How customer communication and waste reduction are boosting herb business
Herb success: not just due to celebrity chefs, but also the hard work of suppliers

How customer communication and waste reduction are boosting herb business

Rachel Anderson
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R&G Herbs - Dean Fowler
Dean Fowler

R&G Fresh Herbs is relocating from its Surrey base of 45 years to new, ultra-modern premises in nearby Hampshire. Produce Business UK speaks to general manager Dean Fowler to find out how the firm remains ahead of the game in today’s competitive environment

Nearly 60 years ago, Richard and Gloria Stevens had a vision that fresh herbs should and could be utilised as key cooking ingredients. And so this forward-thinking pair set up the eponymous R&G Fresh Herbs in 1958 – the two of them growing herbs in their back garden and selling them from their stall at Covent Garden Market.

Poignantly, R&G still retains it presence in London’s New Covent Garden Market. And, as the firm begins a new chapter in its history book, the Stevens’ vision of fresh herbs’ usage as a mainstream ingredient is now a reality. Fowler, who has worked for the business for the last seven years, says: “It’s a really exciting time at R&G. We are currently seeing double-digit growth with all of our customers. Herbs are in a great place at the moment; people are eating healthier and so they are using more herbs. It’s been made easier for people to cook with them – herbs are not that grey area now and there’s more headroom to go. And hopefully fresh produce can grow with that as well.”

Fowler reveals that R&G, which supplies fresh-cut herbs to Waitrose and Ocado, has this September relocated to a purpose-built facility in Farnborough, Hampshire, to “keep up with that growth, to secure R&G’s business going forward – and also to bring in some more talent into our business”. He adds that the new, energy-efficient, 11,277m2 packing facility and office is three times the size of its old home, which was seven miles away in Lucas Green Nurseries near Woking, Surrey.

Building a great supply base

Given the strength of the fresh-cut herbs market, R&G Fresh Herbs – which is still a family business that’s now run by the Stevens’ grandson Mathew Prestwich – is most definitely going to need its newfound extra space. Kantar Worldpanel figures show that the value of UK’s fresh cut herbs market has grown (in the 52 weeks from the w/e August 16, 2015 to the w/e August 14, 2016) by 18%. Moreover, the 12-week period to the w/e August 14, 2016 saw the value of the fresh-cut herb category grow by 21.2% compared to the same period in 2015.

Aside from factors such as people’s adoption of healthy-eating habits and celebrity chefs’ promotion of these flavoursome plants, the success of the fresh-cut herbs category could perhaps be largely down to the hard work of businesses such as R&G – a firm that, over the past five decades, has formed very close relationships with its growers. Fowler says: “We are very much a family business – true to our ethics and true to our sourcing. Our relationships with our suppliers are extremely important to us. For example, we have growers in Spain that we’ve been working with for nearly 40 years now. That gives us a great supply base – a foundation on which we can then move forward.”

During the summer, some 80% of R&G’s herbs are grown in the UK. Its grower relationships include its eight-year agreement with Millets Farm Centre. Over that time, R&G’s herb-growing area on this Oxfordshire farm has successfully expanded from some 7.5ha to just under 30ha – growing mainly coriander (the UK’s fastest-selling herb), flat and curly parsley as well as secondary crops including mint, tarragon, chives, rosemary and oregano. 

R&G Fresh Herbs_MIllets farm pic one
Millets Farm Centre has 30ha under production for R&G

Information sharing

In addition to working well with its growers in the UK and overseas, R&G also works closely with its retailer, foodservice and wholesale customers. Fowler notes: “We are doing a lot of work with retailers, targeting store-level data and seeing exponential growth.”

He explains, for example, that R&G and its customers are targeting sales and wastage on a store level. “We are ensuring that the store tells us what it thinks it will sell, and on the days it will sell it. We have seen significant success with that strategy. The ideal world would be for consumers to walk in and buy the last packet of dill on that shelf and then having the staff restock that shelf. Yet that is not what happens. [A typical scenario is that] the dill is not there, so that piece of work is about trying to ensure there’s one [packet] left and that it [the shelf] gets restocked immediately.”

Fowler also reveals that, as a fresh-cut herbs supplier, the company shares its “broad spectrum of information and history” with its customers – such as advising its clients on the best time of the year to buy certain herbs because “every herb has a life cycle.”

The coming years will no doubt see R&G strengthen its existing relationships and, as Fowler points out, this pioneering company is also looking to diversify its supply base even further. “We are always finding the next big thing,” he explains.

Arguably, it is this sort of drive and determination that keeps a fresh produce company thriving in what is widely known to be a very competitive environment. Such focus has also helped to add much more colour, flavour and variety to our plates and will most likely continue to liven up our dishes for many more decades to come.

Produce Business UK was speaking to Dean Fowler at the recent British Herb Trade Association field day, held at Millets Farm. 

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