When Maud Jentjens decided she was unhappy with the quality of fresh produce she could buy on the supermarket shelves in Holland, she decided to do something about it. She set up Innovative Fresh and seven years down the line, explains to Produce Business UK how consistent monitoring the condition of fruit, veg and flowers on the supermarket shelves benefits buyers and, more importantly, the end consumer
“As a consumer, I had become increasingly dissatisfied with the fresh produce I saw in the supermarket,” says Jentjens. “I believe that if we are to sell more fruit and vegetables in the long-term, it is the consumer we have to please with delicious tasting fruit and vegetables of good quality.
“I wanted to see an overall improvement in quality – if I go into a supermarket one day and buy a fantastic tasting raspberry, I would like to go back tomorrow and do the same again. So we founded the company and I started to measure and benchmark quality, taste and shelf life for customers across a number of supermarkets.”
Having studied agriculture at Wageningen University, Jentjens spent three years in Costa Rica opening up a fresh-cut salads market with Dole. She was responsible for selecting the right varieties for the Costa Rican growing conditions, production planning and successfully had a hand in everything from crop growth to marketing strategy.
“After my return to Europe, I decided that I could add something to the consumer experience and the first thing I tackled was freelance insight into the coolchain; helping a fresh-cut company to optimise the management of its coolchain to improve performance on its retail customers’ shelves. I also helped the same company develop a model to give it a better understanding of the nutritional value of its products.”
A Dutch retailer was also a customer from day one and Innovative Fresh has a longstanding Belgian and UK retail customers too. On the supply side, a Spanish citrus exporter was the first to employ Innovative Fresh to monitor its products on retail shelves in different countries. It still does. “I look at colour, juice levels, numbers of pips and acidity in their fruit and comparing it in different stores,” she says, “as well as contrasting it with competing products and product in other categories in the same stores and elsewhere.”
Experience not necessary
The company is now driven by Jentjens and Karin Gorree, the company’s quality and product development director. Gorree also has a horticultural background, having worked at The Greenery UK and Eosta. The majority of the 15-strong team (three in the UK), however, has been typically made up of people who have no fresh produce background.
“We wanted to have people doing the research who are not biased towards fruit and veg and who have no in-depth knowledge of the supply chain,” says Jentjens. “We do train them how to measure brix and acidity, for instance, but we do not fill their head with information on plant diseases or other technical things. That way they can be practical, objective, independent and transparent – it is extremely important that when they are analysing product, they are viewing it through the eyes of the consumer, not a produce expert.
“Because it is always the consumer who we are trying to please.”
Of course, from the Innovative Fresh point of view, that’s not entirely true, as first it needs to please it’s own customers. “Retailers and suppliers can get good insight across the fresh category through our assortment overviews and performance benchmarks from four countries (50-60 store visits each week in the UK, Belgium, Holland and Germany) and monitor each other’s performance.
“The suppliers can follow their own product and show the customer that quality is good and consistent, and on the other hand, the retailer can also use that information to make sure that their suppliers are doing a good job and to see what other suppliers are doing for their competitors. What varieties or products are tasting better, lasting longer etc…”
And there is far more to it than suppliers and retailers checking each other out – the benefits are usually mutual, she adds. “A buyer can get their hands on immediate information. The measurements we make this week, such as out-of-stocks and shelf space allotment in other stores, they will have and be able to act upon next week. From a quality point of view, if there is an increasing incidence of mold in berries, for example, they can work with the supplier to trace that back to where the problem lies.
“We give our customers the facts about their products, flag up issues (often to the suppliers this is before their customers realise there is an issue). We can check prices, promotional activity, availability, out-of-stocks, shelf space and lots more and these additional levels of knowledge encourage the supplier and retailer to collaborate more. Customers benefit in different ways – maybe through an improved cold chain or in the case of one customer, an improved drying method after washing fresh cut product.”
The products and services in the Innovative Fresh portfolio have extended to include store evaluations, taste and quality studies, to benchmark quality against competitors, as well as range overviews and extensive Management Information reports. “We are helping retailers and their suppliers to identify where in the chain they need to concentrate their efforts to decrease product degradation and damage and improve performance,” says Jentjens.
“All of our reports are tailor-made for each customer and we are very flexible – we can test different products at different times of year, of course. Everyone benefits from our findings by seeing where they can make an improvement in their cold chain and improve the performance of products in store.”
Monitoring three markets weekly and keeping a close eye on several more, Innovative Fresh is in an interesting position from which to see how European supermarkets interact with each other. The UK, says Jentjens, is not held up as an example when it comes to quality as much as it used to be, but it is certainly monitored by the continent.
“A lot of European buyers go to the UK to see what’s new – whether that be products, varieties, packaging or merchandising. The UK retailers have far wider ranges of fresh produce than Belgium and Holland,” she adds. “And a lot of ideas are still starting in the UK and then brought over to the continent – salads including nuts and dried fruit, we’re starting to see that now in Holland.”
While it is more rare for UK retailers to look to the continent for inspiration, Jentjens believes there are things that could be learnt. “It’s a difficult question to say exactly what the UK retailers can learn [from their European counterparts],” she says. “The mainland is always watching the UK, not necessarily to look at quality but more at innovations, assortment and product improvements. The UK is a step further on assortment wise but assortment is so extensive that it is maybe difficult to choose for consumers. Having a more balanced range with less choices for the consumer might be something they could learn from the other European countries.”
So seven years in, has Innovative Fresh achieved its objectives and how does it plan to develop further? “Our name is Innovative Fresh, so of course we want to keep finding new things and new ways to improve the consumer’s enjoyment of fruit and vegetables,” says Jentjens. “Whatever we can do to help retailers and suppliers choose the right varieties, improve their methods, extend shelf life, reduce waste and encourage consumers to buy healthy, great tasting product, we will.”