Jason Tanner, Co-Founder of The Menu Partners, says that New Covent Garden is central to the nationwide group’s ambitious expansion plans
A well-established name was officially ‘retired’ from the Market in April, when Sheringhams was fully integrated into The Menu Partners group as it moved into its new units. The relocation and completion of the integration process are the latest step forward for The Menu Partners (TMP), the largest firm operating out of New Covent Garden Market.
“When we originally acquired the business in January 2022, the plan was for Sheringhams to remain as a standalone entity, however due to increasing cost pressures in every sector of our business we made the decision to amalgamate the operation into the wider TMP group in order to drive efficiencies,” explains Jason. “The first three months of the year are a quieter period for that part of the business, so we used that time in 2023 to ensure we’d dealt with all the finer details and successfully communicated to customers, suppliers and staff the transition and what it meant to them.
“We’ve kept the core people in the business and also the better suited customers. We have restructured the way we do business, reflecting the challenges we continue to face with the rising costs of energy, fuel, salary etc…
“It took a while for everyone to catch up after the pandemic, but I think we have all now recognised that our actual costs have risen significantly,” added Jason. “For us the only sensible thing to do was to look at our model and make it more efficient. It really isn’t commercially viable to be making small deliveries any more, so we have put a small surcharge on any order below £100. Around 40-50% of the Sheringhams business was based in the education sector, but that’s now down to around 20% as we continually streamline things.”
TMP, including the now fully integrated Sheringhams, will be moving into 11 units in the new A Block of the Fruit & Vegetable Market. That gives the group around 25,000 square feet of ground floor capacity, which it will double with a further 25,000 sq ft of mezzanine. Around twofifths of the ground floor space will be used for picking and lining up orders and a lift will take product up to the first floor, where splits will be packed. At the rear of the 11 units is a 5,500 sq ft freezer, which is home to the Koffmann, Marco Pierre White frozen brands as well as TMP’s range of frozen products that has been fully operational since January 2023. The units have been a hive of activity from day one and Jason says that whilst the seven-month build has been all-consuming, the very worthwhile task sets the entire group up for future success. It has also included significant investments to the groups’ Prepared and Primeur businesses to upgrade their facilities. In early 2024, Premier Foods Wholesale will move too, followed in 2025 by European Speciality Foods.
Jason started in New Covent Garden working for Louis Reece 34 years ago and opened Premier Fruits, with then business partners Roger Garber and Pat Wearne, 10 years later. Things have changed considerably since then. Now Premier Foods Wholesale, run by Jason’s brother Justin with Managing Director Richard Hickson, as well as Primeur and Premier Prepared are all now owned by TMP, and under the same banner as other businesses that have been brought into the fold, including European Speciality Foods.
Jason’s wife Olive manages the financing of the cash element of the business and their two sons also work in the business – Sean (25) is running the Koffmann & Marco Pierre White Frozen businesses and Ryan (23) is in the marketing team. “I’m very lucky to be working with my sons every day,” says Jason. “There doesn’t seem to be as many of the next generation coming through as the Market would like. They don’t seem to like the hours or the 7-days a week operation we have to work within. But that’s the hospitality industry – we’re open every day of the year, when you’re serving customers such as airline groups or a variety of restaurants, they expect that level of service.”
The move into the new units is extremely positive news for TMP he says. “The fact that we’ve been able to spend time planning and putting everything exactly where we need it to be is going to make a huge difference to our efficiency and effectiveness. It’s been a bit more expensive than we initially thought because of the timing, but it puts us in a great position moving forward.
“The market is vital to what we do,” he adds. “The reason we have invested so heavily in New Covent Garden Market is that this is the best place by far from which to serve London.”
The recent shortages on supermarket shelves once again proved the continued relevance and power of wholesale markets, says Jason. “It affected us positively because we were prepared to pay for the product our customers needed and therefore we didn’t run short. It showed how important the wholesale sector is to the country and suppliers – I can’t see supermarkets stopping their tactics of beating up growers and suppliers any time soon and several of our suppliers are telling us they are pulling programmes away from the supermarkets to build stronger relationships with the wholesale markets, as there is less risk involved.
“As we grow, our orders are becoming more consistent and that gives growers more confidence.”
The Menu Partners was created to be a consolidator of food; a one-stop-shop to help the hospitality industry bring down the costs of deliveries into restaurants. "I set it up with Nigel Harris in September 2020 and if it hadn’t been for lockdown, we may never have merged our two businesses,” recalls Jason. “We’d been talking about it, but we’d never had the time to actually do what was necessary to make it work. Covid was bad on so many levels, but it did give us six months to put this 50:50 joint venture together.”
As well as its facilities at New Covent Garden Market, there are other TMP sites in Brighton, Bicester, and Middleton, near Liverpool. “We’ll always have those facilities,” says Jason, “but we may end up with more.”
Nationwide reach, personal touch
The personal touch that comes with a market background is in TMP’s favour right now though, he adds. “We think a lot of the independent restaurant operators are turning their backs on the likes of Brakes, Bidfood, Fresh Direct and Reynolds. They are fed up with the big corporates, especially their approach and tactics to business. We work hand-in-hand with our customers, developing their menus with them. It was a big part of the reason for bringing our businesses together, to combine all our skills and assets to create a true nationwide offering with the personal touch,” says Jason.
“We have a 30,000 sq ft production kitchen in Bicester that is constantly working on recipes and ingredients for partners such as Young’s, Fullers, Gordon Ramsay restaurants and Soho House. Cheese sauces, gravies, rotisserie chickens, lamb shanks – you name it, we develop the products in a manner that fits with the needs of their menus.”
Also within the group, event catering business Absolute Taste has just landed a global LIV Golf contract, to add to a glittering client list that includes Manchester City, The Open Golf Championship, Queen’s Tennis, The Shard and a host of other high-profile events. Each element of the group can bounce off the strengths of the others, creating a hugely varied and dynamic product and service offer.
Jason adds that the NCGM part of the group has a far broader remit than it did before TMP was born. “We’re also always looking for more add-ons for our market businesses – we’re far from just a fresh produce firm these days, that accounts for roughly 35-40% of our business. We sell increasing volumes of meat, fish, dry goods, dairy and frozen.”
The frozen side of the Premier Food Wholesale business is expanding quickly, having incorporated Zero Degrees, another company that was within the group. “A lot of our catering and hospitality customers are looking more towards frozen produce,” says Jason. “Over the last five to six years, frozen products have got much better as the specs have improved and more suppliers pack better quality product. The prices are also far more consistent, which is clearly attractive to some customers.”
The frozen operation has successfully introduced new fruit and vegetable products into the group alongside the high-profile Koffmann and Marco Pierre White frozen ranges. The products, which have been signed off by Pierre Koffmann and Marco Pierre White themselves, have quickly risen to be the chef ’s choice worldwide and Jason says the brands’ success has been made possible by the ongoing efforts of Simon Martin and sister Claire who are at the forefront of the marketing and development of the range.
Premier Foods Wholesale is the exclusive nationwide distributor of the frozen ranges, meaning that all products supplied to the hospitality sector pass through Premier. “We’ve been working with Koffmann’s fresh and frozen products for three years now. The frozen product has been distributed into the catering industry predominantly, while the fresh product has been sold to catering and also secondary wholesalers across the country. The Koffmann family is a massive part of the Premier business and has helped to drive its growth in the last three years,” says Jason. Initially, the Frozen and Fresh ranges predominantly included potatoes, carrots and parsnips, but new lines are being added on a regular basis - frozen Yorkshire peas and fresh English asparagus, for instance. “It doesn’t change anything in the way that our customers work with us; it just gives them a far wider range to choose from,” Jason says.
“Before Covid, Premier’s turnover was in the region of £50 million, it had three articulated lorries and two 26-tonnes vehicles. in the latest financial year, its turnover hit £88m and its vehicle fleet had grown exponentially – now with 11 artics, for example. “The main reason for the growth is that we now deliver all over the country, seven days a week,” Jason says.
The Menu Partners group is the only organisation working nationwide to this scale in the market right now, but that’s not to say others won’t follow. “When New Covent Garden Market is redeveloped I have total confidence that it will be full and thrive,” Jason says. “What we’re doing is only going to make the whole Market busier and stronger, all the while enhancing the financial figures on a year-to-year basis.
"We’re around a £250m business already and our aim is to make The Menu Partners a billion-pound business eventually.”