Kieran Doyle of Doyles Veg Prep explains how quick thinking after the shutdown has enabled his business to continue.
IT STARTED WITH the rumour mill. ‘The country is going into lockdown!’ It was the week before Paddy’s day when the gravity of what we were facing took hold of my thoughts. As a busy fruit, veg and dairy supplier to the Foodservice market, this was a shock we had never legislated for. No one can prepare for this.
Traditionally, March is the turn of the season for our business and we were coming off the back of two tough years due to the drought in 2018 which saw high prices of potatoes and other products which seemed to be never-ending.
Back in February, my thoughts were very positive for the business, we were on track for our best year yet. Fast forward five or six weeks and I am having to make the very hard decision to temporarily lay off 84 of our workers overnight.
It was Thursday 19 March, the day after the announcement of the closures. I had to move fast, I had no choice. We lost 92% of our business in 24 hours. We also were sitting on enough stock to feed an army for a week.
We deliver 361 days a year. We are open 24 hours a day. The days we don’t deliver are Paddy’s day, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, so the day before these days are always our busiest of the year to supply our customers with double the amount of produce.
Source: doyles vegprep/YouTube
Although I was aware that the closures were imminent I could not take the risk of not having stock ready for delivery on the 16th. The closures could not have come at a worse time for the business. However, it was totally understandable.
Financially, we would be in a better situation if we closed our doors entirely and reopened when business resumed as normal but the remaining 8% of our business was private hospitals and nursing homes and we couldn’t let them down. We needed to find a way to stay open.
The day it fell apart
On the morning of 19 March, I looked out my office window to see a queue of the company’s hard-working staff lining up to collect the paperwork to get their welfare entitlement. It felt surreal, I felt terrible.
These guys work so hard, they work unsociable hours, 4.30 am starts, Sundays, Bank Holidays, you name it, they do it, only real grafters hang in there with our company, and we’re grateful for them. It’s a great environment to work in but it is hard work and certainly not for everyone.
I had to go down and say something, so at distance, I held my hands up and apologised to the group of 30 or so that were visible and could hear me. They knew the story, they respected my decision and acknowledged me with words and gestures of understanding and empathy which I was humbled to see.
‘I will get you guys back in as soon as I can!’ I told them.
Just like that my thoughts turned to ‘what are we going to do now’. We do not supply supermarkets, our business is strictly Foodservice – cafes, bars, restaurants, etc – it is all we know.
Time to push on, and fast
There was no lightbulb moment, we really only had one option – supply the general public. I kept 18 of the workforce on and we set out our plans. I include as much of the staff as possible when we make plans for change, it’s great to get their thoughts. We have an amazing team and we can achieve anything when we pull together.
We opted not to offer a home delivery service for various reasons and settled on a click-and-collect type service. We got the word out to the public via WhatsApp and social media.
The response was overwhelming, in fact, it was too much. We got thousands of emails in 24 hours, so much so that we regrettably could not get back to 90% of them.
The admin was too much, we honoured as many customers as we could and we spent Paddy’s Day picking orders for customers to collect the following day. We learned the hard way that this was not going to work the way we needed it to.
We apologised to the masses and set out our new plan to allow the public into our warehouse to pick their own products. We have a really top class facility with lots of space that was now unused so we could practice social distancing well. Our new model, which now works, means we have opened two days per week since the 16 March and the response has been excellent.
How this works
We have built a great customer base and we get busier each time we do it. We are open from 9 am to 1 pm Saturday and Sunday. The feedback that we receive on our food quality is amazing.
We work with restaurants, pubs and hotels normally, we deal with top-class chefs that are understandably demanding in nature so we have developed a knack for quality. No fruit and veg company will ever have 100% quality, it is impossible as seasons change, but as our saying goes “Nobody does it better”.
The process is simple, when the customer arrives they are provided with sanitiser and gloves and a trolley, we have an electronic screen that gives an overview of the process, this is then backed up by our resident greeter, Ross, who gets great pleasure explaining to the customer the system that we have in place for them picking their order.
There is a flow in place, the customer enters one door, follows the one-way system and exits the other door at the opposite side of the building. There can be queues first thing but they ease up.
I find from talking to people they really don’t mind, some enjoy it! As they say, it ‘gets them out for an hour’. When they enter the building the tunes are in full flow and the feeling is positive, plenty of craic is had by all, given the current circumstances, it’s a welcome release for some, which we are delighted about, all the while maintaining distance.
I wanted to show the public what we are about. We created new products off the bat like tomato salsa and mango salsa, fresh guacamole, pre-cooked wedges to name just a few (with thanks to our resident chef Simon Collins). We displayed our general prepared produce and it sells out every time.
The first thing the customers notice when they come in is the freshly baked bread, courtesy of the Bretzel Bakery, Portobello delivered that morning. We only started selling last weekend and we sold out fast both days. We’ve also brought on Coolhull Farm (Wexford) for some beautiful desserts which have gone down very well.
We are delighted to have these new supply partners on board at this difficult time. We have everything you can imagine in terms of fruit and veg, the home chef with a flair for cooking is in their element pottering around, choosing the stock. We can take payment by cash, Revolut or credit and debit card at checkout.
An adaptable business model
This experience has definitely opened our eyes to new possibilities. When you hear customers repeatedly ask ‘are you going to do this when things resume normal trading’ it is both rewarding and satisfying. They really appreciate our quality and enjoy the overall experience of shopping with us.
The response from the public has allowed us to take back on some staff we initially had to let go. We have seen a small number of establishments, our clients, reopen for take-away service and generally, we are seeing business growth of about 1.5% per week.
It’s going to be a slog. We are still down 85%, and therefore we see a recovery timeframe of up to two years.
We are facing it head-on and we will do whatever is necessary to keep it going, we will thrive once again and bounce back stronger!
A special thanks to the public for their support.
Kieran Doyle is Co-Owner of Doyles Veg Prep, a fruit, veg and dairy supplier to the foodservice sector which specialises premium prepared potatoes and vegetables. The company has seen growth averaging 25% year on year for 5 years. Until now.