I was mentored by some great people who taught me the basics; looking after customers, what quality meant, selecting the best, the importance of paperwork, planning, making a profit and getting the best out of teams of people. I now hope to pass these on.
I started my career on a trainee scheme at the world-famous London store, Harrods, which started me on a food journey through roles as product buyer, food hall manager, board level food director and food business mentor to where I am now, some 42 years later, still involved in the speciality food business, still loving the sector and the people that drive it.
It was here, when in the role of buyer for the Harrods’ Grocery department I first learnt how to recognise and order great products from great producers. During the early years I was constantly dealing with suppliers by selecting and developing the Harrods Hamper trade, doubling those sales from £3million to £6million. Later, as Director of Food Development, I managed the team of the store’s food buyers along with all shop floor activities and, at the same time, had responsibility for successfully developing international trade for the store where I was particularly successful in overseeing the store enter into the Japanese market. In addition, I had the rewarding task of developing an own label food brand for the store.
All these roles gave me a lot of interface with great artisan producers from the UK and abroad and widened my knowledge of the speciality fine food production chain.
Fortnum & Mason
It was at Fortnum & Mason I developed my knowledge of restaurant and food service. One of my many roles included sourcing, developing menus with the chefs, managing the many busy restaurants across the store including key roles in planning kitchen layouts. This skill allows me to now work with producers developing merchandise for this key sector.
As Food Director I held responsibility for all food retail operations which during my times was 80% of the store trade and all the profit. That role covered Buying, Retail Ops, NPD and Export. For 5 years I was the Managing Director of Fortnum & Mason and as the main board director also responsible for all non-food operations. My previous experience of the Japanese market allowed me to lead the team that set up joint venture for F&M in Japan.
I became involved with this exciting business as General Manager in the Cotswolds soon after it was created. My task was to support the family business by putting in place the systems and processes needed to stabilise and develop a successful food business. I lead a team that managed all areas of retail, production of foods, bakery, preserves, confectionary plus dairy and oversaw a major restaurant expansion. The business moved quickly and we successfully expanded the site, opened a Selfridges concession and later a new store in London all in a short timeframe.
I am an experienced speciality food business mentor who has worked with artisan food producers in Britain & Ireland independently and as a consultant on development and event programmes with organisations such as Scotland Food & Drink, Bord Bia (The Irish Food Board), The Welsh Government and Invest NI. In addition, I have supported artisan producers on programmes with Enterprise Nation on entering new markets.
The Seasoned Grocer
With his food retail background, Stuart Gates has a unique 360° view of the Speciality Fine Food Sector to share.
Many start-up and established businesses have had the benefit of working with Stuart and benefiting from his experience studying opportunities and new business ideas in the speciality food sector. Often producers have a great idea but this may need assessing and sometimes a check to ensure the venture gets off to a correct start. The Seasoned Grocer team have worked with producers of all sizes and have an understanding what needs to be done to get results.
Judging and giving feedback to producers and retailers is definitely a skill as anybody can say “5 out of 10” or “could try harder”. The key to being a good judge is constructive feedback and getting the message across that, perhaps, something may not be right but encouraging people to think about their product or business to improve it. This could be assessing problems, adjusting and evaluating opportunities in a new or different way.
I have been involved with the Great Taste Awards since 1994 and judging or adjudicating for it allows me to learn about new trends and to get the chance to work with other liked-minded people who share similar food passions.
I had the pleasure of being on The Seed Fund selection panel in 2019 to help judge which producers would go through and be chosen to benefit from the tremendous support from a collection of mentors.
I have also been a roving judge at The Food Shop of the Year Awards for the last 3 years meeting retailers and farm shop owners and getting the chance to see their businesses up close. This again assists me with my 360° approach and understanding when assessing speciality food businesses.