For over six decades, Brakes has been supplying the foodservice industry with quality food and catering material.

Formed by brothers Peter, William and Frank Brake in the back room of a pub, the company has grown to become the leading foodservice wholesaler in the UK.

Employing over 6,500 people and with the most extensive range of own brand products in foodservice, Brakes has a history of innovation, including being the first company to introduce frozen chips and printing customers’ menus to help them out.

Stuart Smith, UK Merchandising Director, tells Wholesale Manager what are the biggest trends in foodservice and reflects on how the industry has changed over the years.

How is Brakes set up in terms of a local depot network?

We have a network of depots designed to reach all four corners of Britain. Within that, we have a mix of ultra-modern, efficient, purpose-built regional distribution centres, combined with a range of smaller, flexible, customer-focused regional depots.

How much of your business is done online? Do you offer an app for customers to use?

Our e-commerce customer website has introduced a new standard for e-comms in foodservice and the site is generating positive feedback and capitalises on the rapid move to mobile ordering. It has also helped drive our online sales by 10%.

We’ve made a huge investment in technology, meaning that from the moment the customer logs onto our customer-focused e-commerce website to the time we drop off our award-winning food, technology is at the heart of our offer.

How ‘green’ is Brakes as a company? What’s Brakes approach to food waste and packaging? How ‘green’ is your logistics?

CSR is central to the way we operate; and we have taken sector-leading positions on plastics, waste, philanthropy and food provenance.

We have industry-defining commitments promoting an ethical and sustainable supply chain, waste reduction and a smaller carbon footprint. We’ve been recognised for the work we’ve done, winning a host of awards, including the FWD’s Green Wholesaler Award, the Sustainable Supplier Award at the Footprint Awards, the FPA’s CSR Award and the BFFF’s Sustainability Champion.

We proudly met our 2ZERO20 commitment to remove hard-to-recycle plastics by the end of 2020, and we were the first foodservice wholesaler to sign the UK Plastics Pact and were a founding signatory of the IGD/WRAP Food Waste commitment. We’ve won the MSC Wholesaler of the Year for seven consecutive years and, in 2019, became the only foodservice wholesaler with RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) accreditation.

As a company how are you addressing ‘social’ issues such as equal opportunity, diversity and mental health?

We’ve had a huge focus on creating a more diverse workforce and equitable and inclusive culture.

Our LGBT+, Generations, and Women’s colleague networks are a major part of our efforts. We ensure that all groups have a voice at Brakes. We have also taken a lead in tackling Wellbeing, including an award-winning mental health programme. The business is totally committed to ensuring fair treatment for all, which is one of our published CSR goals.

Outside of the company, one particular area where we have had a long-term commitment is child food poverty. We are passionate about addressing this, so much so that we started our own charity, Meals & More, to tackle holiday hunger, providing 300,000 meals to vulnerable children in 2020. We also joined Marcus Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Taskforce adding our voice to the campaign to put an end to child food poverty.

How did you come to work at Brakes in the first place? When did you join Brakes, and what jobs have you done with the business before your current role?

Before Brakes, I was at Sainsbury’s for 8 years, joining Brakes in 2001. But, as I’ve been with Brakes for 20 years, it’s probably more relevant to talk about why I’ve stayed.

It’s a fantastic business, full of great people who love a challenge, and we are constantly evolving and moving forward, but without losing the essence that the Brake brothers had when they started the business – put the customer at the heart of everything we do.

What does your role involve day to day?

Day to day, I head up the Brakes merchandising team. The past year has brought some unique challenges, as we try to maintain optimal stock levels with the opening and closing of hospitality.

But among all those challenges, there were some moments of great success and I was particularly proud of the role that my team played in sourcing a range of products for the clinically vulnerable boxes during the first lockdown, which we delivered alongside Bidfood. In all, we successfully delivered more than five million boxes, providing a lifeline to so many people. We did this at a time when retail shelves were empty and in just over a week, we had procured and delivered a range of consumer-sized products – an amazing achievement.

As well as my day job, I have the great privilege of heading Brakes’ CSR Council. Seeing Brakes take an industry lead on some many of the issues that matter to colleagues, customers and consumers has been brilliant. And to be recognised with so many awards for our industry-leading CSR campaigns has been the icing on the cake. I’m also on the board of the BFFF (British Federation of Frozen Food). This gives me a broader industry perspective, crucial in dealing with both the pandemic and also Brexit complications and how they affected the industry.

Who has inspired and encouraged you in your career?

I have been fortunate to work for and currently with many great leaders who have had different strengths. A standout was Frank Brake who was the main reason for me joining Brakes. His passion for the business, the industry and clarity of vision was fantastic, and his legacy still exists in the business today. I was still in touch with him until his death in 2019.

Looking back, what have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the UK foodservice industry over the years?

There have been so many changes and evolutions that it’s almost impossible to single out individual changes – but increasingly eclectic and global food offerings; more personalised food offers, for example growth in vegan food or specific dietary requirements; food standards, particularly in schools, but also driven by things like horse-gate and allergy legislation; increased demand for fresh food sourced both locally and from across the globe, driving improvements in supply chains; the growth in areas like delivered with the likes of Just Eat and Deliveroo taking a lead (exponentially increased through COVID); provenance; and CSR have all had a major impact on what we do.

While this isn’t anywhere near a comprehensive list, it shows the importance of constantly challenging ourselves to stay ahead of the game.

In your present role do you personally go out to meet customers?

While my primary function is working with suppliers in our award-winning Merchandising team, customers are increasingly interested in provenance and products. The idea that departments work in isolation is one that Brakes has challenged very strongly and we try to integrate our service at every level from depots to head office.

Do you get personally involved in recipe development and range selection?

Although I have overall responsibility for range development, Brakes has a great team of merchandising directors and category managers who really champion this area, which has seen us introduce some really fantastic products, as evidenced by more than 50 awards for our food in the past year alone. However, NPD sessions are always interesting, so I do try to get involved if I’m allowed to – especially when we’re developing new desserts!

How would you sum up Brakes as a business these days? What makes you different as a foodservice wholesaler?

We are a technology, food and service business – putting the customer at the heart of everything we do. We provide the scale of a national wholesaler with the service of a regional, changing the way we work with customers. With sales and operations working hand-in-hand, we deliver a customer-centric, award-winning range of food products.

How big is your product range, and what proportion of your products are own brand versus supplier branded?

We are very proud to have the largest range of own brand products in foodservice, with more than 4,000 lines available. But for us the most important factor is not simply having a large range, it’s about having the best quality products whether we’re up against branded or other own label products.

We have a very robust, insight-led product development process, with an army of dedicated chefs, nutritionists and product experts working together to create the best own-brand range of products anywhere in Europe.

Do you supply alcohol as well as food and soft drinks? What about catering equipment?

We aim to provide what a foodservice customer wants to buy, and to make that as easy as possible. This includes selling both alcohol and catering equipment.

We recently extended our range of wines through a partnership with Bibendum, which saw more than 100 quality wines added to the range. The wines have been carefully sourced and selected to offer a compelling choice and quality to meet the needs of our customers. In addition, Bibendum’s specialist staff can offer advice on wine list selection, market insights, merchandising tips and staff training.

We also recently integrated 600 catering equipment lines so that customers can add light equipment lines to their food and drink order, whether that’s chefswear, storage solutions or buffet displays. In addition, we have a full range of catering equipment with specialist help on hand from the Brakes Catering Equipment team.

What are the biggest food and drink product trends you’re currently seeing in foodservice and how are you responding to them and being proactive about anticipating further developments?

As much as we are a wholesaler, we are also a food business. In the past few years, we’ve developed our fresh and chilled ranges, better meeting customer needs, for example with Brakes’ award-winning Birchstead meat range extending to offer lamb, chicken and pork.

Innovation and product development has meant that we’ve enjoyed unprecedented industry recognition and spectacular success, sweeping the board at the Quality Food & Drink Awards (including the coveted Foodservice Supplier of the Year) and won more awards than everyone else combined (10 including best overall product) at the Chefs’ Choice Awards.

With our brigade of chefs working at six development kitchens across the country, we have an unparalleled food and support offer. They work with an insight-led product development team, who are constantly looking at current and future trends to bring customers the products they want and need.


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