers but producers get a better price from us too – we split the difference. For example, because we can offer our baby leaf salad supplier a firm price, he has been able to invest in another polytunnel.”
However, flexibility is also essential. “Cauliflowers were a good example earlier this year when they were badly affected by the drought and the price went through the roof. We were able to explain the growers’ problems and that even though they did not form the dense, tight head that people were used to, the taste was great.
“In general, the bigger the customer, the less flexible they are but some public bodies such as the NHS have been fine. They have a faster payments scheme for smaller suppliers. Greenwich University is also a good customer.”
Private hotels and multinational chains tend to be the most difficult to deal with, he says.
Wholesale orders are generally packed and vans filled at night so that deliveries can be made in the early hours. “They can phone an order in at 4pm, it will be picked that day, packed that night and delivered the next morning; it keeps better in the ground than in the chiller,” says Tom Parker, who also runs a precision farming consultancy called FarmImage.
Recently the brothers have been working with chefs like Bruno Loubet at the Zetter Hotel in London to improve supplies of vegetables which have been difficult to find.
This has led to Foodari itself growing courgettes, chard and mooli radish among other crops. Asparagus and free-range eggs are already supplied direct from the farm near Ashford where the business is based.
Local food business challenges
Careful cash-flow management is critical to the success of any business but for one like this, with multiple suppliers and customers, it is a particular challenge. Payment terms vary between customers and Foodari is generally paying suppliers long before it receives payment from its own customers.
Chris Parker, father of Jonathan and Tom, is Foodari’s finance director and his background in financial management of large and successful companies ensures order in this department.
“Identifying potential customers is another challenge – don’t try to sell to everyone. Stick to small local areas initially and develop them.”
Foodari has worked with Kent University’s Business School to profile customers and improve marketing. “On the retail side, you need to think about how people shop, where they travel to and from, when they are going to be where. Restaurants want early morning deliveries; households tend to want late afternoon deliveries.”
Some of the most successful sales promotions have included Valentine’s Day boxes, containing all the ingredients for a superb meal treat using local produce – the same for Mother’s Day and Easter.
Customers can be very unforgiving so in a business which relies heavily on word of mouth for increasing sales, customer service is very important. “They’ve got plenty of other options so you have to address whatever the problem is – be honest and up front about it – explain why it’s happened and fix it quickly.
• 70% wholesale – restaurants, hotels, hospitals, nurseries, schools mainly in London, Kent and Sussex
• 30% retail – mainly online with average £45 spend, phone orders, farm shops, farmers markets,
food festivals and events
• Meat and dairy 100% Kent produce, fresh produce about 80% at this time of year
• Word of mouth most successful marketing tool
• Farmers markets, food festivals and events are good marketing and promotion opportunities – also involvement with local schools, donating 50p for each veg box ordered
• Recently opened farm shop at Kent Life centre, Maidstone
Social networking boosts business
Jonathan and his colleague Laura Audsley frequently use Twitter to update customers about what’s new, seasonal or on offer. “It works very well with offers,” says Jonathan. “For example a free punnet of strawberries for the next 10 online orders can really drive business.”
As well as being able to find out where their food comes from, customers also use the Foodari website as their virtual recipe book and to chat with other foodies.
Case study: Trevor and Stephen Bradley – Boundary Farm, Wingham, Kent
Supplying vegetables to between 30 and 40 customers in any week means growers Trevor and Stephen Bradley have enough to worry about. Foodari effectively widens the reach of the brothers’ Kent produce without them having to do the legwork.
The Bradleys grow 158ha (390 acres) of vegetables alongside combinable crops at Boundary Farm near Wingham. Other customers include local wholesalers, catering suppliers in London, a rising number of farm shops, fish and chip shops, local shops and local supermarkets as well as vegetable box schemes.
“We’re blessed with some of the best soil and a mild climate so we can produce brassicas all year round. We don’t grow just for yield, we grow for taste as well,” says Trevor Bradley.
He likes the fact that Foodari promotes, sells and delivers fresh local produce to a wide range of customers with usually just one link in the chain between grower and consumer.
“Foodari is not a huge customer, but they are important to us. I don’t mind if a customer wants 10 or 1,000 cauliflowers, as long as it’s regular business.
“We need all our customers, but this is more personal. I like the idea that they come to me and get the produce then sell it direct. It’s not like some chap sitting in an office, never seeing my produce and pushing it all around the country. I hate people taking a chunk out of my business for nothing.
“We probably get a more even price with Foodari than with some other customers. I set the price and we try and keep it steady. They are fair payers and pay on monthly terms, which is generally better than the supermarkets and you don’t have to get involved in subsidising special offers, which is something I feel very strongly about.
“There’s no expensive bag or packaging with Foodari. The produce is just boxed and generally the box comes back to us, which saves us money. And there’s no transport cost because they collect it.
“With Foodari, I also set the collection time to suit our business, rather than being dictated to by the customer. We don’t generally want to supply restaurants and the pub trade direct because they can be fickle and bad payers.”