During the biennial inspiration trip to New York four years ago, Harvest House members saw a considerable share of processed products on the shelf. "If this is the way the market is going, why don't we process our residual flows," the tomato growers wondered. Food Fellows was born a few Friday afternoons later. Now, 3 million kilos of tomatoes are processed every year in soups, blends and pasta sauce. The AGF.nl / Groentennieuws.nl editorial team was offered a lunch and put it to the test.
Rogier Hilkes, Annemiek Vogel and Heiko de Ruiter from Food Fellows
The road to an in-house processing plant had the necessary obstacles. "Every business administrator called us crazy for putting a signature here at the start, but it also explains the enormous entrepreneurial spirit of our growers. We love doing this, doing it well, just doing it in general, but most importantly doing it together," says general manager Jelte van Kammen of Harvest House.
"At the same time we have experienced that selling processed product works very differently than fresh. First we wanted to leave the sale of the processed products to the sellers of our subsidiaries, but we soon discovered that this did not work. As soon as the season starts, those guys have other things on their mind, which is why we have chosen to launch Food Fellows as a separate start-up, and that's how we started the adventure, as a processed product involves different processes, techniques and quality requirements. Moreover, we have to deal with new channels and buyers, which requires focus and therefore our own organisation. "
Rogier Hilkes, with a background in the food industry, was recruited as commercial director. "We have taken the step to market Food Fellows as a brand. That is not the most common way in the fruit and vegetable sector, but if we can serve the market with a distinctive product, it will be with this product. We have the growers as a foundation. Thanks to the size of our growers there are hardly any parties who can achieve this in such a way, because the products are incomparable with the existing processed tomato products. The tomatoes that we use - the cocktail and Sunstream tomatoes so ripe they fall from from the bunch - are the most delicious tomatoes. That is the strength of this concept: using tomatoes that are selected for flavour makes it the ideal basis for healthy and delicious products. It would be a shame if we were to become a supplier of raw materials again. "
With the acquisition of Snijpunt, the next step is for Food Fellows to also take the step into processed paprika products. Thanks to the residual flows from sister companies Snijpunt and Rainbow Kleinpak, onions, peppers, carrots and herbs also end up in Food Fellows pasta sauces. "The tomatoes will always remain the main ingredient, but those other vegetables can be applied perfectly. We are busy testing new products with our product developers, but always with the most delicious vegetables from our growers as a basis. It is also fantastic that the cooperative is fully supporting this. We have a professional kitchen at our disposal and will certainly be rolling out new processed products over the coming period," Rogier promises.
"The sellers of the sister companies TNI and Rainbow take the products to their existing retail and wholesale customers in markets such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia. We ourselves approach food service via fairs and with our food truck, which we kicked off during Gastvrij Rotterdam, "says Rogier. "The nice thing is that the interest sometimes comes from unexpected sources. For instance how the meat industry is starting to show interest. That is also the great thing about this adventure. There are all sorts of surprises on our path and we never know beforehand where we will end up "
There are also quite a few other things in the field of food safety involved with processed product that are different from what people are used to in the fresh fruit and vegetable trade. "We also carry out research into the composition of our vegetables so that, with approval from the authorities, we can process peppers more efficiently, for example. Such things take quite some time," says Rogier.
A tour of the high care production area provides a good insight into the production process, whereby the redundant tomatoes from the DC of Greenpack are supplied via the conveyor belt system via the roof. After processing and adding the herbs, the products are pasteurised, after which the products are packaged in industrial or retail packaging.
1 kilo tomato = 1 kilo blend
"We use one whole kilo of fresh, fully flavoured tomatoes to produce exactly one kilo of Tomatoblend. That means that nothing is lost during the production of our blends. This results in a perfect 100% tomato base for different dishes. The soup also consists of no less than 84% vegetables. We add some broth to get the right taste, but do not use unnecessary additives such as colours and flavors. And because we use the entire tomato, we use less water. And you can taste it," concludes Rogier. Fortunately, the products also appeal to customers. Last month, for the first time, a situation arose that there was a shortage of tomatoes to be processed. "It has brought the necessary headaches, but if the trend of the past months continues, we will break even next year! "