If there's one wholesaler that has thrown its weight behind local sourcing more than any other, it's Musgrave Budgens Londis (MBL). Budgens has been sourcing regional food and drink since November 2003, when it started selling products from Kentish Fare at its Hawkhurst store. But the group is now on course to be trading with up to 200 producers by the end of the year, giving Budgens and Londis retailers access to a wide range of regional products.
All of Budgens' own-label fresh meat is British and it was the first retailer to introduce the Red Tractor Promise Scheme, which assures the meat is from a British source. Budgens has also sponsored the Taste of the West Awards for several years and MBL recently announced it is a sponsor of British Food Fortnight - held from September 23 to October 8 - for the third year running.
Jonathon Bayne, technical development and regulatory affairs controller at MBL, says: "Local sourcing is all about a point of difference and developing a relationship with the local community. It keeps money circulating locally and retailers are seen to be supporting the community."
Nearly half of all Budgens and Londis stores sell local products, and many reap big rewards from doing so. Guy Warner, owner of Warner's Budgens in Broadway in the Cotswolds, reports regional food and drink makes up 10% of his sales.
Bayne and his team, which includes two buyers - one for fresh and one for ambient - have worked closely with regional food groups such as Taste of Anglia and Taste of Sussex to develop a simple but effective distribution model. More recently a local sourcing co-ordinator has been appointed to assist with the day-to-day management.
"It would be so easy to ask producers to deliver into large distribution centres but we work with food groups to find a distributor on a local level," explains Bayne. "For example, with Taste of Sussex we went through a selection process to find someone who could satisfy our needs and the producers'.
"It's a big win for everyone because it significantly reduces food miles and is good for the local economy. Because of its nature, it's slightly more expensive but benefits the stores because they get two deliveries a week of fresh and ambient."
Stores usually receive a midweek delivery containing a mix of ambient and fresh, plus a delivery on Friday with a heavy emphasis on fresh for the weekend trade. "It works very well," says Bayne. "We have an identical model in Anglia and one with Taste of the West. In Somerset, we're already supplying Philip and Lesley Tout's two stores in Cheddar and Langford and are about to supply Stoke-sub-Hamdon and Poundbury, which is a natural one to follow because of the area's links with the Prince of Wales."
Alliances with regional food groups are key to the MBL model. A link-up with Midland Fine Foods and Surrey Food Group is in the pipeline, but its relationship with Taste of Sussex is very much established. MBL supplies 120 Sussex-made products from 26 producers, and delivers to nine stores. "If the producers were to deliver direct to the stores twice a week it would be a nightmare. With our model it's one delivery, one piece of paper."
Malcolmson Fine Foods is the distributor for the nine Sussex stores. Retailers place their orders with Malcolmson, who sources products direct from the producers and then delivers straight to stores.
While distribution is handled on a local level, all products still have to go through a rigorous selection process at MBL before they're listed. "We have what I call Billy Bunter days, when we test loads of products in our test kitchen," says Bayne.
"Stumbling blocks tend to be packaging suitability," adds Bayne. "Not having a barcode, for example, is almost a show-stopper. We always check that the packaging is compliant with labelling legislation, but if it's not we can work with the producers and give advice and guidance."
Such a packaging issue recently cropped up with a mother and daughter team in Ashdown Forest. "They had a superb range of jams and marmalades but there were issues with labelling, so we went to see them to sort it out. We're prepared to go the extra mile."
MBL is willing to go that bit further for its retailers, too. Bayne set up a 'Meet the Buyer' event for independent Guy Warner to help him source the products that make up such a sizeable chunk of his business. "Guy's stores sit in two regions so together with Heart Of England Fine Foods and Taste of the West we spent two-and-a-half weeks assessing products and meeting producers," explains Bayne. "Guy wanted to keep the products from within a 30-mile radius of his Broadway store, so the food groups put together a list of suppliers."
Bayne has a clear idea of what type of product will make the listings. "We're looking for quality, and we want to know what the USP of the product is, whether it's award-winning, whether it's a recipe that goes back hundreds of years, or if it's made on a farm," he says. "We want a story behind the product. It's quality, provenance and a story behind the product that we can then promote."
In the interests of improving compliancy in producers, Bayne has spearheaded a series of workshops to set out the rules and regulations. "I'd heard that producers were getting mixed messages from Environmental Health and Trading Standards," he explains. "That prompted the idea of running training workshops on food labelling and food safety."
MBL ran 10 workshops from Cumbria to Taunton and across to Maidstone in Kent and they proved "a phenomenal success".
On a store level, local products are proving highly profitable. "People are prepared to pay more for something produced locally, so retailers are making more money," says Bayne.
MBL offers retailers a comprehensive marketing package for local products. "We produce point of sale material and get permission from the food groups to use their logos. We also work with the PR people from the food groups to get local coverage when ranges are launched."
Retailers aren't limited to the MBL listing "as long as we see the products they're sourcing elsewhere". Says Bayne: "We will also take on any recommendations, so if a retailer says they've got an excellent honey, for example, we will consider it."
Despite so many independents and c-store chains achieving increasing success with local products, Bayne isn't concerned that the multiples might follow suit. "The only multiple I'd give credit to for making strides in this area is Asda, who's got an identical model to us. But it is looking for different sorts of products, and we don't make our producers jump through so many hoops."