Retailers facing unprecedented pressures: Food Force Ireland Jonathan Crawford

Retailers facing unprecedented pressures: Food Force Ireland Jonathan Crawford

We interviewed Food Force Ireland chairman Jonathan Crawford during the organisation’s recent Trade Day at the Culloden Estate & Spa – the first in-person event in three years.


It was vital for retailers and suppliers to meet up face to face at Food Force Ireland’s Trade Day following a two year break, according to chairman Jonathan Crawford.

For the past two years, the key industry event has had to migrate online and the event at the Culloden Hotel and Spa on September 12 was the first time it has taken place in person since 2019.

“Last Tuesday was really important in terms of getting a chance to finally meet with our local suppliers again face to face after two years of not. These are the key account managers and shareholders within suppliers that wwe get to meet face to face once a year,” FFI chairman Jonathan Crawford said.

“So we were looking forward to getting back to that – we had a range of deals that Trading Controller Debra Johnston set up for the day and we went around placing orders for those deals with each of the suppliers, trying to pick up value that we could pass through to our own consumers.

“We’ve had two years there of not getting a day out of the business to lift our heads to see what else is available and there are lots of suppliers who had new ranges and exciting new products to show us. 

“That wee gap of a couple of years maybe gave us a wee bit more hunger to go and see that so that’s all a good thing.”

Fourth generation

Jonathan himself is a fourth-generation independent retailer, taking over Crawford’s of Maghera from his parents.

“We have been involved in Food Force Ireland since its inception really in the late ‘80s and I took over the treasurer role in 1999,” he says.

“My family supermarket has always been independent and Food Force Ireland was started as a group of independents which together formed a limited company called Food Force Ireland Ltd in the 1980s.

“Alastair Smyth from Limavady was one of the driving forces in it, along with Henry Emerson from Armagh, and they created the buying group to help negotiate with Northern Irish suppliers for independent retailers. So we were all owner managed and then pooled a central resource together that Alastair would have run.

“Then Alastair retired in 2000 and we employed a Trading Controller in Belfast to look after the role that he did and there was a board of directors around that.”

Growing movement

Since the year 2000, the group has gone from strength to strength, growing in terms of membership and revenue, Jonathan says.

“We tried to pool together on central deals with mainly Northern Ireland based suppliers – your household brands, the likes of Tayto, Ormo, Mother’s Pride and Punjana tea bags have all been central to what we do, what people buy in their shops in the province.

“The people in Food Force Ireland have evolved but the general memorandums and articles, and the core principles of Food Force are the same – it’s a group of independent retailers who pull together in order to share benefit among themselves. Nothing is kept by Food Force itself and any benefits that come through are passed through to the membership on an equal basis so that core belief has stayed there. It’s like everything, some of the people have come and gone but the principles are still there.”

Back in person

Over the last five or six years before Covid, the event has been held in the Culloden Hotel in Co Down.

“It’s great to get back to doing that again and actually having a place we can go to, rather than trying to do these things online,” Jonathan says.

“The other thing we do with this show that is quite unique – this is a free day we give to all members and all suppliers and that encourages them to bring their best deals with them.

“We’re not charging suppliers that turn up – there’s no tax through Food Force, if you like, so this is a day where they can bring their best deals and they will be passed through to the membership and that makes us unique as well.”

Supply chain

The unique approach of Food Force Ireland really paid dividends for members when the arrival of the pandemic disrupted supply chains, Jonathan says.

“A lot of us would have been buying from UK-wide wholesalers and when Covid came, they came under so much demand that their supply network just crumpled and didn’t work.  We were placing orders for 5,000 cases and getting 200 delivered – it was horrendous,” he says.

“But that local supply base that is operated in Northern Ireland with the likes of Punjana tea bags and the PRMs of this world and Tayto and everything… we couldn’t get Walkers crisps in from England but Tayto were on our doorstep every week, with whatever we wanted.

“So it was great to have those direct links – they were direct to store, they weren’t going through a warehouse somewhere. It was direct from the supplier to our back door in each of our shops and that really made a difference during the dark days of Covid.

Direct links

“The suppliers would come very early in the morning and leave off deliveries to our back door. We trusted them that they would leave off what was right, they trusted us that we wouldn’t have shortages.

“Our supply chains did work during that time which was great – we had toilet rolls when nobody else had. And that was really due to the way that we make our supply chain. If anything it’s a bit old fashioned and that worked during times of crisis.”

Many retailers have been experiencing a period of labour shortages but the pressure appears to be lifting somewhat, Jonathan says.

“That was tough – they couldn’t get drivers, they were having difficulties getting products picked in warehouses and that sort of thing.

“And of course we’ve got roaring inflation – the price thing is something that has always been an issue but the supply seems to have now seems to be sorted. We’re now getting the products we want from all of our supply base now. The cold chain, like meat suppliers, were having difficulty in their factories but I’m hearing less issues of that in the last few months.

“And maybe if we are entering recession and there are layoffs in other industries, the food industry tends to be bolstered at that time, because I can’t get a job in a hotel, but I can get a job in a meat factory or a processing plant. So labour shortages in our industry hopefully are easing.”

Energy costs

However energy costs have become a huge problem for everyone, he says.

“You just have to go into your local convenience store or your big supermarket and have a look at the fridges that they operate. Those fridges are operating 24/7 and they can’t be turned off, they can’t be turned down, they can’t be turned up. They’re a constant cost,” he says.

“We were paying 11p-12p a unit for electricity 12 -14 months ago and now we’re looking at 30p-35p going into the winter. It’s a threefold increase or more and there’s going to be more come January. That’s a set cost for all these stores and there’s really very little they can do about it.

“And of course people with oil heating or any form of heating in their stores are going to face a really bleak winter – I think we all know that.”

While many retailers have been turning to alternative options such as solar or to making efficiencies with measures such as installing fridges with doors, that can mean a sizable capital investment, Jonathan says.

“The ones who can afford to make those changes will do it, the ones who  can’t, I don’t know. It’s going to be tough,” he says.

“It’s not an optimistic time for any energy-heavy business, which we are. We’re energy heavy and we’re labour heavy. There isn’t a member of staff that doesn’t need an increase in their wages to cover inflation and we tend not to have too many members of staff that we don’t need.

“So again we’re facing increased operating costs and we’ve got a new Prime Minister who will have a lot of problems ahead of her and we’re all hoping there’s some sort of relief system to be announced.”

To read the full 25-page Special Feature on Food Force Ireland’s Trade Day, click HERE.