Eating on the job: Heath Blackford, Operations Manager at Brindisa

By
Eve O'Sullivan
Added
29 April, 2015

Each week, Cooked speaks to a professional from the food industry to find out what it’s really like to be behind the scenes of the things we all love to eat. This week it's Heath Blackford, warehouse and operations manager at Brindisa.

If I’m frank, I didn’t get my first job in food through a burning passion, it was a favour from my brother. He was working in the warehouse at Leathams Fine Foods, and I started in the warehouse there after school.

They were pioneers of that business, selling different cheeses, meats and other ingredients 10 years before anyone was even talking about them.


From there I became a warehouse manager, then stock controller, and finally a cheese buyer, so when the opportunity came up at Brindisa in 2004 to combine all my previous experience in one role, I jumped at it. In 2007, I became director of operations, which means I’m in charge of making sure all the products reach all the restaurants, delis and shops we supply in perfect order.


Brindisa

 

I get to the warehouse in Balham, south west London, at around 8am. I always have a wander around the floor first though, to make sure everything is ok, before speaking to everyone to confirm deliveries. Our trucks from Spain come on Mondays and Fridays, so they are definitely the busiest parts of the week. It’s hard to say what my job is day to day, really, as quite often it’s about firefighting or working on an individual project, and planning around a seasonal food calendar. So for example, during olive harvest in November and December, it’s making sure the buyers are all where they need to be, and that we can get the produce over to the UK on time. And in the last year, I've been overseeing our new fridge system. 

It might not sound that grand at first, but with more than 7,000 chilled products in stock, all with different temperature requirements, it had to be quite sophisticated. 


The space has been designed to have seven different zones; one for cheese at around 8C, one for vac-packed goods at 4-5C, an area for charcuterie, a nut fridge, believe it or not, which is set to a slightly higher temperature that’s just right for fresh almonds, a section for fruit and veg, and finally freezer compartments. Supplying Mediterranean ingredients means that the conditions are absolutely key to keep them at their best.

 

At the moment, we’re going one step further and building cheese rooms that replicate the conditions of cheese caves in Spain; that will mean that we can bring in young cheeses and mature them ourselves, which is really exciting.

 

People see the stall, the bar and shop at Borough Market and don’t realise what we do behind the scenes, but we actually supply 300-400 restaurants and 200 delis across the UK. I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m out there a lot, and we have a buyer based in the country. People are eating chorizo like it’s going out of fashion at the moment, which is great for us. We also stock things you wouldn’t expect, such as Spanish honey, chocolate and salt cod, then more niche artisanal products, such as fiduea, which is a regional Spanish-style pasta. By default I have at least one Spanish-themed meal at home a week, which isn’t too excessive, considering!

Brindisa
 

We have about 600 different products, and I don’t think there are many that I haven’t tried. If you ask me what I am, though, it’s a cheese man. I’ve learned a lot about charcuterie over the last 10 years, too, but that’s my first love, so much so that I’m actually a judge at the International Cheese Awards.

 

Brindisa’s warehouse always closes for lunch between 1-2pm, where we try to eat together, or take a break for a stroll. Some of our customers can’t understand why we do something so old fashioned, but we are big on the idea of creating a family feeling, plus, it’s a good chance for staff to try the products – you can have a lovely salad with a jar of tuna in oil and some piquillo peppers. There are around 35 of us, so it doesn’t always happen, but it’s really important that it does as much as possible.

 

Our products are expensive, yes – they are at the top end of Spanish offerings – but we pride ourselves on good service and sourcing the best artisanal ingredients, which is why we have such longstanding relationships. 


A lot of our customers have been with us for about 15 years. You speak to a nurse or a surgeon, and you realise that although my job can be stressful, the worst that happens is someone doesn’t get their cheese on time. I work a 50 hour week, and  in previous roles it’s been closer to 70 hours – but you make it in this trade by working hard. If you’d told me when I was 25 that I’d have gone from the warehouse floor to this, then I wouldn’t have believed my luck.


Brindisa

 

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