James Ward, managing director of ForWard Foods in Sudbury, Suffolk, would be the first to acknowledge that the wholesale sector is the corner of the industry where local sourcing faces its toughest challenge. Yet he hasn't let that stop him from trying to offer as many local lines as he can.
Ward points out that while retailers are interested in stocking locally sourced products, their wholesaler isn't usually the first port of call as most suppliers like to actively target retailers direct, or deal through the internet.
Ward says: "The internet has had a big impact on our business. A lot of suppliers have their own websites and delivery vans allowing them to cut out the middle man. They are also looking for a big premium on what they sell so they prefer to go to the retailers direct."
But while locally sourced products are still a relatively small aspect of his business, Ward is proud of the good relations he has with those local suppliers whose products he does sell and is always on the lookout
for more.
"The local products that we do sell tend to do very well in their different categories compared with the leading brands. We also find that local suppliers tend to be easier to deal with, even those that are quite large national suppliers who happen to be local to us," he explains.
One local supplier whose products are doing well with ForWard is jam producer Wilkins of Tiptree. The Essex-based company is situated just 20 miles away from the ForWard depot on the Essex-Suffolk border.
Ward says that the relationship between supplier and wholesaler is particularly strong. "It helps that
the MD is a good friend," he jokes. "But seriously, the fact that we are so close is a great advantage for holding meetings, discussing deals and any new lines."
He adds: "The Wilkins lines are extremely popular both for our retail and foodservice customers and stack up well against the brand leader."
Dealing with the large suppliers on his doorstep also means ForWard is in a position to offer a more comprehensive range than other wholesalers might. Most wholesalers, for example, will take delivery of only a select few lines from Suffolk's most famous brewer, Greene King, whereas ForWard is more than happy to stock a more complete range because
both local retailers and pub-owners demand it.
Ward argues: "Many wholesalers around the country will only carry the big lines such as Greene King IPA. As it is based here in Suffolk we like to provide a bit more of what's on offer, including some lines that maybe haven't been heard of in other parts of the UK."
Local successes include Greene King's Strong Suffolk Ale, the Greene King-owned Ridley's Old Bob bitter - which originally hails from Chelmsford in Essex - and Adnam's Strong Sussex Bitter, brewed on the Suffolk coast in Southwold.
In the same way, ForWard sells an above average amount of locally produced Malden Salt. Ward says: "Local chefs are always keen to say that they only use the best local produce and this is an excellent local premium product."
Ward took over the running of the 15,000sq ft Sudbury depot in April following his departure from online wholesaler Blueheath. The warehouse was considered surplus to requirements by the new generation wholesaler, which had bought Ward's family run wholesaler AC Ward & Son last year.
Under an agreement with Blueheath, Ward is restricted to supplying only those retailers or other businesses within a 20-mile radius of the Sudbury site, but he admits he is glad to be back within a small business that, he says, is entirely focused on supporting local businesses.
"Our aim is to be an important and supportive hub for small businesses in this area, especially as we develop and grow to replicate the model in other parts of East Anglia," he explains.
"When it comes to produce we like to deal with local merchants as far as possible. We sell an awful lot of cheese and this is all sourced through local dealers in Sudbury. Of course, the cheese itself isn't local as it just isn't produced in this part of the country anymore."
Ward has also sub-contracted a local butcher, RG Meats, to run a concession within the depot. The fully functioning butchers shop- within-a-shop offers specials including locally reared English lamb and even a Sudbury sausage.
All of this supports Ward's intention that he "would like to stock more local products". However, he realises that the demand - as with everything in wholesaling - must come from retailers.
Ward suggests: "It is hard to cater for retailers who want to increase the number of local lines in their stores as not all retailers will want this. In a small area like ours it may just be a few retailers who are serious about local sourcing as a way of making themselves stand out from the competition."
Ward may believe that "the bandwagon towards local sourcing is only just beginning to get moving", but you can be sure that James Ward and the ForWard operation will be there every step of the way.