It might not be London, Birmingham or Manchester but East Anglia’s foodservice sector is buzzing as people dine out increasingly, more restaurants emerge and tourism thrives. With an abundance of locally-grown fruits and vegetables on its doorstep PBUK speaks with leading local supplier Accent Fresh about the potential to sell more produce.
“In the last 18-24 months more restaurants have been opening and more people are going out,” says Danny Griffiths, commercial director of Norfolk-based Accent Fresh – East Anglia’s premier supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to the foodservice business.
Following the tail-end of the recession three years ago when consumers had less personal expenditure to spend on dining out, Griffiths says now the foodservice sector is clearly growing.
“We’ve noticed more business on the coast, in particular,” he says. “North Norfolk has become a more trendy place to go and places like Burnham Market are popular with tourists and locals.”
In response, chefs are definitely upping their game and getting more creative, according to Griffiths. And here lies the potential to sell more fresh fruits and vegetables, especially locally-grown.
“A lot of people that come to East Anglia are quite surprised with regards to our local produce supply,” he points out. “From quail and beef to local jams and fruit and veg, local produce is a big part of what the region has to offer.”
While London remains the cutting-edge of food trends, Griffiths says East Anglia does tend to follow suit on account of its portfolio of popular high-end restaurants.
He uses the example of Nurtured in Norfolk – growers of a wide range of micro cress, pea shoots, edible flowers and micro veg – which sells a lot of produce to Michelin-starred chefs in London.
“Many local chefs aspire to be the next Gordon Ramsey. So six to 12 months later we see the same products being sold and used in restaurants in East Anglia too,” he says.
Those products often filter down into the mainstream market as well as consumers get more adventurous with their cooking after experiencing new flavours while eating out or watching cookery programmes on TV.
“Pea shoots used to be exotic, but now they’re mainstream. Last week I saw them being used in meals at a farm shop.”
Of course, trends come in waves, Griffiths points out. “A couple of years ago it was baby veg, then pea shoots. Now it’s something else,” he says.
Currently, the biggest local trend in East Anglia is to use edible flowers in dishes, which Griffiths believes has been influenced by cookery programmes.
“A lot of people in foodservice are buying edible flowers now,” he reveals. “They’re appearing on more menus, and as garnishes for cakes.
“We can source up to 40 different types of edible flowers today. It used to be just pansies but now there are little things like blackcurrant sage. Nasturtiums are quite big too.”
In general, however, Griffiths says the emphasis among chefs in East Anglia is largely on quality and provenance, which offers local growers a vibrant marketplace.
“A couple of years ago many chefs wanted to play around with weird and wacky dishes like those created by Heston Blumenthal,” he explains.
“Now they just want to source good quality produce and do it well. For example, I get people screaming for really good potatoes. Right now local Suffolk new potatoes are in season and they are like little pearls on a plate. Products like that can really make a dish special.”
With that in mind, he says old favourites like heritage varieties are back in high demand. From tomatoes to radishes and carrots, heritage produce has become a big trend in the last 18 months.
“They’re used on a lot of menus here,” Griffiths states. “Heritage tomatoes are really popular at the moment. We are getting some lovely ones locally from a grower in Dereham, which is 15 miles away.
“They look really nice and they have a lot more flavour because they’re grown on-the-vine in soil, as opposed to hydroponically.”
Baby artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes are also going up in the catering world, as consumers become more adventurous in their tastes.
“We’ve sold £4,000 of Jerusalem artichokes this year,” Griffiths reveals. “Year-on-year that’s a 20% uplift in volume.”
Mini cucumbers are also being used a lot as they offer something different on a plate, while other specialty products in demand include parsley root and black garlic.
In the last couple of years Accent Fresh has frequently been asked to source Italian produce as well, such as Castelfranco and Treviso radichio, Cima di Rapa (a green-budded variety of sprouting broccoli, aka turnip tops), and Puntarelle (a variety of Italian chicory).
Meanwhile, more unusual requests like unwaxed lemons – which aren’t used traditionally in foodservice but are very popular in supermarkets – have emerged for use in desserts.
The requests are constant, notes Griffiths. Recently, he was asked to supply Australian truffles, and he’s just been charged with bringing in tayberries.
“They’re a bit like a raspberries,” he clarifies. “You tend to find them in Scotland. They’re longer and more pink than raspberries.”
Unusual demands such as these might sound like a tall-order, but Griffiths says Accent Fresh is always up for a sourcing challenge.
“If one of our growers was growing a product like tayberries we’d probably know about it. But we generally mange to get hold of items as long as they’re in season or available.
“We prefer to buy local but we do source from across the UK and import from abroad.”
Plugging a gap
Accent Fresh was established in 1996 by two families to plug a gap in supplying local produce to pubs, hotels and restaurants across East Anglia.
After starting from scratch, the firm is now one of the biggest operators in the region with 500-600 customers.
“While others in our area might go to New Covent Garden Market in London and bring produce back, we focus on buying local because we’re in the Fens and we have loads on our doorstep,” notes Griffiths.
“We take the trouble of finding suppliers ourselves, which saves food miles and money. There’s more than you think available here – we have a local grower who supplies rainbow chard for that something different.”
To accommodate the growth in demand, over the last couple of years Accent Fresh has extended its warehouse and invested in a complete cold chain throughout the business.
“Our fruit and vegetable category is doing really well,” Griffiths confirms. “Sales are up 12-15% year-on-year.”
The company is now concentrating on smaller changes that will make a big operational difference, such as solar power to reduce energy costs and automated weighing scales to improve efficiency.