Cambridge Food Hub
The Cambridge Food Hub is an innovative food distribution system for the Cambridge area. Their aim is to increase the accessibility of sustainable food whilst supporting local producers and ethical small businesses.
Creating a local food system that puts people & planet first.
|N° of employees
|120 hours p/w
Background & values
Cambridge Food Hub is part of a limited company called Cambridge Organic Food that was set up 23 years ago. While Cambridge Organic Food connects local organic farms to retail customers, Cambridge Food Hub serves this same purpose through an online platform. According to the team, the food hub is best described as:
A business who wants to bring value to employees, customers, society and the owners in equal measure rather than just the owners.
Our goal is to promote a sustainable local food ecosystem… We use the term local food ecosystem as there are a load of actors that are connected. The reason for using the word ecosystem is because we like to be inspired by natural ecosystems and the idea that actors are connected and all actors mutually benefit which inspires what we want to do- distributing resources and sharing resources.
How the Open Food Network fits into this vision
Cambridge Organic always knew they needed an online trading platform. As the management team of the company were already involved in the Open Food Network, they believed the organisation would be a good fit.
Cambridge Food Hub is the most proud of the relationships they have made and strengthened while a part of the Open Food Network. For them, seeing first hand the positive impact you have on a new business by helping them access new retailers is rewarding.
When you’re able to make a difference through the network you have and connections you put in place it feels like the idea is working and there are lots of little moments.
Accessing sustainable funding is the biggest struggle for Cambridge Food Hub. As they are registered as a business and not a CIC, they are often ineligible for community grants even though much of their work is focused on strengthening local communities.
Communication between suppliers can be a challenge at times for Cambridge Food Hub, especially when producers work with a number of different distributors, some of whom may not share the same values at the food hub.
Recently, Cambridge Food Hub have noticed that both customers and businesses are thinking more local and they have seen that more people want to start up food related businesses. They feel quite positive about this and hope there will be a revitalisation of the industry, even though some small businesses may struggle initially.
Cambridge Food Hub, as part of Cambridge Organic, has a management team made up of three managers and two strategic consultants that meet weekly. This leadership team decides the general direction of the business with influence from the founder, Duncan Catchpole.
Building a culture of good communication is central to conflict resolution at Cambridge Food Hub. At times, they have found formal solutions have prolonged disagreements without allowing the relative parties to express their views and feel heard.
The order cycle is short because we really focus on local producers but we also have other more national suppliers.
Every Tuesday, Cambridge Food Hub updates the prices of their produce before they open the order cycle. It is worth noting, shoppers have until the following afternoon to place an order before the hub closes their order cycle again.
After the order cycle closes, reports are generated so the hub manager can order all the produce required for orders that week. Some suppliers deliver directly to Cambridge Food Hub, making use of the free storage they offer, others require the food hub to collect the produce needed. As many of their shoppers have subscribed to Cambridge Food Hub’s Veg Box Scheme, there is little variation between orders making the order cycle process efficient.
Cambridge Food Hub holds stock for their suppliers who already have a profile with the Open Food Network, and sell through the platform. They also hold stock for dry food suppliers. For others, they are required to collect their produce when needed.
As they tend to order exactly what they need, Cambridge Food Hub has very little food waste. Should they have to throw away mouldy food, their relationship with a local pig farmer reduces their impact on the environment.
For edible food waste, the food hub regularly donates to the local food bank.
They are also interested in circular packaging systems such as containers that can be reused and encourage our suppliers to use reusable packaging such as glass jars.
For the food hub side of business, ensuring that reusable packaging is returned is harder. But, we work with retailers who share our values. So, they generally try to have a circular waste system too.
Tools and equipment
Vans are very important. In the warehouse, their cold store for fresh produce needs to be bigger. They also need all the classic tools for operations in the warehouse, such as a pallet truck for example.
Cambridge Food Hub has a warehouse and most of the space is taken up for Cambridge Organics. The warehouse has tables with stations and they put produce both on top and underneath. They currently use screens between the packing stations for COVID-19 safety precautions. Their cold store takes up quite a lot of space. Other parts of the building are taken up by storage space, such as shelves for dried items that can be stored.
Cat, who does food hub deliveries, has a station in the corner with benches on either side to pack produce and other items for delivery. She typically takes whole crates of things, as people regularly order those. If they do need to split crates, they have a lot of large boxes and other crates which can be used. The team try to reuse everything, so all boxes that they use have had something in them before. So, this means they don’t need to buy any packaging beyond paper bags for packing things like potatoes.
There are at least eight vans, four of which are electric and four diesel. Wholesale deliveries are mostly done by diesel van, until they can find a larger electric van. A lot of the vegbox deliveries are done in electric vans which are smaller. In the office space there are computers and a printer, which is not very high tech but does the job.
Cambridge Food Hub use the Open Food Network software and they also use accounting software. They currently use Sage, but are moving over to Quickbooks. They try to go for free software where possible e.g. LibreOffice for documents. Google Drive is where they store everything and they use Google docs and Google Sheets.
They try to do graphics in house and use publisher or indesign for publicity brochures. They have recently gone through a branding exercise and a graphic designer did some illustrations for them which they hope will look more professional going forwards.
Cambridge Food Hub haven’t had any problems with producers’ values conflicting with their own and they are open to anybody who wants to be part of the local food ecosystem.
Being part of the local food ecosystem is constrained by geographical distance. Geographically they want to ensure that they can easily collect from their suppliers and their suppliers can deliver to them easily. Some of their growers are a little further afield.
We don’t have refrigerated vans so we don’t stock dairy or meat products, which fits with our environmental values and sourcing policy of not stocking meat or dairy. Beyond that we’re not trying to exclude people.
When there are suppliers selling the same products they don’t prioritise one producer over another and both suppliers will both be listed. But, if they have something that a national supplier sells, but a local producer also sells the same thing, they will prioritise the local producer.
They leave it up to the retailers to decide how to proceed when choosing what to buy. They are not a wholesaler but are trying to establish direct relationships, so it’s up to the producers to do their own work with retailers.
Producers selling elsewhere
Cambridge Food Hub has two national fruit and veg suppliers and only a few other products which are sold nationally – for example, oat milk, lemonade and charity drinks. Whenever a supplier is not local, their values need to be in line with the values of the hub. Such as, British, ethical, organic, fairtrade for instance. They have a food sorting policy which explains the decisions they make for suppliers and distance from the food hub is a part of the policy.
The business model for Cambridge Food Hub is still very much in the developmental stage. Cambridge Food Hub facilitates direct trade, so producers can sell through their shopfront with no profit added to the retail price.
So how does Cambridge Food Hub make any money?
We have a slightly odd business model. We are membership based which is unusual and people find it difficult to get their heads around it. But, our point is that we want to separate the costs of food from the service that goes with it. Our buyers pay a membership fee to be members and access our shopfront. The benefits are that our prices are directly lower than if they were buying from a wholesaler. There is also the convenience of being able to access a number of producers at the same time rather than going through each individually and having them deliver it.
The membership fee covers our own costs. This is something that we’ve had a lot of debate about as it is new and no precedent in the food industry. Membership varies on spending limits and we have bands of membership. If you buy more you pay a higher membership. If you buy at the low end of your band probably no cheaper than a wholesaler but if you buy from the top end of your band then you will save money and benefit there.
There is a very symbiotic relationship between Cambridge Food hub and Cambridge organic. Operating as a combined business, Cambridge Food Hub and Cambridge Organic employ 29 people. Of those 29 employees, 2 work directly with Cambridge Food Hub and the others support the hub with deliveries and collections.
Legal and financial advice
For support, the Cambridge Food Hub looks for experts that share their same values such as triple bottom line accountants or organic certification bodies. Where these organisations cannot provide them with the advice they need, the food hub solicits advice from government bodies.
Communication with old and new customers
Cambridge Food Hub send out regular emails when they open their order cycle which tells their customers about any changes in products and things like that. This is an important means of communication for them. They used to use mailchimp, not just for their customers but also for their supporters during a period of time when they were doing a fundraising exercise.
They are also on Instagram, but are not sure about the distinction in communicating with a B2B and a B2C audience. So, they talk to their Instagram audience as if they are talking to a wider audience. This is because it’s not only the businesses they supply, but also their customers who will see it.
With the food hub, the main kind of complaints they receive are if something supplied is poor quality. E.g. if produce has gone off or something that comes in just isn’t good enough quality.
For example, a recent complaint for them was when a chocolate rice cake product had been damaged due to the heat. In this and similar circumstances they offer their customers credit and then try to get the refund back from the supplier. It also depends on what their customer wants.
Sometimes our customers just want to tell us and sometimes they ask for a refund. We’ve never had any complaints beyond the quality of things. Maybe it’s because I’m viewing things in a positive way.
Engaging with their community
There is their presence on social media more generally, which keeps people updated. They are currently thinking of new, more general ideas – like doing a podcast.
Or something exciting and a bit different because there’s some interesting thoughts about what we’re doing with the food hub and how we envision what food systems should be like and that sort of thing. There is definitely potential for more interesting communication as we build up to development of the food hub. Plans are there for certain and already looking out for support from the OFN with communications.
They believe that engagement indicates their degree of success – particularly on social media. When something doesn’t get any response or any comment then they don’t feel that it has worked. They use analytics, but in a really basic way. Communications and marketing is an area they don’t have any particular expertise in.
I could spend time trying to get better but I don’t want to spread myself too thin. The bottom line for me is to make things that people care about.
Getting help from the Open Food Network
I would say I’m overwhelmingly positive about the Open Food Network support and it’s incredibly responsive. In other systems if you want support you wait ages or get ignored. I like the signal group and that’s not just OFN support but peer support too. Whenever I’ve had a problem it’s been fixed within the hour.
I remember once having a problem emailed Lynne and it was fixed within half an hour so definitely the levels of responsiveness and levels of communication is great. I love Louise’s emails about updates with the website even though normally I don’t notice it. Though I did when the website became faster. It revolutionised my Tuesdays! Fast and open communication genuinely the best level of support from any software platform. The OFN has always done what I wanted it to do so no problems.
Click here to watch this seminar with Duncan Catchpole from Cambridge Food Hub: “Local Food Ecosystems; How Food Hubs Can Help Create a More Sustainable Food System.
Click here to watch this video to learn more about Cambridge Food Hub’s business model and what has worked well for them and what they might have done differently.