People power from shoppers keen to buy and eat locally is boosting the variety of regionally-produced food and drink available in supermarkets across the North East.
Despite consumers tightening their purse strings during the current economic downturn, the big retailers are continuing to seek out regional foods in response to demand.
Food and drink from North East producers including Lanchester Dairies, Jeff the Chef, The Consett Popcorn Company, Villa Drinks, bakers Gelders, butchers Dicksons, curry paste and powder maker Maysan and seafood specialists Swallow Fish can now all be found on supermarket shelves across the region.
These companies all worked with regional food and drink group Taste North East (TNE) which has helped scores of regional food producers find new routes to the multiples market.
The organisation – which provides a raft of services for businesses, from accreditation, product testing and development to training and marketing – works with every section of the region’s food and drink industry from artisan bakers to hotels and restaurants.
But an increasing part of TNE’s remit is to work with businesses interested in placing their products with the big supermarket groups.
Taking the first steps to becoming a supermarket supplier can be a daunting business for a small food producer. One of the first requirements is assessing whether the business can meet the multiples’ demand for quality, quantity and consistency.
TNE general manager, Sandy Duncan, works with food and drink businesses to see if they have what it takes to become a supermarket supplier – and if not, what they can do to improve their chances.
She said: “Initially, we speak to the multiples to find out what products they are looking for.
“The supermarkets’ requirements can vary, particularly with regard to the actual volume they need. We then look at what local producers might fit that bill, and can cope with quality, consistency and the amounts required.”
An important part of this is checking the packaging, product spec and accreditation to ensure that it is fit for purpose.
“If we feel someone has potential but doesn’t quite meet all the criteria, we will discuss this with the buyer. Then, in conjunction with the multiple, TNE can assist that company to meet their demands to supply. This is particularly relevant when it comes to accreditation, where TNE can assist with raising standards and achieving at least SALSA standard,” said Mrs Duncan.
TNE puts together lists of food producers it believes fit the bill for particular supermarket buyers, who then decide which ones they are keen to take further.
“We match the two together,” continued Mrs Duncan. “We can help producers with their presentations and to complete the supermarket’s paperwork.
“After the meeting, we give feedback to producers – sometimes good, sometimes not – and look at whatever issues came up and how TNE can assist those producers to win the business.
“The multiples like to go through the food groups as they see us as an honest broker and we have more local knowledge of the producers in our area and their capabilities and aspirations.”
“Despite consumers tightening their purse strings…the big retailers are continuing to seek out regional foods in response to demand.”
County Durham-based Lanchester Dairies has been acting as Asda’s North East food and drink ‘hub’ for the last five years.
It was set up by the food group eight years ago after Asda’s market research showed consumers wanted local food and the supermarket hit upon this as a method of increasing its sales.
General manager, Barry Peacock, said: “The way forward for them was local and they have done it incredibly well.
“They went around the country setting up hubs – we are now the North East hub.
“The Lanchester hub has three launches a year – early, middle and September. Asda gives us a format early in the year and tells us what it’s looking for in local products, be they dairy, jams, pies and bakery for example.
“We work closely with Taste North East to look for potential new suppliers. They will bring samples in which we will then present to Asda.
“Local is very high on the agenda. Stocking local produce also means less road miles. If you take Asda’s normal milk, it comes from Leeds which is a 200 mile trip. The furthest we go to collect our milk – Asda’s local range – is 40 miles.
“The supermarkets aren’t the bad guys – that’s rubbish. If anybody in the North East and Teesside has a product then please contact us – you may be surprised.”
TNE also supports other events such as meet the buyer days.
It recently took part in the B2B Food and Drink Exhibition at Newton Aycliffe and producers were able to book private face-to-face meetings to discuss their product ranges with buyers from Asda, Sainsbury’s, the National Trust, James Hall (wholesaler and distributor to SPAR), the NHS Supply Chain, Nisa, and Dobbies.
In addition, local buyers at the meeting included the North East Procurement Organisation, Hilton Hotel, Quayside Wholesale, Durham County Council and Sunderland City Council.
Sandy Duncan said: “It is extremely difficult for businesses to find new routes to market, especially in today’s current downturn.
“The Food and Drink Meet The Buyer Event is a great opportunity for businesses looking to supply some of the country’s biggest retailers. We are currently planning a series of meet the buyer events which will give producers a chance to get in front of key buyers from various different parts of the food and drink sector, not only the multiples but the hospitality sector and independents.”