There are plenty of companies in the catering supplies industry with extensive and varied histories, but you’ll be hard pressed to find many whose legacy stretches all the way back to the end of the nineteenth century.
One firm that can claim to have links to that bygone era, however, is Mitchell & Cooper. The company’s founders (one was a silversmith, the other an engraver) started their activities in Farringdon, London in 1879 and quickly went on to forge a successful and growing business, even gaining the contract to make trench periscopes for the First World War effort.
By the 1920s, Mitchell & Cooper had moved into bar and catering equipment, its first steps towards building a portfolio that more closely resembles what it is known for today.
In fact, the company claims to have developed the first commercial ice cream scoop, a variant of which it still sells, although arguably it is the Bonzer industrial can opener that has brought the business most acclaim.
The first Bonzer can opener was produced in the 1930s and in the years since it has been exported to more than 40 countries. Its largest market outside of the UK is the US, where it sells through sales partner Vollrath, which also purchases its popular food portioners among other items.
These days the business is solely owned by the Cooper family. Managing director, Guy Cooper, and project director, Kat Cooper, whose great-great grandfather was one of the co-founders, are now flying the flag for what represents the fourth generation of family ownership.
Guy Cooper says that today the company is best described as a “UK light equipment and barware manufacturer” although in addition to producing its own lines it also imports a number of additional brands from overseas, something it has been doing since 1983.
“This year we have introduced 11 new ranges to our catalogue and there are nine additions to existing ranges, so we are trying to bring new things in with the dealer in mind but not copy existing things out there,” he comments. “We are trying to be unique — although that is, of course, quite challenging!”
Over the years the company has mainly dealt with French and American brands on the import side. It has access to all of French kitchen specialist Matfer Bourgeat’s product range, which encompasses 6,000 items. Fast-moving lines are stocked in the UK, and anything else can usually be sourced and supplied within 10 days.
Other brands it has relationships with include Zeroll, Barth, Kisag and Pulltex. Mitchell & Cooper’s own-brand line of products is the company’s real bread and butter, however, and impressively it is all produced from its Sussex HQ. The firm has operated from the premises since 1977, but has expanded the site over the years to accommodate the direction of the business and the growth in output.
“We are very proud to be British manufacturers,” insists Cooper. “The thing about this industry is that if a product works well, the maturity of that product can last a long time. The Bonzer can opener is a good example of that. It has been going since 1930 and the way it works hasn’t really changed a great deal. I think the difference now is that it is not just one can opener; it is one can opener in a whole range of can openers. There are five different models that step up from light usage to heavy usage for MoD and hospitals, and dependent on can size as well. Most importantly, they are built to last.”
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Some of the products that Mitchell & Cooper produces for the US market were built in the Far East, but it recently brought all that work back to the UK following a £70,000 investment in state-of-the-art machinery, including a fusion welding machine, which specifically ensures its portioner range meets the highest food safety standards in the US.
Since bringing it back on shore, Cooper claims that it has been able to maintain margins without raising prices, even though labour costs are higher.
The company has also strengthened its position on the service side of the business, reviewing the level of components it has in stock and making sure it is on top of lead times and minimal order quantities.
Around 75% of Mitchell & Cooper’s business comes from the sale of products that it manufactures, with close to half of the company’s staff deployed on the factory floor. 50% of what it builds gets exported.
“The first emphasis is always to sell the manufactured product and really the bought-in products are mainly for the UK market,” explains Cooper. “It is no good importing to export because there are too many mouths to feed along the way.”
With the emphasis still very much on developing its own Bonzer range, Kat Cooper says the company’s policy is always to take a considered view of any prospective new brands that it might be interested in working with. If they are going to be added to its offering then they must fit with its mid- to high-end focus. “I think with any brands or products that we do bring on board, they have to adhere to the same values as Bonzer,” she explains. “So they need to be great quality manufacture; they are not going to be cheap items.”
Dealers remain the firm’s primary route to market, so the expanded catalogue, plus its ongoing R&D into new products, is all carried out with the sales channel in mind.
Guy Cooper says that as the firm doesn’t rely on new openings or projects in the way that a heavy duty catering equipment brand might, it needs to have a continuous understanding of what’s happening in the market and partner closely with distributors.
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To reiterate this, Mitchell & Cooper brought Alan Davies on board earlier this year as its new commercial director and his primary remit is to build sales through the dealer channel. The appointment marks something of a step change for the business as for many years it relied on external sales reps to achieve coverage of the UK.
“I really feel that we can increase sales through the dealer market by being supportive, understanding and available,” says Guy Cooper.
“With our products, because we are not really a one-stop-shop, we need to assist the dealers in actually placing the business, so we always welcome the chance to train up distributors’ sales teams, dual call with them and explore the leads to a point where we can then hand them back to the dealer; a sort of a push and pull approach.”
By its own admission, Mitchell & Cooper’s website is a little outdated and restricted. But the company is promising some major changes in this area over the coming few months and dealers are poised to see the benefits.
Web tool will drive online buying enquiries to dealers
New ecommerce capabilities, for instance, will allow dealers to place orders on a 24/7 basis for the first time. And because the system is a module of the company’s existing back-office infrastructure, dealers will be able to check product details, verify stock levels and, over time, track the status of their order.
Additionally, once the online ordering mechanism is in place, Mitchell & Cooper intends to launch a lead generation tool, which will push product enquiries through to partners’ websites. The tool is designed to overcome the problem that many equipment manufacturers operating indirect sales models encounter in that end-customers which land on their websites wanting to buy products find themselves reaching a dead end or getting fobbed off with a list of nearby stockists.
It has found a system that allows it to place a ‘buy online’ button on every single product page, which then brings up a list of dealers with websites that the customer can click on to instantly place their order. If the dealer doesn’t have an ecommerce website then its details will still be listed should a user want to get in touch with it through more conventional methods.
“We don’t want to take the orders direct, we want to support the dealers and build the sales that way,” says managing director Guy Cooper. “Essentially, what we are doing is adding in end-user ecommerce capability to the website, but it is not ours, it is our dealers’.”
Cooper says the end-user will be given the freedom to choose who they want to buy the product from, acknowledging that it’s more than likely to be determined by price, delivery terms and whether they have an account with a dealer already. He insists the online investment is a “giant leap forward” for both Mitchell & Cooper and its dealers, as it will allow partners to list more of its products on their websites without them having to shoulder the burden of holding extra stock — ideal for slower moving lines or new items that dealers might not normally be willing to take a punt on.
“All they’ll have to do now is list the product on their website and they will benefit from the leads being directed to them,” insists Cooper. “There is no cost involved at all. We have always wanted to do more online, but we needed to have the back-office suite in place first to make it happen. We have had that system for three years now, so it is a logical step to share the benefits of our system with the dealers.”