Carmarthenshire wholesaler remodels itself

A FOOD wholesaler which lost 80% of its customers in one fell swoop is redoubling its efforts to feed NHS Wales workers, schoolchildren and the vulnerable.

Castell Howell Foods has seen a 70% revenue drop and has furloughed around 55% of its 700-strong workforce due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Carmarthenshire-based business is selling far fewer high-end products than normal but is expanding its bulk and retail food supply.

It has also set up a click and collect service from its Cross Hands headquarters, and helped redesign a frozen food operation at Authentic Curries and World Foods – a company it part-owns in Hirwaun.

The wholesaler is providing vital support for the NHS and for councils, which are themselves becoming food bank suppliers and distributors of food.

It is even manufacturing gloves and aprons for health and care workers.

“The effort that is going into this – the commitment, the drive, the passion – is amazing,” said Matt Lewis, Castell Howell Foods operations director.

“People are a bit out of their comfort zone, but we have discovered some real shining stars who have risen to the challenge.”

The company works with many local food suppliers, while 30% of its stock comes from Europe and further afield.

When the crisis struck, private sector customers like restaurants ceased operating, although some are now doing takeaways.

“That left us with 20% of what we did – the public sector work,” said Mr Lewis.

“We supply most local authorities in Wales with food, but then schools pretty much closed overnight.”

Many are now functioning as hubs for children of key workers, and are relying on products from Castell Howell Foods.

Mr Lewis said: “We have been making decisions very quickly.”

One area, he said, which was pretty much business as usual was the NHS.

“We supply hospitals, medical staff and some patients,” he said. “We are delivering bulk products to various hubs in Wales. We have got plenty of vehicles.”

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Mr Lewis said food suppliers like farmers, who provided meat and dairy produce, were experiencing “very little” disruption for now.

“It shows how strong the supply chain is locally,” he said.

The 45-year-old, who lives in Cardiff, said it was vital that customers paid their bills so Castell Howell Foods could pay its suppliers.

He added: “We typically sit on £7 million of stock, and we want to avoid food waste.

“We have massive fixed costs – vehicles, and freezers which use a huge amount of energy.”

He acknowledged the lower workforce bill, but said further pressures would come if the current situation went on too long.

“Any business which is not operating as normal for a long period of time will come under pressure,” he said.

“But we feel morally and commercially obliged to provide the best service we can.”

Edward Morgan, corporate social responsibility manager at Castell Howell Foods, said he felt staff had got accustomed to the altered business model and routine.

“The magnitude of this probably hit us a fortnight last Friday,” he said.

“We could see councils moving very quickly to establish food banks.”

Mr Morgan said he sensed a huge amount of goodwill in the community in response to the pandemic, citing the charitable work of Round Table group in Carmarthen and the efforts of Scarlets Community Foundation.

He added: “From day one we have been in dialogue with the Welsh Government – that has been of help.

“We all want it to be business as usual, but it’s not so just have to get on with it.”

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