Birchall Foodservice has side stepped to dominate the world of e-commerce  

It’s been almost five years since Food Chain last caught up with Birchall Foodservice (Birchall). The wholesaler now stocks over 6000 different products, including more than 600 offerings from its own Country Range brand, as it continues to stand as the ultimate one-stop shop for its customers. Whether fresh fruit and vegetables, butchery, chilled goods, ambient products, cleaning supplies or alcohol, this B2B company delivers across the North of England. We’re sitting down with Nicola Watson, Operations Director, to find out more about its operations.

“A lot has happened since we last spoke,” she begins, “but I suppose the most exciting and positive development has been the introduction of our e-commerce platform, OrderMate. Launched in 2021, OrderMate allows our customers to order online from any device, at any time of day. They can also pay online and view live allergen and nutritional information, which simply wasn’t possible before.

“Prior to its launch, our e-commerce presence was non-existent, but over the last two years, we’ve seen our online sales grow rapidly. As it currently stands, over 40 percent of all our orders are now taken online, and we expect this number to continue rising. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if OrderMate accounted for half of our entire output within the next 12 months.

“Consequently, the platform has played a big part in our recent growth,” she adds, laying testament to Birchall beating its £24 million target in 2022 with an extra £11 million turnover. “It’s allowed us to attract caterers who want to be able to browse products on an online portal, and then have the live allergen information of each of them available at their fingertips. We have also invested heavily into the IT infrastructure of our operations departments, which has allowed us to offer a smoother and more efficient service to our customers.”

Sustainability initiatives
A number of other positive changes have been made over the last few years, in terms of modernizing the enterprise’s ESG initiatives. More specifically, these have been focused on Birchall’s people and environmental policies.

“The business’ sustainability group is made up of four representatives, each from different departments,” Nicola explains, “operations, buying, business support, and marketing. For some time now, we have been working with Climate Partner to calculate our carbon emissions, and when we checked our measurements from 2022, against those of 2019, we were absolutely thrilled to see that we’d reduced them by a massive 46 percent.

“There are two key investments that we made to facilitate this reduction; solar and vehicle electrification, but we’re only just getting started. We have set ourselves the challenge of reducing our overall emissions every year, going forwards. Our solar installations have, thus far, lowered our electricity emissions by 49 percent, and our introduction of a greener fleet of vehicles has cut our transport emissions by 38 percent.

“These new vehicles feature three separate compartments,” she continues, “one for chilled, one for frozen, and one for ambient. This improves efficiency as we no longer have to chill the entire back of the vehicle and, furthermore, all of our new additions have air curtains, which help to maintain temperature. Unfortunately, we’re yet to find an alternative fuel that is economically viable for the business, but that’s not to say we’ve given up – it’s still high on our agenda for the future. With regards to our grey fleet, nearly all our sales representatives and directors now have electric cars, and we’ve installed charging points in our car parks for staff and visitors too.”

As a fifth generation family-owned business, Birchall has always extended the intrinsic effects of its ownership status onto its staff. The company takes great pride in how its caring, family culture resonates throughout its teams, and practices a moto that ‘it’s not always about making money, sometimes it’s just about doing the right thing.’

“Alongside supporting local communities,” Nicola says, “Birchall is also mindful of standing by its employees too. This instigated the establishment of our own internal charity, Helping Hands, by Louise Birchall, Sales Director. Its primary aim is to raise funds for any employee facing difficulties in their life, or to provide celebratory gifts for milestone moments such as weddings, the birth of a child, or a house move. To raise funds, the Helping Hands group arranges fundraising events throughout the year, including fancy dress days, bakes sales, golf days and quizzes.

“Our employees are entitled to an extra day of holiday for each year that they’ve been with us above a certain threshold, and we also offer flexible working options for those with families or other commitments. Furthermore, we provide fully funded holiday clubs for primary age children during the summer holidays, and financial support towards school uniforms twice a year.”

People first
In terms of personal health and wellbeing for employees, Birchall offers fresh fruit bowls, free fitness classes, standing desks, and reduced-cost gym memberships for all of its employees. Away from the physical side, it also employs a fully qualified counsellor who regularly visits the site to offer free sessions to those in need.

“In 2021,” Nicola concludes, “we made a further commitment to the health of our team, by employing a full time, inhouse chef. We subsidize all of the daily fresh meals that the chef prepares for everyone, which include curries, chili, and pasta dishes for as little as one pound per portion! People can also opt for the fresh salads, which are prepared daily, for £1.50, or a wide array of weekly specials. Not only does this encourage our workforce to eat healthier, but it also helps them to save on their lunchtime costs too. Of course, as we look to the future, we’re hoping to see a continuation in the business’ growth and sales, but our people are our bedrock and, besides sustainability, are always at the top of the agenda.” ■