Gleaming silver worktops, state-of-the-art ovens, a suite of five tasting rooms and a 60-seat demonstration theatre. Waitrose’s brand new development kitchen is any chef’s dream. “Our development chefs couldn’t believe their eyes,” says Rupert Thomas, Waitrose commercial director, as he guides me round the 7,000 sq ft space at its Bracknell HQ. Here “they have the space and kit they need to flourish”.
The £1.5m facility is double the size of its “cramped” predecessor and Thomas is “incredibly excited” about its potential to give the retailer’s product development - and the training of its ‘partners’ - the edge. In-house courses on food, hospitality and preparing barista-grade coffee (it has trained 800 baristas already) will all take place here, as well as all-important steps in dreaming up new ranges.
Age: I’m at the half century point, put it that way.
Family: Married with two girls and a boy. We’ve just had GCSE and A-level results and they’ve all been good, which is such a relief.
Potted CV: Since studying food manufacturing and distribution at Manchester Polytechnic I have worked in retail for 25 years. I joined Waitrose in 2003 as a central buyer, grocery, and worked in fruit buying prior to heading up brand development, before becoming marketing director in 2009 and commercial director in January 2017.
Career peak: I like to think I haven’t reached it yet but I’m really proud of offering free coffee for MyWaitrose members, and Essential Waitrose as it has become a massively important brand for us.
What do you do in your spare time? I love tennis, cooking, tinkering with and running my old MG car, as well as gardening.
Favourite food: Lamb is one of my favourites but I like everything.
Last good book you read: The Attitude Book - 50 Ways to Positively Affect your Life and Work by Simon Tyler.
It’s not hard to see why Waitrose, with its strong track record for originality, is picking up the pace on innovation. Every major supermarket is upping its game - Aldi and Lidl practically swept the board at The Grocer Own Label Awards earlier this year, and Waitrose’s own former executive chef Neil Nugent is now director of product management at Iceland, churning out inventive items like the ‘bleeding’ No Bull plant-based burger.
Not to be outdone, this month sees the relaunch of Waitrose’s own Cooks’ Ingredients range with 100 new lines added, including calamansi lime juice, Japanese condiment yuzu kosho and black limes. Fittingly, the first iteration was one of the first big projects handed to a more junior Thomas back in 2007. “Making changes for customers is an important driver for me,” he says. “I like to be as involved with product development as possible as it’s a great way to keep in touch with partners and up to date with new products.”
The new kitchen is far from the only way in which Thomas is trying to reinvigorate the Waitrose offer. There’s also a major reset underway. Like Thomas it’s low key, but there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes with a review of 30 categories that kicked off with sliced bread and pre-packed cheese (p44). The review will tailor ranges to local demographics and boost the dominance of own brand products (already making up 53% of SKUs) led by a team of development chefs twice as large thanks to the Bracknell facility. More space will also be handed to emerging trends like plant-based “to reflect where customers are moving”.
Meanwhile a “frustrating… pen and paper ranging process” will be replaced by “advanced system” to get the right stock in the right store, with data insights from MyWaitrose playing an enhanced role. “We’ve always carried great ranges, but there are examples where we’ve carried too much choice,” says Thomas. “Customers come to us for unique products, though, so there’s lots to consider. We have to work space hard.”
A modern Waitrose
In less than two years in charge, Thomas has also dramatically reshaped the team around him to reflect this product focus. Though some moves have been out of his hands, such as the upcoming retirement of fresh foods buying director Paul Walker, others have been highly strategic - including the appointments of director of category trading, ambient, frozen and general merchandise Michael Andrew, Simon Burdess as director of food service and Jo Walmsley as personnel director. In a sector where “it’s quite easy to become very driven by the spreadsheet, this team are passionate about products” Thomas says proudly.
His strategy sees this same passion filter down the business too, with all partners now classed as ‘food ambassadors’. “We want them to become more confident selling the products as well as actively involved in tasting. Ultimately, we want partners to become passionate about the food we source and sell. That’s not easy, but we’ve got the make-up.”
Against a backdrop of five planned store closures and 63% of department manager roles being slashed by 2020, though, all under the controversial Modern Waitrose strategy, is he not concerned at reported discontent among staff? In the in-house Gazette magazine, distributed among staff, one contributor even referred to the strategy as a ‘shambles’.
Thomas doesn’t seem flustered, insisting the changes will “deliver sustainable business success, while creating better roles”. He doesn’t accept work is needed on supplier relations either, despite criticisms that bureaucracy leaves dealing with Waitrose like “running through treacle”.
“We work very closely with suppliers as we’re ultimately reliant on them for great production. When you’re 5% of the market, it’s got to be about that relationship. Like everyone we have robust conversations and there will be occasions where a supplier won’t be happy, but we operate with integrity. We’re demanding on what we want, but in a collaborative way.”
Collaboration across the wider John Lewis business will also be core in addressing the group’s 32% plunge in operating profits, revealed in March. “Retail remains a tough and challenging place to be, and John Lewis is finding life really hard at the moment,” concedes Thomas. Part of the solution is finding more ways to work as one to “maximise combined power” he believes, including joint sourcing overseas and working closely across areas such as dining and homeware.
For Waitrose, though, leveraging its reputation for premium own-brand food is top of the priority list. “Own brand is our key differentiator and customers really appreciate the difference it offers. You won’t see the uniqueness we have in competitors’ stores.” Its brand new development kitchen is a state-of-the-art signal that Thomas isn’t about to let that change.