It has been an exceptional 12 months for anyone involved in fresh produce business and an exceptionally tough one for those who supply the food service industry, as almost continual lockdowns have taken away a huge part of their business.
Watts Farm is a family-run business which has 10 sites in Kent and Bedfordshire. The company farms over 600 hectares of land, growing 60 different crops and employing nearly 200 people. They supply over 500 restaurants (70% are within the fine dining sector) as well as working with major retailers, other packers and a range of wholesalers.
“We always try to have unique products,” explains Ed Gray a Director at the company. “At this time of the year only a few are grown on our farms, such as Dwarf Bok Choy, cavalo nero, cauliflower and kale. However we also have our own farm in Portugal which is producing a range of crops. Outside the UK growing season and where we can’t source product in the UK we import. Normally we would be suppling many niche products to restaurants up and down the country but of course the food service sector is very limited with the latest lockdown.”
During the first lockdown Watts Farms foodservice division set up a home delivery service in order to keep the business going and the staff in jobs. It doesn’t make up for the loss of the food service side of the business but has kept them going and the staff employed.
“It has really been a great success with over 56,000 orders so far. It is keeping the food service division of the company ticking over while there has been no financial support from the government at all for any wholesalers.”
“We have taken over £4m in online sales in the last year, it is not a sole veg box scheme as some other wholesalers have done to stay afloat, but more an online weekly shop delivered to customers’ doors. We have built a range of 2500 different products, including fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, groceries, alcohol and deliver UK-wide.
Although the infrastructure was there: staff, logistics etc, Ed says they have had to invest in a new website and new technology and lots of marketing, including social media.
shop.wattsfarms.co.uk delivers groceries throughout the UK.
As for the additional challenges imposed by Brexit, Ed says that there was a lot of red tape we did not have before and there are cost implications that have increased the cost of what we do.
“Our largest suppliers are doing a good job and are well prepared; they know what they are doing, but it is more difficult with the smaller niche suppliers, some of whom have stopped exporting to the UK as it is too difficult and not worth their while. For some of these smaller suppliers, we were the only export customer to the UK, we are working with them to find solutions but it is very difficult currently.”