Bury St Edmunds sandwich shop owner speaks out over council-owned organisation

David Sherfield, of Toppers, with staff Lisa Campbell, Olivia Messer and Caz Clarke Picture Mark Westley
David Sherfield, of Toppers, with staff Lisa Campbell, Olivia Messer and Caz Clarke Picture Mark Westley

A ‘disgruntled’ business-owner has spoken out against what he sees as unfair competition for his sandwich shop.

David Sherfield, who runs Toppers, in Buttermarket, says a facilities management company called Verse, set up by St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath councils and the publicly-owned commercial organisation Vertas (previously called Eastern Facilities Management), is offering catering at a price he could never match.

He only discovered Verse existed when Toppers lost a long-term contract as a result of Verse offering sandwiches 50p cheaper than his own.

This, he says, is an unrealistic price which could never be matched by a private firm without access to a bank of council-owned facilities and resources.

“My feeling is that they are using council-funded facilities and they don’t have same costs we do,” said Mr Sherfield.

“A company we have worked with for a long time was approached by Verse a couple of weeks ago. Verse are charging £2.30 for something we charge £2.80 for. How can that be viable?

“I can’t get my cost anywhere near £2.30 for a tuna sandwich. In the shop the cost rises to £3.20, so we’re not asking this customer to cover the cost of someone serving them. We think we are fair and competitive, but I can’t compete with that.

“My questions are: how are Verse doing it so cheaply and, if they are making them that cheaply, why aren’t they charging more? As that would make the councils more money, which would be good for all of us.

“If they had to go out and borrow the money and are still managing to do a turkey and stuffing sandwich for £2.30, then good for them. But I don’t believe it. I am disgruntled.”

Toppers is the second firm to have contacted the Bury Free Press with concerns about Verse and Vertas. Last month, Abbey Security owner Ian Whitaker-Bethel questioned whether a £2.43 million Suffolk County Council loan given to Vertas gave it an unfair competitive edge.

A spokesman for Verse Facilities Management said: “Verse is proud to operate its facilities management services for the benefit of councils and businesses in West Suffolk. We pride ourselves on a competitive and great quality offer for the benefit of all our clients.

“Our joint venture arrangement also allows us to provide a financial return to councils in west Suffolk, which can be reinvested into front-line services for the benefit of residents.”

A spokesman for the councils said the authorities were not subsidising the ongoing business operations of Verse.

He added: “Verse have their own staff and where they use shared offices such as West Suffolk House, they pay for their space the same as does any other organisation that uses our shared buildings.

“Essentially we are a share holder in Verse with two directors on their board. And as with any other shareholder in any other business, we do not offer any financial guarantees.

“The only money that they receive from us is for the work that they hold contracts for such as the facilities management of the building at West Suffolk House and our other buildings.

“But in so far as the rest of their business is concerned, it is exactly that, their business and they compete in an open market in the same way as any other competitive company would.”