Sleaford Quality Foods (SQF), based in Lincolnshire, is a leading cross-category supplier to the foodservice and catering industries.
The company’s successful Chef William brand was created over 25 years ago with an extensive product range of dried and dehydrated products including herbs, spices, seasonings, vegetables, fruits and pulses as well as wide range of bespoke blends.
Though Chef William continues to perform strongly, SQF has identified the opportunity to diversify and reach new customers so recently launched a new foodservice range, Our Earth, with sustainability at its heart. Anthony Ware, Foodservice Controller at Sleaford Quality Foods, spoke to Wholesale Manager about the big food product trends and what the company is doing to reduce its environmental impact.
Anthony, what does your job as Foodservice Controller involve?
I oversee the accounts of several well-known businesses within the foodservice sector ensuring customers are fully serviced and drive new opportunities to help them grow, as well as finding new customers to work with.
As Foodservice Controller I also manage a team of account managers and customer service support.
Do you personally get involved with looking after customers and developing new foodservice products?
Yes, I am at the forefront of the business, whether it is new product launches or trying to win own label contracts.
How big is SQF in turnover?
Approximately £45m per annum.
How big a priority is using UK-grown ingredients?
We are a supplier of dried and dehydrated ingredients and blends (rather than fresh). Wherever possible we will always look to source UK products, however the bulk of our range are not grown in the UK so are sourced globally.
Do you cover the whole UK?
Yes, we operate nationally so have customers the length and breadth of the UK. We also have a growing international division with customers in Europe and beyond.
What has the last year’s trading been like?
Last year’s trading was very challenging. The effects of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns on our foodservice and catering division was like others, significant and we saw a big downturn in orders, but we are pleased to say the sector is picking up again and there is lots of optimism for the future.
What kinds of foodservice and catering operations does SQF supply?
Delivering relentless customer service is one of our key company values. We have established strong, long term relationships with various foodservice customers and supply three key sectors; Delivered Wholesalers (Nationals, Independents & Buying Groups), Cash & Carry and Key End User Groups.
What different kinds of food products do you offer – how many food product lines do you offer, across how many categories?
We provide a wide range of products including Herbs, Spices & Seasonings, Savoury Mixes, Dehydrated Vegetables, Dried Fruits, Breadcrumbs & Coatings, Bakery Ingredients, Legumes/Pulses. Seeds, Sweet Mixes and many more!
We currently have more than 400 individual products across a wide range of categories.
What have been the big trends in terms of food product sales? Do you offer any vegan products?
Free from and Vegan products are increasingly popular. Customers are also becoming more adventurous in what they eat hence the growth in World Cuisines with our bespoke seasonings becoming very popular. Convenience is another trend that has taken hold. Pulses, Cereals & Seeds are also increasing in popularity.
We offer an increasing number of vegan and free from products and they are a central feature of the new Our Earth range.
Which are your biggest categories in value terms? Which are growing fastest?
Herbs, Spices and Seasonings are our largest value categories and are also growing the fastest.
What’s your lead time for orders?
Lead times are around seven working days for commodities and fourteen working days for blends.
Hearing about your factory, it sounds like you have a pretty tight knit, high quality ingredients operation in place. Do you supply ingredients to other food companies as well?
Yes, we also supply ingredients to most of the key UK food manufacturers.
We’re all under pressure to be green. What are you doing to reduce your environmental impact? Do you have any electric vehicles in your fleet? How many refrigerated vans and lorries do you have?
Environmental leadership is a priority and we have implemented several initiatives to support this including zero waste to landfill, fuel efficiency, reduced C02 emissions on our fleet of seven HGV’s and energy efficient lighting to name but a few.
We have also converted all plastic packaging from black to white, completed an overhaul of the lids on our jars by light weighting them and are conducting several more trials across our other packaging formats to improve recyclability.
I gather the Chef William brand came out over 25 years ago, in the 1990s. What specific foodservice needs did it address back then?
Main customers at that time were predominantly the MOD (Ministry of Defence), Healthcare, Education and the Prison Service. Many of these still exist today, however Chef William is reaching an ever-increasing number of sectors.
How important an issue in foodservice is sustainability and what kind of new customers do you hope to bring in with Our Earth?
Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are very important to us and our customers, Our Earth is targeting both new and existing customers within the UK. It is also a key strategic product launch for our export division.
What products are in the initial Our Earth range and who are they aimed at?
The initial range includes Gravies, Bouillons, Jelly Crystals and Sage & Onion Stuffing and are aimed at customers looking for sustainability, traceability, natural ingredients, and unbeatable flavour.
What kind of research and investment goes into developing a range like this?
We conducted extensive market research exploring the latest food trends, sustainable packaging, tasting sessions and finding out what’s important to our customers?
The name Our Earth suggests this range includes on trend Free From options like gluten-free, dairy-free, palm oil-free and vegan as well as religiously respectful options. Is that a realistic assumption?
Yes, the range reflects a wide range of customer diets, however we have been careful to make sure they all taste fantastic too.
How different are the products in the Our Earth range to those in the Chef William range?
The key difference is the number of free from options such as Gluten Free, Vegan, Dairy Free etc.
How has the Our Earth range been received?
Feedback has been very positive, and we are now receiving regular customer orders.
How important to you as a company is it to continually improve sustainability in the food industry with products that can be traced back to source, while providing meal solutions for a range of dietary preferences?
Improving sustainability is very important to us and is at the heart of our business. Within our food group, we have recently opened a new Spice Processing Facility in India and Herb Processing Facility in Turkey which provide sustainability at all stages of the process through our unrivalled contract farms scheme. Spices are harvested, farmed, dried, and processed on-site.
The new facilities provide SQF with tighter controls on traceability, quality and testing.
If the Our Earth range delivers unbeatable flavour, sustainability as standard and unrivalled convenience, the ingredients are transparently sourced, and packaging is 100% recyclable, does that mean it costs more? We are very sensitive to pricing, so the new products have been competitively priced.
How have you been promoting the new launch to trade and consumers?
The launch was supported by an extensive PR campaign which resulted in coverage by a wide range of trade and business titles. We also ran several adverts and engaged in extensive digital communication with our customers. Social Media also has a central role in generating awareness and interest in the range.
How recession-proof is demand for products like these? Is now a good time to launch a range like this, or is it like a major building development, as in once you start, you have no choice but to finish the job?
Nothing is ever recession or Covid proof, however we are confident the new Our Earth range will be successful in line with latest trends and the ever changing customer base.
Wholesalers face a wide range of challenges in today’s saturated marketplace, including finding room for new products. How do they fit in Our Earth – what does it replace?
Rather than replacing existing products, the Our Earth range gives customers another choice with products that are consistent with current customers’ behaviour and eating habits.
Did you remain open for business during the Covid pandemic?
Yes, thanks to the efforts and commitment of colleagues throughout the business we remained open throughout the pandemic to ensure we could continue supplying our customers with our wide range of quality products.
How was the foodservice industry affected by the pandemic?
The effect of the pandemic on the hospitality sector has been well documented so we, like many, suffered a significant downturn in orders throughout 2020, however as restrictions come to an end, we are already seeing a big upturn in business again.
How long do you anticipate it will take for the foodservice industry to recover and get back to pre-Covid levels?
The recovery has well and truly started, and demand is exceptionally high. The great British public are eager for life to return to something like normal and this is being reflected by the increasing size and quality of orders.
Finally, where do you see SQF going? Any more NPD plans on the way?
Reaching new customers, strengthening existing relationships and building new relationships is a central element of our growth strategy. Innovation, new products and new blends are more important than ever. We want to help our customers grow and achieve success. We believe our wealth of experience and knowledge of the ever-changing marketplace puts us in pole position to do this.