A Conversation With Nat Walker, Food and Drink Buyer From Green Fields
This first episode of The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show is an excellent conversation with Nat Walker, the Manager and Buyer for Green Fields Farm Shops and Delis in Telford, England, UK. This episode enables you to see your food or drink products from the buyer’s perspective.
Nat has over two decades of experience in retailing local food and drink, including buying products from artisan food and drink producers. Using her experience as a buyer, Nat gives useful insights into what buyers look for when deciding whether or not to list a food or drink product.
She also makes a number of observations about the characteristics of good suppliers. This episode will help you to understand buyers’ priorities and expectations and will help you prepare for your next meeting with a retail buyer.
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Audio Not Your Thing?
If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #001: Food & Drink Buyer Nat Walker. You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
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Key Points in This Episode
- Characteristics of good suppliers
- Key information suppliers should know before approaching a buyer
- The one thing buyers don’t like spending money on
- The importance of knowing your unique product feature(s)
- The effect the supermarket discounters are having on artisan food and drink products
- The single most important thing NOT to say to a buyer: a buyer’s pet hate
- Why tastings are so important
- How suppliers can support buyers and create a win:win situation
Very Sound Bites From Nat Walker
Check out the infographic below for some direct quotes from Nat during the show.
Links and Resources From the Show
- Green Fields Farm Shop & Deli
- Green Fields Food & Craft Festival
- Ludlow Food Centre
- Battlefield Farm Shop
- Ludlow Food and Drink Festival
- Shrewsbury Food Festival
- Beth Heath Events
- Mr Moyden’s Handmade Cheese
- The Smoke & Pickle Food Company
- Cooper’s Gourmet Sausage Rolls
- The Tracklement Company Ltd
- Mike’s Homemade
- Burts Potato Chips Ltd
- Just Crisps
- Colston Bassett Dairy
Free Download from the Show
Download the free Checklist for Selling to Food & Drink Buyers.
Thanks for Listening
Thanks for listening to the show. If you are a food or drink producer, or industry professional who would like to appear on the show, don’t hesitate to let me know by using the Contact Form on this website or by tweeting me @FoodDrinkShow. To hear when each new episode of the show is released simply subscribe to my newsletter.
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Transcript of the Show
Catherine: Welcome, everyone, to episode 1 of the Artisan Food and Drink Business Show, the show where artisan food and drink producers tell their story and share the secrets of their success. I am your host Catherine Moran.
If you’re a producer who has retail sales you’ll agree that buyers are important people. Knowing how they think and what makes them tick is useful for getting new accounts and growing the accounts you currently have.
That’s why I have devoted this very first episode of the show to getting inside the mind of a food and drink buyer. Our guest on the show is Nat Walker the manager and buyer of two farm shop-delis, known as Green Fields, which are based in Telford, Shropshire, England. Let’s now listen to what Nat has to say.
Catherine: Welcome to The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show, Nat.
Nat: Thank you.
Catherine: I’ve just come into the store and seen tons and tons of highly photogenic pumpkins. Of course, it’s Halloween this week and also half term and I know you’re very busy so I am extremely appreciative of your time. Being busy is good no doubt. Before we get into talking about buying, would you mind telling me what you did before your current role in Green Fields?
Nat: I started work at Green Fields when I was 14, so some 24 years ago. I had it as a Saturday job when I was at school, left school and continued working here through college. Just before I was 18 the manager left and I was working then full-time. I didn’t have an interview I just slotted into the position and I’m still here.
Lots of things have changed. We had a full commercial fruit farm and pick-your-own, which we do not have any more due to retirement of the previous owners. We have been under different ownership for the past 6 years. It’s changed a lot, but I’m still here, 24 years on.
Catherine: Yeah, and it looks like the future for local food and seasonal food is bright; maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
Nat: Yeah, it’s gone through lots of changes over the years. We struggle because we are on the corner of a huge —150,000 people — town. We get lots of competition from the supermarkets but I think people are starting to learn that supermarkets are not so wonderful. We are starting to see little bits of growth in the last couple of months, year-on-year, so we’re quite happy at the moment; things are going well.
Catherine: As I said, you are in charge of buying for two delis/farm shops —fine food stores, really. What would be a typical day in the life of for you?
Nat: I think it’s quite important for management to work on the shop floor so I come in around 8.00 to 8.30am, and I open everything up and set everything up and then around 9:30 to 10.00am I retire to the office. I also work on the shop floor all day on Friday and Saturday, so I do split my role. About two thirds of my time is office-based. I do all the ordering, all of the food hygiene, the staff training, and the payroll and accounts, which I oversee. We have someone in the office who does that. So quite busy, a very varied day, and it goes very quick.
Catherine: I can just imagine. What other farm shops/fine food shops/delis do you most admire and why?
Nat: I’m very jealous of the Ludlow Food Centre, it’s fantastic, it’s amazing, I was there last week. It’s very, very good. They’ve got the space, they’ve got the facilities, they’re very different to us. Although we’re quite a quaint little farm shop, we know all our customers, it’s very different. Ludlow Food Centre is amazing. Also, Battlefields at Shrewsbury, that’s lovely too, the butchery is amazing. So I am quite jealous of the facilities that some people have. We don’t have that, we are like a shack farm shop, but we’re quite quaint, and that’s what we are, and we do very well for the square footage that we’ve got.
Catherine: What would you say has been your biggest achievement in your food career?
Nat: I think opening our second shop was great. A lot of people said it’s ‘only 3 miles away, why would you open something so close?’, but Telford’s a very big town, and it’s the other side of town, with a very different clientele. We’ve tweaked it over time. It’s been opened three years now and it is slightly different to when we opened it.
We do a lot of sandwich trade business because it’s near to a huge factory area, so we do a lot of sandwiches and corporate buffets, so generally it’s going very well. And there are our food festivals, which we will talk about later on, they’re great.
Catherine: Sure, yeah. So talking about lines of products sold, would you give me an overview of the range of products you have in your two stores?
Nat: if we start with the Donnington store, which is biggest and has been established for longer, 40% of our products are fresh produce, so that’s the biggest line that we do and probably the biggest draw, now. So 40% of the business is fruit, veg, and salad. That goes from some real niche little products through to sacks of potatoes at £5.
So we cover it all and that’s the main reason why most people come to Green Fields. Deli is growing, so we’re doing an awful lot of deli, local meats. Homemade cakes are huge — about 10% of our business. We have four ladies who bake for us most days: where quite famous for cakes. Local bread, local milk, and that’s topped up with dry goods. We do all the local beers and local wines, but local produce is the thing, that’s why people come here really.
Catherine: So, fresh produce?
Catherine: And of course your produce is ultra seasonal, really.
Nat: Yes it is. We’ve just had our dirty carrots in from Mr. Galbraith in Stafford. We have his carrots for about two months. We’ve just had our pumpkins, we’ve had 1200 pumpkins — they are grown by a local boy. So we try to keep a local angle on it. We try to offer good value as well, and hopefully if they buy at that value they will buy a bit of fancy cheese as well.
Catherine: I think that combination of value and local is important. For some people local is not enough, value has to be in the mix too. So you are clearly hitting both nails on the head, so to speak.
Nat: Yeah definitely. Value is important in Telford. We’re not in an affluent area, really. There are some good areas in Telford, but for example, pumpkins… they cost us a pound and we sell them for £2. I know I could sell them for £3 or £4 but I want to get value over. Potatoes were £7 or £8 last year, but we can hit our margins at £5, so we do push value because Telford is different to some areas.
Catherine: Yes, quite different to Ludlow, for example.
Nat: Yes, very different.
Catherine: So people come not just for the offerings in your shop, your two shops, but also your food festivals. Tell me a little bit about them.
Nat: We used to do four a year but the overheads are quite expensive. I can easily get the customers here, but getting producers here can be difficult because at the moment food festivals are very trendy. So we now do two a year; one in the first full weekend of June and the second in the first full weekend of December.
We’ve teamed up with Beth, who’s a great friend of mine, and she runs the Ludlow Food Festival and the Shrewsbury Food Festival. That’s enabled us to get some new producers, so we now do two huge festivals. The one at Christmas we have about 50 producers and 20 or so crafts. We have an exotic zoo for the children and a bouncy castle so we push the child market as well. We would get 5 or 6000 visitors over the whole weekend.
Catherine: Wow, that’s a lot of people.
Nat: It is, we can get the people here because Telford is so built-up. There are about 150,000 people plus within about 10 miles. We can get the people here but it’s important for the families as well: keep the children happy and the parents will be busy in the food festival.
Catherine: Yes, yes. Obviously you’re going to be advertising the food festival on your website and via social media?
Nat: Yes. Social media’s is really important for us. We’ve got about 4,500 people on our Facebook which links up to our Twitter which is about 1,500 at the moment, so from one sentence or one photograph it’s potentially about 6,000 people. We do leaflets, and road signs, we do a lot. We want people to come into the store the other 50 weeks of the year and buy the products from producers at the food festival. That’s really important to us.
Catherine: And do you manage your social media accounts?
Nat: I do yes, all by myself. It could be in the evening, or when I’m sitting at my computer while I’m on the till between customers. I do it all. I know some people pay for it but I don’t really like paying for things. I think some people pay about £300 a month to manage Facebook and Twitter. I do it myself and I’ve linked the two to my iPhone and it will upload a photo in seconds. It’s really, really important to us.
For example, I put on a post about pumpkins this year and by the time people had shared it, talked about it 3 or 4,000 people can see that photograph for free. I am into social media, I’m in the age group that’s really into it. I do have a little bit of help from my 13-year-old daughter. I just started an Instagram account and she’s given me some help with that.
Catherine: So, you’ve mentioned Facebook and you have a website, and you have an online ordering system on your website as well. And you have just mentioned Instagram. Are there any other social media channels, because of course they are coming on stream all the time, these social media phenomena.
Nat: Yes I’ve seen things like Pinterest but I’m not quite sure about that. It’s all to do with time really isn’t it? So I haven’t really looked into that. I think social media is really important. If you can’t do it yourself you can pay someone to do it. I think some of the people are charging an awful lot for it but I think it’s well worth doing and getting into.
Catherine: A few minutes ago you mentioned your margins and they’re going to be front of mind for you really as a buyer. Do you think the difference between markup versus margin is understood by the producers, the people who supply you?
Nat: I’d say generally the small producers have no idea about margins, some of the bigger companies we deal with, obviously they do. They’ll tell me something has a margin of 30% but they’re talking about markup so I generally price things according to the price we buying at. So generally, I’d say a lot of the local suppliers don’t really understand it.
Catherine: Yes it’s probably to do with the size you’re at. If you’re a really tiny artisan producer this is probably not going to be something you truly understand and it can make life quite tricky if you don’t factor that in to the price of your products.
Nat: We get given recommended retails but very rarely would I use them. We speak to the producer and see what they can get for the product at a farmers’ market, have a look at what competitors would be selling it for. We have standard margins across the business. Margins on fruit and veg are 50%, so we double our money. Deli we try to get about 40% but some of the dry goods, wines for example, you’re looking at about 25% margin.
We’re quite lucky because the biggest sections of our business are those with the highest margins. VAT is an issue. As soon as you have a VAT-able product the margin is very, very tight. But likewise, even a bottle of wine that you are selling for £10 with a 25% margin you still make the same money in your hand as you do with a whole box of apples, so you have to look at it that way as well. VAT’s an issue; we don’t like VAT.
Catherine: No, of course not. Why is the margin on wine so different to the fresh produce?
Nat: It’s an industry trend, it always has been. We all know wines have small margins. I suppose were competing against the supermarkets with wines, even the local ones. We’ve got three Aldi stores around here — they do some very good wines. We have to be careful but generally, it’s an industry trend. Cheese is always quite high so we generally try to push the higher margin products as much as we can.
Catherine: Sure. Talking again about your suppliers. You clearly have direct contact with a lot of your suppliers, and in your experience what three characteristics make a good supplier?
Nat: Sampling support is really, really important. If I use someone like Mr. Moyden, he does a local cheese — he does lots of local cheeses — then I would expect a good local supplier who I spend a lot of money with to do me two or three samplings over the year. So when they actually come into the store, they stand in the middle of our store, they sample the product, they talk about it, they take any questions. And also, every few weeks, they give me something for free that I can chop up and sample to the customers. We do have a tasting budget, but obviously I’d rather get it from the supplier.
And then, also supporting our festivals, coming to our food festivals they do pay, obviously, to have a pitch, because that works really well for the other weeks of the year when the festival isn’t on. And flexibility with deliveries as well is important.
Our bread or milk is delivered to us every single day; there’s no wastage; everything we have sells. Even people selling cheese, if they can come to me twice a week — flexibility with deliveries is fab — and a local supplier that says ‘we can only come past every three weeks’, they’re not that local, are they? And that’s the beauty of buying local.
Catherine: Absolutely, and Shropshire is chock full of really good suppliers.
Nat: Yeah, it’s fantastic absolutely fantastic. And lots of our people, from Smoke & Pickle in Shrewsbury, they are right next door to Cooper’s Gourmet Sausage Rolls, so quite often, Coopers will deliver with Smoke & Pickles delivery on the back of the van as well and the next week it will be vice versa. So suppliers work together as well because overheads is one thing we don’t like spending money on.
Catherine: But of course the really big food manufacturers are not flexible enough to be able to do that sort of thing.
Nat: No, No. And they won’t support sampling because they are two big. I tend to use Martin Moyden quite a lot with his cheeses; he’s fantastic; he does all our food festival events, he’s done a couple of samplings, and some taster days he’s come and sold cheese on a Saturday; he can sell £400 worth of cheese on a Saturday. And they’ve bought it from him so he’s giving them a story, they are chatting to him, customers absolutely love it.
Obviously we make some quite good money out of that, and then they buy it from us every couple of weeks or every two weeks when they are in store. It’s a no-brainer. In-store samplings are perfect.
Catherine: And being able to tell the story of the brand direct from the producer’s mouth …
Nat: Yes, and of course, as well, if somebody is local, quite often the customers will know them, and will say something like ‘oh, you are the son of so-and-so’ or ‘I remember your farm’. You’ve got them hook, line and sinker, really. You know they’re gonna buy some food.
Catherine: A very good system. So what key information do you think suppliers should know about their products before coming along to you to ask you for an order?
Nat: Information… I need to know what I can sell it for, and the margin, which I don’t often know, so we could work that out between us. I like to know that the ingredients for their products are local as well, so the whole thing is working together.
A lot of people come in and say ‘I’ve got this product and I’d like to sell it to you’, and it’s better than that what you’re stocking. That’s my pet hate. And quite often I’ll say ‘well can you leave it with me, and I’ll be the judge of that!’ We get that an awful lot, and I don’t like that.
So, if somebody was coming in, and it’s a new product, I’d say ‘right, come in one Saturday, stand there, sample your products, talk to the customers, we’ll stock it, and then we’ll see how we go from there, and that’s the test for me, if they’re not happy to do that, then they’ve not got the confidence in the product they probably should have. And that’s how we get a new supplier into store, but it’s very difficult because we have so many suppliers.
Pork pies, for example, we have three different people making pork pies, and are all slightly different. It’s very hard to get a new product into our store now.
Nat: Yes, it’s quite difficult. And jars, and jams, and chutneys, and chilli Jams. So many people are doing them in Shropshire, you can’t have everybody otherwise you turn the shop into a museum with lots of lines that aren’t shifting … that aren’t moving.
Catherine: So how, then, if there are so many producers making the same thing, for example, there are lots of chilli jam, preserve, jam makers, maybe even cake makers out there, what makes you decide ‘right, I’m gonna a list that chilli jam, and I’m gonna list that raspberry jam, or pork pie?
Nat: if we look at the jams and chutney lines, I mean, if someone came into us and said I’m selling chilli jam, and I looked and I said ‘oh, we’ve got chilli jam from Tracklements, and we’ve got chilli jam from Mike’s Homemade … Tracklements is a national brand and Mike’s home-made is our local guy, but they’re local too and they are actually closer to either of those, and so I will say ‘okay let’s give it a go’. They come and do a sampling, they support or Food Festival, and it sells, so therefore we’ve got three different chilli jams in the store.
But if I did want to cut that down to two, then it would be the local one, as long as the product stacked up … the local would get the shelf space, and it would be a national brand that would go. It’s quite easy around Shropshire, because we have so many people, but you have to be careful. I could take six different chilli jams but I do have to say ‘no’ to people, quite often.
Catherine: And of course a shelf space is at a premium.
Catherine: So, you mentioned sampling and standing up and engaging customers with cheese, what other things do you think that suppliers could do to help you sell more their products?
Nat: Promotions are quite good. One national brand that we do use is Burt’s Chips. We used to have Tyrrell’s but they are so, so huge now that we have Burt’s Chips from Devon, which aren’t local. And we have Just Crisps, which we sell next to them.
Burt’s will quite often ring up. They’ll have 25% off, so I’ll have a pallet. I’ll knock the offer back to the customers. They also put samples on as well. And before you know it, you’ve sold a pallet of crisps in a couple of weeks. If the suppliers are willing to back us, we can sell.
But unfortunately, price is quite often key so we do need to start with discounting or lots of samples, or multibuys, And if we’ve got an offer on a specific cheese, we’ll find out which chutney goes well with that, speak to the producer and say ‘look, this• is going to be our special cheese for this weekend, give me some samples of your chutney too and we’ll put the two together’. And quite often people can walk by our sampling table and have four different things. You know, little lunch trip, and actually, it hasn’t cost us anything, it’s all the producers’ free goodies that we’re giving away, but obviously they’re buying it and it’s going through our tills.
Catherine: So it’s a matter of your imagination as well … coming up with some good ideas?
Nat: Yeah, yeah.
Catherine: So, if there’s a problem with an order from a small supplier how would you prefer that they dealt with the issue?
Nat: Quite often I know them so I’ll pick up the phone and say ‘we’ve got an issue’. They’re local so they’ll be here, they’ll have a look at the product and they’ll replace it for us and if something hasn’t been particularly good and we’ve had to refund a customer, they’ll compensate us for that as well so we’re not out of pocket. It doesn’t happen very often to be honest. Very rarely do we get an issue.
Sometimes there’s a very good reason for it. We had a batch of in cheese at one time that wasn’t the best — it was the milk — and people understand that and we don’t lose customers over products that aren’t good enough, it just doesn’t happen because we deal with them in a way that they understand that we are the middleman. Occasionally we’ve had steak that wasn’t the best and we go back to the farmer who supplied it. We give the customer a couple of steaks for free, refund their money and they are quite happy — they understand it’s a small business.
In a supermarket the customers would probably be quite cross because you expect perfection from the big multinationals. But they are fine with us as we know them, we know our customers, and quite often they know me, it’s quite easy to deal with complaints but they don’t happen very often.
Catherine: And we spoke very briefly earlier about the supermarkets and the historical stranglehold they had on food. So what do you think the future looks like for the farmshop/deli/local food scene?
Nat: Well, as far as competition goes I don’t really think the run-of-the-mill, the Tesco’s, the Asda’s, possibly Sainsbury’s to some extent are really competition to the farm shops at the moment. Our biggest competition are Aldi, LDL, the real discount retailers. We really struggle against them because they are so, so cheap that most people will go and try them. Whether something happens with them and people realise that lots of things aren’t what they are, I don’t know, I think something will come out at some stage.
Waitrose are quite a threat to us because Waitrose do use some local suppliers, and we have got a Waitrose about 6 or 7 miles away from here. But we do have a lot of the discount retailers which is why we are trying a little bit to look at our price now and get more offers, like I mentioned with our pumpkins and our bags of potatoes to offer a really good value.
I think the days of charging a lot of money for something that isn’t a lot different to what’s on offer in the supermarket are gone. But I think it’s quite bright, I mean, people are still opening up a lots of delis around our area. I think deli is probably the biggest growth rather than just general shop floor in the farm shops. People like to see things being cooked behind the deli counter and being able to order something quite specific.
Cheese is a big growth area. We are selling a lot, lot more cheese even than this time last year. But it’s got to be specific, don’t just sell us Stilton sell the best Stilton because LDL will have — you see this on the adverts — a big chunk of Stilton for £2, we can’t compete with that. But, if you have called Colston Basset Stilton, and it’s £4, people will pay for it because the product is better. And then, when we make our quiches, we put Colston Bassett Stilton in them; we are trying to link those products through the whole deli. But I think deli is probably the biggest area of growth.
Catherine: And of course you can do it very well.
Nat: Yes. And with coleslaw, potato salad, couscous salads Greek salads, the margins are absolutely huge on them. They are fairly labour-intensive but we try and do them, we try and squeeze them in. I think the biggest room for growth is probably in deli, in our area.
Catherine: Well, that’s very exciting, I do think the future looks bright for quality outlets like you run. So, well, I think that I’ve taken up plenty of your time Nat, but can you just reassure an food or drink producers out there who may be interested in supplying you that they can still come along and get in touch and see if you would be interested in stocking …
Nat: Yes, you know, if you’re a supplier who has something in the Shropshire area we will always look at it. We don’t have an awful lot of room in our stores, they are jam-packed, but national brands will be… if we can get something local that is comparable, national brands will be removed very quickly. So, yeah, they’re very welcome, they can contact us and send some samples over and go from there.
Catherine: That’s fantastic, Nat. Thank you very much for your time.
Nat: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Catherine: Thank you so much, Nat. It was great to have you on the show and your insights and perspective as a food and drink buyer will have been useful for listeners. Based on some of the things Nat mentioned on the show, I’ve put together a Buyer’s Guide Checklist, and that lists some of the key information you need to know before approaching a buyer about stocking your products. You can download that for free at www.myartisanbusiness.com. And while you’re there you can check out the show notes for this episode and also, you can find out how to connect with Nat on line. And you can get the links that Nat mentioned on the show.
To connect with me on line, I’m on Twitter as @FoodDrinkShow, so why not follow me? Well, that’s it for the moment, folks. I’m Catherine Moran, from The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show. Until next, time, happy cooking, happy brewing, happy fermenting and thank you for listening.