Brighton is “the most diverse market in the UK”, claims Booker Group CEO Charles Wilson as he walks the aisles of the wholesaler’s newly refurbished depot in the city with C&C MD Guy Farrant.

Most companies would view the diversity as a challenge. Booker is tackling it head on by using the depot, which serves 5,000 catering customers and 1,500 retail customers, as a test bed for new ideas in wholesaling. Trailblazing ideas in Brighton is essential to help Booker understand and operate more effectively in bigger markets, says Wilson.

“In Brighton you have the very rich, but also the very poor. There are also a lot of students. The second most diverse market in the UK is London. We have got to be able to do a good job of serving a diverse base of customers, like in Brighton, and then we can take those learnings into London.”

Booker has been converting its 172-strong estate to its Extra format since 2006, including 11 in the past six months, of which Brighton is one. The most obvious new concept there is the 3,750 sq ft section turned over to Booker’s speciality fine food business Ritter-Courivaud, which it acquired for £14.5m a year ago.

This section, the first Ritter concession in Booker, has three aisles of 1,000 fine food lines ranging from olives and cheeses through to patisserie and oils. There is even a tank of live lobsters (£8.95 each). Wilson says the products on offer simply weren’t available in Brighton.

Cheeses have sold especially well, while chutneys have also been a hit. One caterer bought a 1kg jar and was so impressed he returned a few days later for 100kg.Another new Booker business on trial is Classic Drinks, the on-trade wholesaler acquired at the same time as Ritter-Courivaud. Classic Drinks has set up a 3,500 sq ft operation on the site, with six-day-week delivery rather than the three days the nearest rival, 130 miles away, was offering.

“A local service to local customers means they don’t have to worry about losing out if there are sudden changes in demand, weather, etc,” explains Wilson. “They can also hold less stock because they can have a delivery more regularly.”

Classic has now been fully integrated and is able to offer its customers a host of products it couldn’t before, including cleaning products, confectionery and snacks. In turn, Booker has started stocking exclusive Classic lines including Olive Hills wine and Red Alert energy drinks.Another big change is in the fresh department.

The depot is the first to get a dedicated fresh manager. He joined from Waitrose two months ago. Previously, Booker depots only had a manager and a deputy manager. The role has been created here because a substantially bigger department means Booker can include bigger displays and more stock, including pallet ends of the fastest-selling products such as milk, which has been held at 89p for a two-pint bottle, if a customer buys four, for the past four years. Many meat lines have also been moved out of the cold room to the dedicated butchery department.

Farrant has also been improving Booker’s fruit and veg offer, with sales up by 34% in the six months to 9 September across the estate. Instead of sourcing through wholesale, it now deals direct with growers and packers, resulting in next-day delivery.

“We are offering the growers and packers a new sector and channel,” he says. Brighton’s 1,510 sq ft fruit and veg room is expected to increase sales from £150,000 a year to £1m. As well as offering huge bulk packs to caterers, it also offers smaller pre-packed trays of price-marked veg, which have attracted extra evening trade.Brighton is also the first Booker site to trial a bakery as part of a partnership with Delice de France.

As we pass the checkouts Farrant spots a trolley laden with pre-packed veg, baguettes and energy drinks. He smiles. “The trolleys never fail to amaze me,” he admits. “A few years ago we weren’t selling any of that.”