In the British food world, the Wellocks name is synonymous with freshness, reliability and quality. We spoke with company CEO, James Wellock, about his experience growing up with the company in its early years, and how it has boomed into an unrecognisable success under his management.
James Wellock’s first taste of the food industry was working for his father in Lancashire. Richard Wellock had built his living supplying potatoes to local fish and chip shops, having sold up his stall in Skipton Market to focus on this more profitable side of the vegetable trade. As the company grew, he invested in three wagons and began supplying to local green grocers around the area.
James grew up helping his father as-and-when, and after college, his joined the business full-time. Traveling to Manchester at midnight, bartering for produce at the city marketplace, he thought to himself, there had to be a different way of doing things. “The salesmen felt like they wanted to rip me off,” James, now the company CEO, recalls. “That was when we started buying from local farms.”
This move would be a more dramatic change for the company than James or his father realised; cutting out the middle man allowed Wellocks to access fresher, higher-quality produce at a time when supermarkets were beginning to sweep through the greengrocer trade. The availability of supermarket products would leave competitors needing an edge – and Wellocks would have that edge:
“It was a big win for us. We were saving money in various ways. You’re cutting out the middle man, so you cut out their wage, as it were, but more importantly, we were getting a consistently better-quality product. It was a different selling point, without question. When I started delivering to green grocers in Yorkshire, they’ve historically always bought out of their local markets. We could top this by delivering fresher products straight to their door.” Amazingly, in a time where independent businesses were falling victim to large wholesale companies, this small family business was able to stand up and stand out; “We took the wholesale market on and won.”
When James’ father retired, he inherited the business, then with 15 employees. Under James’ management and leadership, the company has now exploded into a national network, delivering to every corner of the country, and those 15 employees have grown into 470. Wellocks travel over 110 routes, delivering straight to the door, whether that door is at the foot of Cornwall or the height of Scotland. In total, Richard Wellocks’ three wagons are now a fleet of 120 vehicles, delivering daily to 1,500 kitchens.
Wellocks’ customer base are now restaurants and hotel kitchens – a marked step up from their original clients, and a customer-base that demands reliability, range and quality. They broke into this market when James saw the supermarket threat growing; “One of the things we identified in the ‘90s was that the greengrocer side of things was dying out. Almost over-night, one of the good greengrocers we knew started selling pre-prepared vegetables to compete. I got together with my dad and we said, ‘We need to buy this business,’ so we did. One of the partners is still with us.” These prepared vegetables, along with the freshness and consistent quality of Wellocks’ good, made the company a double-threat and allowed them to appeal to the chef market. The Northern company later ventured their services south when one of their customers, a Michelin-star chef, relocated, and their reach grew from there.
“I had a vision of wanting to be the best. Originally it was to be the best in the North, and quickly that changed to being the best in the UK.” In striving for this vision, James knew that customer experience was key. “We give the customer the service, no matter what. We’ve bent over backwards for customers, and that aspect of the business has never changed.”
“We’re essentially a massive logistics company – one that needs to take orders from around the country and deliver in a timely manner, predominantly around the breakfast period the next morning.” This fast turnover, and the high demand for accuracy that comes from high-quality kitchens, meant that in order to succeed, Wellocks’ logistics needed complete efficiency; “People ask us, ‘What is local? How do you define local?’ For us, it’s the 24-hour turn-around from growing it in the fields to delivering it in the kitchens the next morning. The crux is to make sure that there’s only three people in the supplier chain: the producer, us and the chef.”
So how does the company efficiently manage a fleet of their size? Everything is monitored and run from an in-house system, developed and maintained by their team of IT staff. “We have software that can track every vehicle every minute of the day. Each vehicle has fully surrounding camera systems – in the cab, out the front, down the sides, on the back – so we know what the vehicle is doing, where it is and if it is being treated properly.”
“We’ve been trying to develop a system that makes it impossible for any department to make a mistake”, James laughs. This includes their own online order system which, as of this year, shows chefs a live update of their stock availability, giving customers the ability to select their own alternatives and plan their spending accordingly. “It’s in clear black and white – they’ve got absolute clarity, and so have we. There’s no answer phone message with a chef clattering pots and pans in the background, or a thick Highlands accent no one can understand! There’s no grey areas, which means we’ve got no excuses.” The company has also developed a picking system that marries with the online orders, selecting every product by barcode and assigning these to barcoded trays, which are in turn assigned to a customer. The system reduces the possibility for human error – essential in a vast operation with Wellocks’ fast turnover.
This attention to detail and stress on perfection is present at every level of Wellocks’ operations. “We look at every part of the operation, and how we can make that part the best it can be.” This attitude extends right down to the appearance of their fleet: “We don’t call them drivers, we call them Delivery Reps. They have to wear a shirt and tie, and polished boots. The vehicles are all polished too, every week, and they’re washed and sanitised every day.” Wellocks even service their own fleet, to monitor the quality of the repairs and get the vehicles back on the road as quickly as possible.
“I think of delivery like a can of coke – you walk up to a drinks machine, put your coin in, a can drops down and you walk away happy. We’re trying to deliver that experience for 6,000 products.”
Whilst every aspect of the business is important to James, he knows what it is all about – the food. The company is constantly adding to their wide range of products by broadening their already extensive supplier chain, but more than this, working closely with certain producers to create unique, stand-out products.
“We’re very proud of them all, but there’s certain products that are special to us. We wondered how to get this across to a prospective customer, and so we developed Special Branch.” Special Branch is a list of around 100 products that Wellocks have developed in collaboration with their manufacturers. “For example, we worked really closely with a supplier who told us that she wanted to create the world’s best olive oil, and we backed her. Over a six-year period, she’s put some ground-breaking new procedures in place, and her product’s actually been named the best organic olive oil in the world.” Thanks to their involvement, Wellocks now have exclusivity for this top-tier olive oil in the UK. “We’re always developing more products like this – they improve our product range and set us apart.”
Despite developing their reputation through local foods, as Wellocks have expanded, so has their reach. Their supplier network now includes companies from most of Europe, South America and America, as well as Thailand and Kenya. Even in their over-seas ingredients, Wellocks emphasise the importance of freshness; “We’re the only UK company that air-freight limes in from Mexico every week. They leave Mexico on Saturday and we pick them up at Heathrow on Monday.” Instead of a lime several weeks old by the time it reaches a chef’s kitchen, they can rely on Wellocks’ reaching them in a matter of days. “You can imagine the difference in the zest and flavour. There’s a uniqueness there that sets us apart.”
Wellocks have even started to produce their own international foods, which again stay as authentic as possible. For example, their pasta range is made with all-Italian machinery and ingredients, right down to Italian eggs and flour. However, you can still enjoy their year-round seasonal ravioli ranges, which include British favourites such as asparagus ravioli when the vegetable is in season. “We’re looking to give chefs better quality than what they could make in the kitchen, as well as a consistency in quality that leaves them confident when ordering the product.”
From local fish and chips shops in Lancashire, Wellocks’ customer list has become a who’s who of the UK’s culinary circles. “We supply the vast majority of Michelin star kitchens in the UK, 5-star hotels, country gastro hotels and pubs – even races courses and premier league football clubs, including Man United. Basically, if you went anywhere in the country, we could recommend the best places to eat.”
Wellocks’ expansion as a company has been extraordinary, growing not only in size but in the products, services and sheer quality they offer. It has taken financial gambles, an entrepreneurial mind and consistent hard work, but the CEO’s work ethic and attention to detail has kept the company reaching for a high bar and delivering a reliably remarkable service. Speaking with James, it sounds like he isn’t planning to rest any time soon: “We’ll continue to look for more special branch products, develop our delivery routes and look at expanding the customer base.” With this determined work ethic, it seems Wellocks will only continue to grow from strength to strength. “Without a doubt, there’s still a lot more that we can do.”