Cotswold Fayre MD Paul Hargreaves tells Andy Marino how he built up the fine food wholesaler which is trying to take a more ethical approach to business.
As I walk along the charming main street of Theale, near Reading, on my way to the next Asian Trader Big Interview, I wonder if there is still a place for small wholesalers in the UK?
AF Blakemore – not exactly tiny – had dangled its toe in the water but then ran away from the world of cash-and-carry last year. Today’s Group and Landmark merged at around the same time to make Unitas, and Booker and Tesco now share their mighty conjoined influence – in fact, 2018 was quite the year for hunkering down and linking hands against the rumoured invasion by Amazon.
But Paul Hargreaves, MD of Cotswold Fayre, is living proof that there is room in the market for a smaller and more soulful approach to grocery wholesale. Cotswold Fayre, like many of the best things in life, came about by chance but also out of a belief in trying to do good in the world.
As a teenager Paul left the family home in Manchester to study zoology at Oxford University, where he remembers a young David Cameron who was there at the same time. His parents were disillusioned NHS doctors and zoology was perhaps a sideways jink for him. “My school was very science-orientated,” he says. “I wish now I’d done arts subjects. I didn’t really want to be a doctor – 11 out of 14 sixth-formers went on to be doctors – there was one dentist, one vet, and then me.”
I think Paul’s imaginative side has manifested itself in the company he has created – a company that specialises in small-scale, quality and artisanal British products, and which grew accidentally out of his previous incarnation – following a fun few years as a salesman – as a church-based social welfare “entrepreneur” in impoverished 1980s Deptford.
“I grew up near Wythenshawe, which was the biggest council estate in Europe. I was from a fairly affluent family and I could see that other people’s lives were very different to mine. That’s what probably led me to being in the inner city and trying to make a difference,” recounts Paul. “I’ve always had a very keen sense of injustice.”
It eventually became clear to Paul that pouring his energy into helping the lost and addicted in south London was bringing diminishing returns. “We made a difference through what were are doing, helped some people get off drugs and alcohol and some weren’t committing crime anymore. But it was all pretty short-term and lasting results were difficult to come by.”
Simply trying to put food on the table for his growing young family had led Paul to do some buying and selling on the side – notably delivering items such as meringues and bottled drinks to retail customers – and this slowly expanded, in an ad hoc way. Still keen to help the locals, Paul hired them to work for him, with mixed results. “We tried to do far too much far too quickly so it was all a bit of a mess,” he admits. “Sixty per cent of employees with addiction issues probably wasn’t a good thing.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of what was to become Cotswold Fayre, and like so many of the products it supplies, it has grown organically. “I say we started [officially] in 1999 because that is when we really started properly with premises and staff and so on. Prior to that it had just been a one-man band, staying up most of the night, picking orders in my cellar, putting them in the church minibus, and delivering to customers in the south-east of England.”
Back then it was all farm shops, or rather sheds, and Paul now sees that he had found himself at the primeval beginnings of the local and artisanal food revolution in the UK. “Now there’s a lot of those type of farm shops; then there were very few. So our niche was, nobody was being a purveyor of artisan British food products. There was Italian, Greek … not much else.”
Today, farm shops form only about a third of the outlets Paul supplies, which is evidence of just how much the Convenience sector and specialist outlets have evolved over the past two decades, along with the sophistication of the British palate.
“Convenience stores only had brands that ran in supermarkets,” says Paul of the situation in the early ’90s. “Now they have all that plus ten per cent that’s not. We were fortunate in that the speciality food world was very young when we were young and we’ve grown with it.”
The good food revolution has taken hold of the British Isles and organic, quality and local products have thrived – to the benefit of Cotswold Fayre, which played an integral part in the movement.
Being artisanal and something of a creative and “curation” wholesaler, Paul had to do something revolutionary back then to make his business a success, so before he launched the company he actually asked his existing retailers what they wanted.
“The first thing I did was get a few customers – maybe 25 or 30 at the time – and hand-posted a survey asking is this a good idea? What products would you like us to stock? An unbelievable response, unheard of. If we sent 30, maybe 28 actually replied, and we had our first product range.”
It was a lesson Paul had learned earlier, from trying to help the people in Deptford. There, he had gone door to door asking the locals what they wanted to see changed in the area (and had even been threatened with a machete for his trouble). “We were quite switched on and knew if we turned up just like that it wasn’t going to work. So we asked them what they wanted, not told them what we were going to do.”
Now he applied the same technique in safer circumstances, but with the identical ambition of trying to understand and cater to people’s needs and desires.
There is a satisfaction in supplying fine food and drink that is similar to helping improve the lives of people in the inner city. In Forces for Good, the fascinating book he has just published on running a purpose-driven business, Paul admits, “A food and drink wholesale business is potentially not the most exciting business in the world,” but it seems to me that is selling it short, and that an enterprise like Cotswold Fayre is in fact a creative and exciting venture. Paul nods and agrees.
“You are in one of the most flexible positions in any type of business,” he admits. “You’re not making anything, so you’re not locked into a factory. And you’re not a retailer – again, geographically locked in. You are in the middle and the world is your oyster. You can buy anything you want and try and sell it; you can go anywhere you want to sell it, including outside the country if you want. So you have a huge amount of flexibility.”
It all sounds good, and Paul confides to me that Cotswold Fayre is doing so well that soon it will branch out into retail, and even food service is on the horizon – he moved into chilled distribution in 2014, so perhaps that is a natural progression. “Well, we have a brand,” he says, “we’re doing a third-party manufacturer’s side, so the only thing we haven’t done is the retail, which we are going to be doing – I can’t say where.”
If Paul demonstrates the same care and imagination in his stores as he has done in wholesale, it should be a success. “Having been a wholesaler for so many years I think I will be a better retailer. Who else goes to so many shops? Which other retailers have the time to go an visit other retailers? They don’t do it enough, no one does it. I’ve seen great retailers and I’ve seen really poor retailers, so hopefully I’ll copy the best bits and not do any of the worst.”
An ethical sector?
As the supermarkets kick chunks out of each other trying to fend off the discounters, it could be the perfect time to be supplying the Convenience channel, as Cotswold Fayre increasingly does.
Convenience – because price is not the only consideration, and because impulse seems to be going upmarket due to lifestyle and demographic changes – is arguably becoming a safe haven for brands and small, local fine food products that otherwise get margins scalped by the big chains.
I suggest to Paul that his business might be national but that it feels local.
“Yeah, it’s relational as well. We know our customers, we know our suppliers, and many of them are friends, on both sides. And that’s the way that business used to be, isn’t it? I say it throughout the book, but human beings need a level of community, and because we all spend so much time at work these days, if they are not getting a level of community – relationship, transactional, whatever, or just friendship – then they are not going to be the fulfilled people that they were designed to be.”
This kind of thinking goes to the heart of what Paul means when he talks about building a purpose-driven business. You have to be in it for your staff, for your customers and ultimately for the wider environment (and even the planet). You might not become a billionaire but you and the people around you will be prosperous and happy.
Unfortunately, things in the increasingly corporate atmosphere of the conventional business-world seem to be travelling quite often in the opposite direction, “More and more now, even in the independent sector,” Paul laments.
“One of my team, yesterday, had a meeting with one of our customers who had been told they are not allowed to go out this year to food shows or anything like that, and they are buyers. How can you be a buyer and not go out and meet people?” Budgets, dear boy, budgets – to paraphrase Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
But the strange thing is that now some of the big money interests appear to be coming round to Paul’s point of view – that small is the new big, and local the new international, so to speak. For ethical enterprises along similar purposeful lines as Cotswold Fayre, investment is increasingly available.
“It’s not happened on any massive scale yet,” he says. “But I was talking to an investment company as part of the research for the book, and it’s not that the investment is just about a quick win. That’s not happening. But it’s about the family trusts that are investing more for the long term. They’re looking for sustainable businesses that are making a difference to the environment, that are culturally better for their people and their suppliers.”
Could you call it the Ethical Sector?
“Well,” says Paul, “purpose-driven businesses is what we would call them. There quite a high representation of food and drink businesses within that, but there’s businesses from all sectors that would come into that. And clothes is another great example: Patagonia is a good one.”
I suggest there appears to be a number of virtuous circles developing, not just in ethics but also economics, for example in alcohol sales in Convenience, where profit is up on lower volumes because customers are starting to premiumise – not just with drinks but in many areas of their lives.
“I think price is still a driver for most buyers,” Paul says, although he believes that sincerity and consideration are rewarded for sound economic reasons: “If you’re always screwing down your supplier to get the cheapest price,” he reasons, wearing his wholesaler’s hat, “how is that going to be a long-term relationship? Because whether they want to or not, some part of them will be resenting that and making sure that more of their business is not with you but is with other people – and that obviously happens in the supermarket world, where they’re supposed to be better than they used to be but we all know they’re not really. In most cases,” he adds.
It’s another reason to be where he is in the market – at the end where there is not a simple bottom line but several, what he calls in the book the “triple bottom-line” of profit, people and planet. Ultimately it is about trust.
“Wholesale is the ultimate cooperative, collaborative business, isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically. “Because it doesn’t work unless it’s a collaboration. We always told suppliers where [their] products were being sold, but in our world the idea of telling your suppliers where their products were, was absolutely unheard of. No one did that. A few more of them do now because they followed us, but it’s this lack of trust, and if you haven’t got trust you haven’t got a business if you are a wholesaler.”
How does Paul see the future of fresh, fast and food-to-go (FFF) in Convenience? “Some level of cooking that’s made easy for you is where we are seeing quite a lot of growth,” he answers. “Quick sauces where you heat it up, bit of rice, topped up – those kind of products. They’ve always gone quite well but even better now than they used to. And they are ideal for Convenience, of course because people come in hungry, don’t they? What food will I have tonight?”
I recall last year interviewing Colin Graves, who is now advising the Co-op as well as running English cricket. “There will always be a role for independent retailers,” he had remarked, “provided they do it properly.” It’s the independent, personal element that seems to contain the magic, the “doing it properly” bit.
“There is an intimate connection between food and culture,” Paul concludes, “and part of the culture bit is people isn’t it? It’s not just the food, it’s the context of why you eat that food, how you cook it, what you talk about while you’re eating it. If you take that out of it, food just becomes this boring transactional nonsense, where we need food to live rather than living to eat.”
Appetite, intimacy, ethics – everything seems to come back to relationships and food. Perhaps being a wholesaler in the middle of it all actually is the most exciting business in the world.
Paul Hargreaves’s book, Forces for Good (SRA Books), is available on Amazon and from good local bookshops