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How to sell to restaurants

With more restaurants making it a priority to serve locally produced food, this article investigates the opportunities for small food and drink businesses to supply to restaurants and the hospitality sector.

In light of the horse meat scandal, food provenance and greater transparency and traceability in the supply chain has become increasingly important to restaurant owners and their customers. Whether chefs are serving produce sourced straight from their neighbourhood or plating up food from a small producer based elsewhere in the UK, a trend for using smaller, local suppliers has emerged over the last few years. This is resulting in increased opportunities for small producers to supply to restaurants, cafés and other local eateries.

While large restaurant chains and franchises have set procurement processes to follow, the format for selling to smaller, independent restaurants is more ambiguous and there isn't a universal template that can be applied. Depending on the size and style of a restaurant or eatery, procurement may be managed by a buyer, the restaurant owner or the chef.

Jennie Watson caught up with two small food producers to discover how they secured restaurants as customers and to pick up some tips for success for anyone aspiring to supply the sector.

Rob Cunningham, Owner of Maynard's Farm

Artisan producers and curers of meats, Maynard's Farm supply their produce to a range of restaurants, from local pubs in Shrewsbury to Rick Stein's Padstow restaurant and The Shard. Rob handles the majority of sales himself, but also uses the services of a marketing company and distributor.

Developing your prospect list

Deciding which restaurants to approach is just as important as nailing the pitch, according to Rob. To avoid wasting your time and that of others, research and shortlist restaurants that are well suited to using your product. Before you approach a restaurant, check out their website and, if possible, try dining there to discover if your product would sit well on their menu.

"If you're selling cheap and cheerful volumes then you need to sell to restaurants that supply cheap and cheerful food," explains Rob. "We produce high-end meats, so there's no point in approaching a greasy spoon or a lay-by café because their margins won't stretch to our prices. We target more upmarket restaurants with a discerning clientele, who are prepared to pay a bit more for a quality product."

Cold calling

Larger restaurants often use e-procurement websites to conduct transactions with suppliers, but the majority of small producers still rely on telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings to strike up business with restaurants. Cold calling via telephone or email, connecting through social media and knocking on doors are  usually the first steps for small producers wanting to sell to restaurants.

The primary goal is to find out who buys the produce for the restaurant. Once you've found the most appropriate contact, which is usually the chef or restaurant owner, try to spark up a conversation with them to introduce your product. If they're interested, arrange a meeting to show them some samples.

In most cases, cold calling is how Rob initially approaches a restaurant. "I've been told to get lost in the past," says Rob, "but if you persevere, it will pay off. It's important to be confident in yourself and your product. Be enthusiastic too. If you're passionate about what you do, people will sit up and take note."


Tight budgets often mean that small producers can't employ a sales team. Outsourcing help from specialists in their field, however, is a feasible way for small business owners to aid the selling process. There are numerous PR and marketing agencies that specialise in promoting small food and drink producers.

"We work with Monkhouse Food & Drink," says Rob. "They're very well connected and have opened lots of doors for us." There are also distributors that specifically sell the products of small producers to restaurants. "We work with a distributor, and we act as a hub for them so other small producers also bring their products to us. We get three or four emails each week with orders, which we fulfil, then the distributor collects from us and despatches the products to the restaurants. Working with a distributor means that we supply some restaurants that I'm not even aware of. The distributor takes care of everything and pays us on our terms."

Increasing your chances

There are steps a small producer can take to increase their chances of selling to restaurants. First and foremost, the price of your product has to be right. Restaurants have margins to maintain so if your price point is too high, you are hindering your chances of getting the deal.

In Rob's experience, "most chefs work on about a 65% margin so, as a rule of thumb, if a meal costs £1 to manufacture they will sell it for around £3". If you have a high-end food product, selling to the right chefs is essential. "We work with a really creative chef in Shrewsbury. He'll pay a little bit more for some items and then claw it back on other products," says Rob.

Accreditation schemes and accolades can help small producers to access restaurants. Maynard's Farm has been named as one of Rick Stein's 50 Super Food Heroes and awarded Gold Stars on a number of their products at the Great Taste Awards 2013, which has been an enormous help to Rob when selling his products to restaurants. Not all restaurants require their suppliers to be accredited, but schemes such as SALSA (Safe and Local Supplier Approval) give restaurants confidence that the produce is safe and legal to buy.

"It gives restaurants peace of mind," says Rob. "If a customer becomes ill and the restaurant is checked out by environmental health, they can prove that their suppliers are practising HACCP if they're SALSA accredited."

For Maynard's Farm, working with a charity also helped them to found a relationship with Aqua Shard, as both businesses are supporters of Action Against Hunger.

Tom Chatfield, Sales and Marketing Manager at Quickes 

The Quicke family has been selling their traditional cheeses to top restaurants in the UK and abroad for generations. Their stockists include Michelin-starred restaurants, The Ritz and Claridge's, demonstrating that small, farm-based food businesses can achieve big success.

Distributors and wholesalers

If you choose to work with a distributor or wholesaler it is vital to find one that is suited to your business, according to Tom. Effectively, you are leaving your chances of selling to restaurants in the hands of another business, so it is critical to investigate whether they have a good reputation and deal with the right type of restaurants for your product.

Quickes started working with their first distributor, Paxton & Whitfield, in 1975 and have continued to use distributors ever since. "It can be a leap of faith to go from managing sales yourself to working with a distributor, but if you take time to pick someone that really 'gets' your product and sells it as you would, it's a really smart move if you want to grow," says Tom. "It allows you to focus more on your product rather than processing orders and handling credit risk."

Speciality food distributors and wholesalers, including Hawkridge Farmhouse Dairy Produce and Cheese Cellar, are a perfect fit for Quickes as they target restaurants with a strong interest in food provenance such as Michael Caine's and Marco Pierre White's restaurant at The Cube.

Once you've started working with a distributor or wholesaler, it's important to maintain regular contact and teach them about your brand, so they can sell your product effectively. Quickes believe that much of their successful sales track record is due to working hard with distributors to help them understand and become passionate about Quickes' products, so that they really champion their brand.


Exporting can be intimidating to small business owners, but small producers do not have to be confined to selling only to UK-based restaurants. Producers often find that there is a greater appetite for their products abroad, so look out for food trends to spot exporting opportunities. If you're thinking about exporting, the best option is to find a distributor or an export agent with close restaurant connections in the country you want to export to.

Quickes export around a quarter of their cheese to America through Murray's, a top-end wholesaler in New York, who has sold their cheese to acclaimed restaurants such as April Bloomfield's Spotted Pig.

"Exporting involves a good deal of speculation before things start to pay off, but at the same time, things can take off quickly if there's a real appetite for a particular product abroad," says Tom. "In the States, they love British food at the moment. Europeans are seen as the forefathers of cheese, so there's huge interest in what we do. Mary Quicke is the only English cheesemaker invited to sit on the judging panel at the American Cheese Society Awards; she's become a bit of a celebrity over there!"

Raising the odds

Attending food and drink trade shows, such as the Food and Drink Expo and the Speciality & Fine Foods Fair, is an effective way to showcase products to restaurant buyers. Producers can also find out about local meet-the-buyer events by checking the websites of Regional Food Groups such as Deliciouslyorkshire and Taste of the West.

For Quickes, signing up to Slow Food UK's Forgotten Food programme has also been constructive in their search for restaurant stockists. "Our whey butter was selected as a 'forgotten food' by Slow Food. They run an alliance programme with 100 chefs, including Raymond Blanc, and hold events for producers to meet them," says Tom. "It's a really effective way of getting our produce in front of chefs. Sometimes I'll get an email from Slow Food saying that a certain chef would like to try our cheeses. If the chef then shouts about us on social media, it opens a lot of doors." Quickes' vintage cheddar was named as a Top 50 Product out of 10,000 products in the Great Taste Awards 2013, which has also been instrumental in raising awareness about the quality of their produce among chefs, buyers, food writers and retailers.

Adding a personal touch to your service is also a way of grabbing the attention of restaurants. Quickes invite chefs and front-of-house-staff for tours of their dairy farm to learn about cheesemaking and select the cheeses that will fit best in their restaurant.

In Tom's opinion, restaurants prefer a personal, old-school approach to buying. "Our distributor Cheese Cellar has an online ordering system, but they're reporting that customers predominantly prefer to pick up the phone. I think chefs want quick interaction and to be able to call and order what they need, when they need it."

More opportunities to sell to restaurants

Restaurants are not limited to buying food and drinks products. In fact, there are opportunities for businesses across multiple sectors to sell to restaurants.

Chef Works supplies clothing and footwear specifically for chefs and front-of-house staff.

Pattersons provide cleaning supplies, kitchen equipment and chef's disposables such as cling film and skewers.

Kitchen Shrink offers a consultancy service to restaurant owners, including advice on business planning and brand development.


Source article - Cobweb



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