Harlech Foodservice – Grub’s Up

The foodservice industry has had a rough ride for the last couple of years, but Harlech Foodservice is adapting well to the times.

For 50 years Harlech Foodservice has been a typical regional foodservice company serving Northwest Wales.  It’s a medium-sized, privately-owned company with a nimbler approach to decision making.

“We sit down with the three owners of the business once a month for a board meeting and it is quick and easy decision making,” says David Cattrall, Managing Director of the company. “We don’t have to talk to 30 or 40 people to make a decision.”

The company has a history of growth and stead performance, although in recent years Cattrall notes the owners have been considering a change in approach.

“We’ve had a lovely growth spurt from around 2010 to the pandemic, from a turnover of £12 million to £32 million,” he tells us. “But we recently hit a bit of plateau and the owners approached us saying they’d like to go further. We now serve North Wales, South Wales and the West Midlands. We primarily served the hospitality sector, but we have now branched out to the public sector, including schools and the NHS. We are diversifying the business.”

Across every sector Harlech is active in, there is one common factor. Service.

“We compete well on price, but service is our background, our history and where we’re investing for the future,” Cattrall insists. “While most of the foodservice sector has been reducing service and bringing forward order cut off points, we’ve looked at the market and said how can we do this better? Customers can order up to 10 pm for delivery the next day. Foodservice is an unpredictable sector, so we offer the opportunity for the chef to order at the end of service, knowing they’ll be replenished tomorrow.”

It has made Harlech a valuable partner during a tumultuous period for the foodservice sector as a whole.

“We offer up to six-day-a-week delivery to the majority of our business and we’re extending that to seven days this year for our busier customers that need weekend delivery,” Cattrall says. “We are relationship and service-led, with a friendly team. Customers know our drivers. We keep drivers on the same routes to build a rapport.”

Supporting Talent

Harlech Foodservice’s role as a valued partner has been more in need than ever during what has been an unprecedented period for the foodservice industry.

“Obviously there are the macro issues such as the pandemic, and hyper-inflation, but I think one of the less talked about challenges is staffing,” Cattrall tells us. “Our biggest concern around staffing isn’t for ourselves, it’s our customers. We operate in a seasonal market. To some degree in most sectors if you raise your wages, you will keep hold of people, but with many of our clients, it is all about the school holidays and a bit of mid-season work. They can’t offer year-round jobs. We have been using foreign employment for a number of years, but they have left the arena, they are not in the UK. So how our customers cope with that reduction in the labour force is the big challenge.”

While Harlech has managed to navigate the challenges around Covid and lockdown, the initial impact of the pandemic took a heavy toll.

“We had to write off half a million pounds of stock. To put that in perspective we make around a million a year,” Cattrall recalls. “When that first lockdown happened, we’d filled our freezers and warehouses ready for the season. That went on a long time, you can’t sell to catering establishments with stock out of date and no local population to serve. The second lockdown that went through to May 2021 hit us hard again because it went on for a long time. The stock we thought we’d sell started going out of date, and our reserves had already been strained the first time around.”

Since then, Harlech has worked hard to recover, achieving 17% sales growth and diversifying into the public sector. The company has been winning school contracts during the pandemic as well as the NHS Wales contract.

A New Structure

“We’re fortunate, and we have a longer-term plan to de-risk the business. The public sector is superb because it balances out the season and that has helped us through the second lockdown,” Cattrall points out. “We completely restructured at the start of the pandemic. My background is in corporate and being a small family business Harlech hadn’t come across a restructuring like that before. So, we sat down and chatted about what’s next and how management needed to be structured to cope with growth and invest in our people.”

The restructuring was a huge success, and Cattrall is proud that Harlech now boasts an extremely strong team, fit for its future ambitions.

“We strengthened the management, bringing in strong managers from outside of the business to take us to higher volumes,” Cattrall tells us. “On the shop floor, we’ve done a couple of things. I believe in paying fairly, so we increased the night shift pay even though we were coming out of the pandemic. They had a 15% pay rise. We made efficiency improvements and invested those savings into our people.”

Of course, one of the aftershocks of the pandemic and Brexit has been the shortage of drivers, but this was a challenge Harlech was ready to address.

“The driver situation came out of the blue for most of the industry. When it happened, being small and nimble meant we were able to make a fast decision, offering an annual retention bonus and increasing the pay,” Cattrall says. “We went from momentarily having drivers looking to other options, to almost instantly calming down because they saw how we responded to market decisions.”

Harlech has also changed how it manages Health and Safety, training all its management and staff at appropriate levels for risk assessment.

“We’ve done a lot of work training, developing and performance managing staff through the winter so that they’re stronger and fitter for the future,” Cattrall says.

It is a future Cattrall has a palpable enthusiasm for. “I love it!” he declares when asked about Harlech’s future prospects.

“In terms of our traditional hospitality business, we’re concentrating on our heartland first and foremost. The second thing we’re trying to do is grow into Northwest England, and we’ve been working in great partnership with businesses like Hickory Restaurants,” Cattrall tells us. “We’ve worked with Robinson’s Brewery, servicing their pubs and we’re working hard and developing with them. We’re in conversation with other people as well.”

The public sector is also an area rife with opportunities for the foodservice firm.

“We are growing into the public sector going through tenders for NHS Wales and hoping to win more,” Cattrall says. “We can be a lot nimbler than some of the big suppliers, a lot more personal.”

That agility is valuable at a time when supply chains are unpredictable, to say the least.

“The supply chain at the minute is chaos, but we understand that if pizza is on the menu for school dinner this week you can’t just not give pizza,” Cattrall acknowledges. “You have to have an alternative because the school needs a meal for the kids today. So, we work closely with them.”

Since the pandemic, the foodservice sector has seen some dramatic turns of events, but right now Harlech Foodservices is looking at a record-breaking year.

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