The orange van men who made a great hall of China

The orange van men who made a great hall of China

The Crosby family lay on finest ‘silver’ service as they celebrate the little orange van that became their vehicle to success in the catering industry. Brian Nicholls tells their story.

The Great Wall of China may be immovable but the great hall of china is now up and looking spectacular here in the North East. It’s the pristine 3,000sq ft showroom in the new HQ of Crosbys, opened amid the firm’s silver jubilee celebration – 25 years supplying the restaurant, bar and catering industry.

The spacious chrome and glass area displaying wares of the major North East provider of crockery, cutlery and catering equipment – a plethora of champagne buckets, cookers, water jugs, work tables and sinks all included and displayed to best advantage beneath inlaid lighting – features a dinner setting fit for royalty. Around £600,000 of stock, including many select brands, takes up the floor.

Changed times, indeed, from when Bob Crosby, founder of this family business, drove his orange van once a week to Stoke to bring back crockery he hoped to sell to local restaurants and cafes.

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The first year’s turnover for the present Crosbys, in 1990, was £70,000. Last year, it was £70,000 a week, and this year’s 52 week total could exceed £5m. Today the company, whose workforce has almost doubled to 30 in two years, is run by the main shareholders – Bob’s sons Roger, an ex-Barclays Bank manager who’s 45 and lives at Corbridge, and Ben, a 43-year-old former golf professional at Ponteland, who lives at Gosforth.

Almost, it seems, at the speed of the greyhounds lapping neighbouring Brough Park in Newcastle, Roger and Ben, working 12 hour days, have transformed an empty 1960s shell of an industrial unit on Brough Park Way into this modern argosy.

It comprises, besides the display area, 3,000sq ft of modern offices, 18,000sq ft of warehousing trafficked by forklifts, and the entire exterior of the building clad and girded with new car park and landscaping.

The firm’s crockery, cutlery, specialist catering equipment, even paper and janitorial supplies, go out to more than 2,000 customers in the North – not only dedicated eating places but also hospitals and schools. It has sold more than a million cups and saucers over 25 years, and toilet roll sold could stretch from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

Through its internet business, it supplies restaurants and Michelin establishments across the UK and overseas. Private customers from the likes of Ireland, Dubai and London buy online. Orders have included cereal dispensers for the Olympic Village, and cocktail glasses for an Antiguan beach bar.

The in-house van sales service, Chef 7, carries catering essentials directly to hard pressed chefs confined to their kitchens. The family say even restaurants opening within 24 hours have had last minute needs met. “None of our competitors can match that,” they claim.  
Their vans service customers between Berwick and North Yorkshire, and the target is to supply 97% of that area’s entire requirements. With their online “window” – set up with Visualsoft of Stockton – orders from beyond are also growing, often because the purchaser is a national chain or an establishment with some other connection to the North East.

The internet represents, in Roger’s words, a “bit of a dark art” as to how customers come across the website. “Besides sales across the globe, a lot of London gastro-pub type people now look to us – even councils, at Dagenham for example.”

Crosbys only sells online what can be safely sent. So no chemicals. And no cookers entering big costs and devouring profit. Crockery and glassware sales are risked. Small attractive products are a major attraction though – chef’s gadgets, presentation gifts, and the exclusive brands and items with appealing prices.  

“We never consider global pricing,” Ben says. “We price for a margin we hope to achieve, whether for Darlington or Dubai. We use Interlink Express for next day distance delivery, and shipping costs have to be included in exporting. So our competitors now aren’t only local or one-man-and-his-band but also national and international. It’s a reactive market. If you can’t deliver when required, the customer can go down a lot of other options.”

Bob Crosby, now 75, has retired and stepped down from the board following an investment in the company under the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), and the entry of a non-executive director. But Bob still pops in regularly for a bit of crack with longstanding customers. “There’s a great sense of continuity here,” Roger remarks. “Our 25 years seem like five minutes.”

Roger and Ben’s energies are fired by the warm recollections of helping their dad in this and earlier ventures. As children they’d journeyed to Stoke with him on Saturdays. Bob had decided to go it alone after being employed previously in wholesale crockery. Through his contacts in Stoke he supplied many Newcastle in-places of the time – Marco Polo, La Roma and the original site of Café 21. The reach spread to restaurants in Middlesbrough, Darlington, Sunderland and Durham, as well as local authorities.

He also opened shops in Whitley Bay, Whickham and Tynemouth. They did well until suburban retail was hit by Eldon Square’s opening in 1977. “We managed to sell the businesses but not for a massive amount by any means,” Ben recalls.

“We’ve closely followed tableware trends over the years, from early days of pizza and pasta with checked tablecloths to the minimalist style of nouvelle cuisine and on to the rustic approach with boards and baskets today,” says Roger. “Because we now also offer restaurant design, we’re keeping abreast of latest interior trends – fast becoming a one-stop shop for the hospitality industry through this design, technical build, kitchen fitting and provision of specialist equipment.”

Crockery

They’ve just fitted out the bistro at England’s largest distillery, newly opened at Bassenthwaite in the Lake District. Terry Laybourne the distinguished North East chef who’s consultant chef there, has patronised Crosbys for 25 years.  

With Roger and Ben’s early support, the firm branched from crockery into the cutlery, glassware, light equipment and heavy kitchen kit. Five years ago, Crosbys also joined Caterbar, a national buying group providing cost effective access to chemicals, paper and disposable supplies, and last year Crosbys won Newcastle City Council’s contract to supply every chemical and disposable it requires. “That’s a massive increase in turnover and logistics for us,” says Roger.

Ben had joined Crosbys six months in, driving the van to Stoke while Bob did the selling. If Ben wasn’t in Stoke he was delivering and Bob was selling full time. Roger joined about a year later, and Bob’s twin brother in between.  

Ben had been three years a golf pro but accepted it wouldn’t be a permanent career, given needs elsewhere. Roger made his decision after 11 years at Barclays, finding management there unfulfilling. “I needed a new challenge. Dad and Ben wanted a salesman. My challenge was: could I cover one month’s salary? Ben and I had a mortgage then – sharing a place.

“Dad said he’d cover one month. I left Barclays on 31 December and started here on 2 January. I never looked back. Going to restaurants, bars, open events – talking to people who love what they do – was very exciting.”

They’d intended leaving school at 16 and 14 to work in their dad’s china shops. “But he sold them,” Roger laughs. “So we had to find jobs quickly. Ben did a YTS scheme. We’d both been school champions at golf but Ben played a lot more and did exceptionally well. Then,
as it turned out, we came back to work with dad, bringing skills and experience we’d found, and which life throws at you.”

Bob’s no longer a shareholder, though his wife Jean, a credit controller with the company, retains a stake. Says Roger: “Though dad’s retired now we still work for him in a sense, and he still reaps the benefit. He’s been able to retire through us joining him. He started at 14 and worked 61 years.”

Growth is partly propelled by hiring key managers who augment the offer: specialists in chemical and disposables, for example, and design and technical, the latter now with a team to design the commercial kitchens on CAD. Abilities of long-term employees are not overlooked either. Their longest-serving employee, field sales manager Keiron O’Neill, started as a dishwasher 16 years ago.

The firm has done well out of property too. After the orange van came a garage, then a unit at Kingston Park, then two units extending to three, and from there to a building opposite Shieldfield’s Biscuit Factory 12 years ago. It outgrew that within five years but could only be relocated to Byker recently. Now the Shieldfield premises are being sold to provide 450 student accommodations.

It took five years to find suitable new accommodation, and Byker’s Brough Park area was the closest to central Newcastle they could find. For Bob, though, Byker has a sentimental attachment. He may live in Corbridge, like Roger, but he was born a Byker lad – a twin among 10 brothers and sisters, and a wartime evacuee to Scarborough.

Ben says: “We’re a family company – open, honest, transparent and understanding over payment terms. Our business model isn’t about conquering the country but expanding the service our considerable customer base already enjoys.”