As a hybrid importer, wholesaler and retailer – both online and with physical stores – UK-based specialist fresh produce supplier Natoora would be interesting enough, but what arguably sets the company apart from its peers is both the scale of its ambition and its single-minded focus on sourcing for flavour. Produce Business UK speaks exclusively to Natoora’s recently-appointed chief operating officer, Jacopo Arpesani
Arpesani is the individual charged with increasing both the scale of Natoora’s business – at the moment on a UK level, although international expansion could happen soon – and improving the efficiency and sustainability of its supply chain.
This expansion is taking place through the expected opening later this year of two new Natoora retail outlets, as well as a deal with premium natural foods retailer Whole Foods Market to market branded fruits and vegetables.
As COO, Arpesani oversees three macro areas within the company – operations, technology and technical food safety – with the aim, he says, of expanding the business, while at the same time introducing new operational processes to improve efficiency.
“What we are trying to achieve in essence is scale and quality of service – it’s about the quality of service measuring up to the quality of the product,” he explains.
“Today, we have phenomenal products that our clients appreciate and love, and the intention of what we are trying to do is to build an organisation that can scale up as the business grows without compromising in any way the quality of both the service and the products.”
Arpesani describes himself as having been like a student during his first few weeks in the role; learning about how the organisation works and the areas where Natoora would like to intervene to achieve its desired quality of service.
To some extent, he says this translates into a focus on reducing discrepancies in the service that the company offers, ensuring consistency in product quality, while guaranteeing fresh products are delivered on time and without any mistakes in the supply chain or the accuracy of the order. “The idea is to learn and continuously improve how Natoora operates as an organisation,” he points out.
To achieve this, Arpesani says he has taken charge of defining key operational processes in the retailer’s supply chain, and layered these processes with technology to improve efficiency, while at the same time scaling up the business.
Essentially, what this means, explains Arpesani, is that he will examine the company’s entire supply chain from end to end. “We source directly for the most part from local growers in a number of countries across Europe, so the idea is to look at how we can shorten that supply chain to get the right products onto people’s tables – whether it’s in their homes or in restaurants – in the most effective way,” he says. “We want do that by looking at the supply chain and identifying where we have wastage, and streamlining that process and adapting it to the products themselves.”
Focusing on flavour
Rather than working within the parameters of a traditional fresh produce supply chain, Arpesani says Natoora begins with the premise that its fruits and vegetables must have the best flavour. This process, he says, starts with the identification of suitable growers and propagates through the entire supply chain.
“We want to preserve that exceptional flavour that we have, which means developing an innovative and more flexible supply chain,” he explains. “If you think about how difficult it can be to transport ripe peaches or delicate salads, you cannot have a one-supply-chain-fits-all approach.
“We are not handling something that does not deteriorate – it does – but we are at the point at which the kinds of products we sell are sourced in such a way that there are also no preservatives, or we try to identify those growers who do not use preservatives.”
To make this approach work, Arpesani says Natoora has to be very effective in getting its products onto consumers’ plates, especially where fresh fruits and vegetables are concerned.
Working with Natoora
So how can interested suppliers go about obtaining a contract with Natoora? Arpesani recommends contacting the company’s buying team and explaining why they believe it would be ‘synergistic’ for Natoora to work with them.
As well as this, Natoora’s COO says the company actively scouts for growers across Europe that have the same production ethos as the company in terms of how fresh fruits and vegetables should be grown. “If it is a synergistic partnership, it is a win-win situation for both companies,” he says.
The most important factor that Natoora looks for in prospective suppliers is that they deliver consistent levels of flavour in their products, as well as a guarantee of very low or no preservatives in fruits and vegetables.
“Some of the products we have are organic, but frankly some others go above and beyond organic in terms of the way in which they are grown,” he claims. “When you are sourcing from small, local growers that produce fruits and vegetables the way things used to be grown years and years ago, organic is something that may not be economically viable for them to get as an accreditation, but in terms of growing without the use or pesticides or preservatives, they typically tend to tick all of the boxes. Organic is one of the factors, but definitely flavour is the number one thing that we are looking for.”
As an importer, Natoora sources directly from growers in the UK, Italy, France and Spain; specialising in a range that includes: pomegranates, aubergines, tomatoes, peaches, pumpkins, melons and onions from Italy; plums from France; and baby vegetables, collard greens and heirloom tomatoes from the UK.
The company recently added black Iberica and gold Raf tomatoes, as well as Calcot onions – all three of which are procured from growers in Spain, specifically Almeria and Catalonia.
Satisfying Natoora’s customers
Natoora’s customers, Arpesani argues, are looking for a uniqueness in flavour, which delivers exceptional product taste, as well as a quality in service. What this means, he says, is that Natoora needs to be consistent and reliable in terms of the both the products and the service provided.
The firm now has ambitious plans for growth, both within the UK and beyond. “Getting there will require us to be thoughtful about the path we follow, so that as we grow from this phenomenal base, we continue to provide that exceptional flavour that distinguishes us, together with an absolutely reliable quality of service and consistency,” he says.
The Natoora brand was relaunched in September last year, with what Arpesani describes as a completely new look and feel for its web presence to emphasise the company’s focus on sourcing for flavour.
The revamped website now features product and grower profiles, including stories about how the fruits and vegetables are produced and details of how the firm looks for sustainability in its suppliers’ approach to growing.
“We want to be a source of information for our clients and give them a different level of appreciation for fruits and vegetables, and so our website features everything from the seed type, to the provenance, seasonality and flavour profile of our products,” says Arpesani.
Engaging with shoppers
Another way that Natoora engages consumer interest is through its physical retail store in Chiswick, west London, to which a further two outlets will be added in the capital this year, although Arpesani says no exact locations have been confirmed.
“The idea is that these new shops would be designed to do more than sell just our produce – think of it as a concept store – we want these locations to serve as a place to learn and be inspired by fresh fruits and vegetables,” he explains.
In doing so, Natoora hopes to foster a cultural shift in consumer perceptions of fresh produce. “People are already become more careful about what they buy and more attentive about where it is coming from – we want to be an accelerator of that trend,” Arpesani reveals. “Through these channels, this one of the ways in which we want do that.”
By using its growers and focusing on flavour and sustainability as the ‘core’ of its efforts, Arpesani says Natoora is hoping to deliver a consistently high quality experience from supplier through to end consumer.
Another tactic being used by Natoora to further increase awareness and consumer engagement with its products has been the introduction of a range of branded fruits and vegetables – in conjunction with Whole Foods Market – in London outlets.
“These lines give customers a variety of products that are completely different to conventional organic ranges – the products are noted for their exceptional flavour and quality,” claims Arpesani.
He argues that Natoora’s decision to source and grow for flavour means it has to do so in a way that fosters the best possible taste, which he claims is typically very much in line with organic and biological approaches to producing fruits and vegetables.
Looking further ahead, Natoora has aspirations to expand internationally, potentially including sites in Europe, although Arpesani stresses that no timescale or locations have as yet been decided.