As with many things in life, size isn’t everything. While the behemoths of the baking industry will naturally take up the lion’s share of shelf space in multiple retailers, opportunities are opening up for small regional operators to supply at a local level.

Nick Hill, category controller at Musgrave Budgens Londis (MBL), elucidates: "All we ask is that a company has got the right standards, however small; that we’re comfortable they can meet our expectations from a quality and technical point of view; and that they’re not going to poison people!"

Budgens in particular has gone to great efforts to encourage small and regional suppliers, such as its Taste of Sussex banner, one of a number of regional drives that unearthed More Foods (profiled in British Baker, 29 July 2005, pgs 14-16). Budgens took this tiny business - then supplying just a handful of stores around Sussex - and transformed it into a vital cog in the retailer’s cakes strategy.

This proves that your business does not need to be of a minimum size or turnover to get your foot in the door, says Hill. As a supplier, you need to ask yourself, does your product offer a unique selling point in your location or even nationally and is it commercially a suitable product for MBL? Based in Harefield near Uxbridge, MBL controls approximately 2,000 Londis stores and 190 Budgens stores - around 100 of which are franchised; the rest are still corporate-owned but will become independent within the next year.

As well as plant breads and packaged items, some products are baked-off in-store in Budgens and in a high proportion of Londis stores. A typical customer either does his or her main shop there, buying packaged products, or they pop in for convenience-type goods four or five times a week.

Responsible for bakery buying, Hill has worked at MBL for three years across a number of product areas, including frozen, ambient, fresh foods and non-foods. His role involves educating the retailer about marketplace developments and working with the supplier base to meet the retailers’ needs.

So how does buying for the bakery category differ to other fields? "You’re working with the big national companies, such as British Bakeries or Allied Bakeries, but you’re also working with smaller firms that give you an opportunity to offer a unique selling point to your customers," answers Hill.

The focus on regionality has been very successful for developing the bakery offering, he says. "We’ve worked with local and regional suppliers to make their products available in Budgens and Londis, including plant bread suppliers and cake suppliers," he says. "Some suppliers started out very small, but are now an important part of the category. For example, More Foods offers us a unique handmade product that some of the bigger manufacturers - and some of our competitors - can’t deliver."

More Foods faced a steep learning curve, with Budgens holding its hand as it grappled with everything from labelling, health and hygiene to the logistics issues of supplying a multiple. "Particularly on the bakery side, we can offer a number of suppliers a partnership - and it really is a partnership," says Hill. "We provide an understanding, an expertise and advice on everything from product range right down to retail price, packaging and distribution. But it’s also about the supplier working with us so that we both benefit."

The bottom line, as always, is the cost price and retail price. Many small firms have come a cropper by overstretching themselves and failing to meet the expectations of retail supply. But so far, this has not led to any casualties under Hill’s stewardship. "I don’t think that we’ve launched a regional or small supplier and then pulled back on that," he says. "If you work together you can make sure that, if there is the need for an exit, then it’s with everybody’s full understanding."

In 2007, MBL will be premium ranging its own-label, especially cakes, and Hill is searching out meal accompaniments, such as Mediterranean breads and flatbreads. A continuing focus will be getting the most out of the distribution chain, so that products arrive at stores quickly and in the freshest possible state.

Bake-off is also an area with scope for further development, says Hill. "We’re looking at the offer and asking if we can bake-off more products in-store to provide the customer with a fresher product. Taking the bakery to another level is about offering the convenience market products that may never have been tried before. An example of this would be hot pretzels."

So what’s the best way for a supplier to get noticed? The best bet is contacting buyers directly. Hill suggests introducing yourself with an email, followed by sending in samples; you would then receive feedback on the product’s suitability. If you had potential, the next stage would be a meeting, nailing down supply issues and pricing. If you’re successful, then a joint business plan is developed.

Don’t hound buyers with pestering phone calls, he advises. "We’re not in a position to have meetings with everybody. A hard sell isn’t necessarily the right approach. It might take two or three months before we can make a decision on whether the product is right for us. So patience is important."