In the Netherlands, Van Vugt Kruiden has, unsurprisingly, been through a challenging time. The hospitality industry closure greatly affected the company. Sales to the supermarkets, however, went more than well. "That kept us going. We’re especially grateful that we could retain all our employees," says Piet van Vugt.
Van Vugt Kruiden is a true family business. Eateries closing because of the COVID-19 crisis took a heavy toll on the company. "Suddenly, sales to wholesalers stopped. But the greenhouses were full of things like edible flowers. We had to throw it all away. We didn’t know how long the closure would last, so we started up again. Unfortunately, we lost that production too. After that, we focused fully on the common herbs."
"The special, typical hospitality herbs assortment, like pineapple sage, declined drastically. But standard herb sales like basil, coriander, parsley, and celery continued well. Our European retail customers’ sales increased. That partially made up for the loss of the hospitality sector. That good client spread was our saving grace. Eateries made other plans fairly quickly. They started doing deliveries, take-outs, and fresh meal packages. We’re delighted that we were able to retain all our staff," Piet explains.
Reopening of hospitality sector sees demand rise
At the time of writing - the beginning of July - the Dutch hospitality sector was just about fully open again. Although Pete is not yet entirely confident of a full return to "normal," he is optimistic. "The great thing is that all of our hospitality customers stayed with us. As soon as their doors opened, we saw sales increase. The restart was quite hectic because no one had stock. All the eateries wanted to start using fresh herbs again right away. But we’re not complaining. We were well prepared."
"If nothing changes, this will only keep increasing. Things are still uncertain, of course. Nevertheless, we remain positive, and the sowing just keeps going." Van Vugt Kruiden’s cultivation is demand-driven. The grower says that, for now, it is mostly the basic herbs that are selling well. "Specialties seem to be less important. There is, however, a gradual rise in the demand for edible flowers and special varieties. That’s why we’re slowly starting up with these crops again," Piet continues.
Helping clients provide inspiration
This herb farm does not only grow regular herb varieties like parsley, celery, and mint. They also cultivate baby leaf lettuce and edible flowers. There are about 40 different kinds of specialty herbs. These include apple mint, lemon verbena, and red basil. The choice of edible flowers is quite extensive too. "We’re always looking for new products. That continues, even during the pandemic. We haven’t been able to travel, but I usually always bring a cutting from abroad."
"For many herbs, it’s true that the standard often remains the most sought after," Piet adds. "For instance, although all kinds of different mint varieties are available, 'regular' mint remains the most popular by far. This also applies to basil. Here, red basil is becoming more popular as a garnish."
"Other climbers include cilantro and Thai basil. That’s thanks to the rise of Asian cuisine, generally, and, particularly, Thai cuisine. We can't wait to welcome everyone back to our demo garden. That’s where we fully express our passion for herbs. We want to continue inspiring our customers," Van Vugt says.
"So, in recent years, we’ve put a lot of effort into marketing. We constantly come up with new products and give buyers the correct information. We inspire them with things like flavor and usage possibilities. In this way, we help them sell more fresh herbs. We’ve had our own brand for 15 years. It also contributes to this. Many of our clients sell the herbs under private labels. They can therefore distinguish themselves in their segment."
Year-round Dutch herb supply
The fresh herb sector has been developing for years, as has this family business. The farm has been delivering directly to local and overseas supermarkets and hospitality wholesalers since 2003. That entailed a major shift in business activities. They soon began supplementing their production with imported herbs from cultivation areas in Italy and Spain.
That was to ensure delivery in the winter as well. And to compensate for any failed crops. "We’re increasingly focusing on a Dutch-grown full year-round supply," says Piet. "We only import additional herbs when there’s no other option. Other than many other parties, we are true farmers too. By doing everything ourselves, we can always deliver high-quality, reliable products."
In recent years, sustainability has become an important focal point within the company. "We invested heavily in this in the construction of our new premises. We took this into use in 2019. For example, the new building has a gas-free greenhouse heating system. It uses solar panels, and the cold stores' residual heat. This heats the greenhouse, demo greenhouse, and offices. Our company is 100% emission-free. Annually, the solar panels produce enough electricity to cover our needs," says the herb grower.
All their packaging is now also sustainable. Van Vugt Kruiden and its customers have opted for fully recyclable plastic packaging. "Herbs simply cannot be without packaging. It was quite a challenge to find a truly sustainable option. We now easily save 60,000 kg of plastic per year."
"We have also invested in a company bus. It brings our employees to work and home again. That vastly reduces the number of cars on the premises. And is a nice job perk for staff who live, say, in a city center. We have extended sustainability to the entire company, and all employees are involved. In the end, everyone benefits," Piet concludes.
Piet and family