How to find suppliers

09 November 2004
How to find suppliers

Although I originally come from Cheshire, I hadn't worked in the area for years - so I had to start from scratch with suppliers. Initially, I had to use my London fruit, veg and meat suppliers just to get me started.

Once I had time, I visited the chefs based up here and chatted to them to try and get some more local suppliers sorted. That's how I found my wine supplier (Gerrard Seel, in Warrington, 01925 819695).

One of my big problems is the fact that I'm a very small operation and, because of that, struggle with delivery. Suppliers want minimum orders if they're going to come out this way, and sometimes it's only worth them couriering stuff over. Obviously, if I paid, say, £80 for someone to drop off mushrooms, I'd go out of business very quickly.

Having said that, I do have my herbs and baby veg couriered up from Warwickshire. I've tried to get people who have local allotments to supply them, but no one seems interested. They come from a company called SGS (01926 435566). I found out about them by word of mouth, too.

I've gone through three veg suppliers and two or three butchers so far. It's a trial-and-error job. I found a rare breeds butcher - Edge & Son, in the Wirral (0151-645 3044) - through British Meat. The only problem using such a small, specialised supplier is getting the volume that I need. If I go for best end of Bowland lamb (a local Lancashire breed), for instance, they can only butcher so many animals, because their farmers rear only a few sheep.

Because of this, I also use another, bigger, butcher - Aubrey Allen, based in the West Midlands (01926 311208) - which also supplies people like Claude Bosi at Hibiscus in Ludlow.

Getting equipment was interesting. I had only £55,000 for the whole of my refurb. I had to work hard getting what I wanted. You have to do your homework - all the specs, the voltage of everything you want, etc - then just get off your arse and price everything up, shop around and bargain.

I went down to Hotelympia in February and cross-priced everything with different suppliers to make absolutely sure I got the best price on the equipment I wanted. You can't be shy when you're dealing with equipment suppliers and manufacturers; you've got to hunt for your deals. Don't haggle everyone down to nothing; just make sure you've got a fair rate.

It's worth talking to all the suppliers and reps. That's how I got my Charvet stove. I had no intention of buying one, because on paper it was way out of my budget. But the rep rang me and said there was a shop-display stove going at cut price - was I interested? My fridge is also an ex-shop display one, with a dent in the side, but you can't see it because it's up against the wall.

I looked on the internet, too. I got my hotplate online: a £2,000 hotplate for £1,200, because the supplier had bought too many of them from the manufacturer and had to shift them. One thing I would never do, though, is go to auctions, particularly with electrical goods. There's no come-back if they go wrong.

Words from the wise
"Before we opened we drove around the area visiting farms, scouring the Yellow Pages and taking samples to test on our days off. Then, after we opened, a natural chain developed: you get one good supplier and they know others. You find people on the same wavelength.

For equipment, I spent a bit more so it would last longer, especially as then you get a year's warranty. Reconditioned items often have warranty for only three months. Also get something that needs less upkeep. The solid-top we chose has only two thermocouples instead of six: less to go wrong. We also had a hotplate made to measure that's invaluable, and benches made for the stills area. Our stills area is only 5ft by 3ft 6in, and we couldn't use it unless we bit the bullet and had something tailor-made. It's been worth it."
Peter Dale, chef-proprietor, the Dining Room, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, 01335 300666
"I used my food suppliers that I had used for 15 years. It's about trust. Look very closely at suppliers who undercut those you are already with. In the long run it's not worth giving up that relationship for the sake of a few pence.

Don't buy second-hand equipment. I knew it was wrong when I did it, but I thought I could save a bit of money. It cost me. If you have to buy second-hand, get reconditioned equipment and make sure it's got a warranty of six months - you've got to have enough cover for the crucial first few months. Or think about leasing something."
Malcolm John, chef-proprietor, Le Vacherin, Chiswick, London, 020 7831 4000
"As a chef I always went with the tried-and-tested from a food supply point of view; but becoming an owner, I had to reach out to cigar and wine suppliers, too. Before opening I did a review and met with all the suppliers, most importantly, face to face to make sure of the quality and credit terms. You need flexibility when you start, even a bit more beyond the standard 30-day credit period. But don't abuse them, because they will drop you down their priorities and it will get worse. Never give them the silent treatment, either; be open and honest and true to your word. Also, don't overstock, because when the first invoice arrives it will hurt.

For equipment, set a budget. For the first few months I designed my menu around a limited amount of kit. It's totally possible - any of my chefs will vouch for that. After three months I could then buy more small pans. Second-hand is OK if the dealer can give you six months' warranty. If it's a good make, it can probably stand the test of time. But prioritise. Second-hand benches, shelves and sinks are fine, but refrigeration can be one of the biggest pitfalls and it's probably not worth the risk."
Barry Smythe, chef-proprietor, Oriel, Gilford, County Armagh, 028 3883 1543

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