Innovative foodservice supplier seeks like-minded grower partners

Ashitaba

Fresh Direct would like to work with a UK grower on trialling the Japanese super green Ashitaba

Duncan Parsonage head of development at Fresh Direct
Duncan Parsonage

National foodservice supplier Fresh Direct is seeking innovative UK growers prepared to trial new varieties or reintroduce European heirloom varieties as part of a new initiative. Produce Business UK speaks to Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at the company, to learn more

The company is adopting a proactive approach towards generating new business and products that it believes will appeal to its extensive foodservice client portfolio. By challenging growers to widen their horizons, Fresh Direct aims to encourage its clients to innovate, try new products and develop new product sectors.

“We like to think this approach is unique to us,” says Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct. “I don’t think there are any suppliers like us challenging their growers. We are sure there are growers out there exploring these products. We want to focus on UK growers to help them and their profitability.”

Talking exclusively to Produce Business UK about this new initiative, he outlines what he is seeking and how it will operate.    

“Our foodservice customers are looking to us to provide innovation, to push new products that will help them stand apart from the crowd,” Parsonage explains. “We would like to challenge growers to experiment with a few drills, an acre or so. This would be for successional planting of new varieties or heirloom varieties, which we could offer to our clients to test and see what they like. If growers will commit themselves to these trials, we will commit to putting their products in front of our customers,” he pledges.

Varieties of interest

Parsonage feels there is a virtually endless list of product options available, whether it is a matter of reintroducing heritage varieties that have been forgotten, or taking a chance with new, experimental produce. It may be that the varieties are new to the UK market, or they may fit into specific types of cuisine.

“I saw a super green Japanese vegetable recently – Ashitaba – which was related to angelica,” he notes. “The leaves looked a bit like celery and grow super fast. It could make a nice addition to a salad mix. It is the type of new product I would be interested in working with a grower to see what could be done here in the UK.”

He continues: “Many growers provide large quantities of standard Amsterdam carrots, but I would love to see some growing little round, Parisian carrots which I could get our customers to sample. Is there a purple parsnip out there? Are breeders working on any unusual seed types that would be of interest? Are any UK growers talking to their US counterparts about crops that might translate over here such as coloured and multi-coloured sweetcorn, which would be very popular with Mexican and barbecue-themed concepts.

“I went to see a leaf grower in the summer who had a greenhouse full of experimental versions of Russian kale. There were some really unique varieties and I would be interested in putting this type of produce in front of our customers to see what they think of the taste and flavour. If successful, we could commission crops for the future.”

Success to date

This pro-active, experimental approach has already been trialled by Fresh Direct and proved to work. Naylor Farms has grown Pink Star cabbage specifically for Fresh Direct. Since Pink Star does not bleed like purple cabbage when the leaves are cut, it provided a useful colourful addition to slaws and leaf mixes. Another example involved heirloom tomato grown at Westlands Nursery, Evesham.

Commenting on the joint project, Peter Taylor, Westlands general manager says: “Last year, we planted 48 heirloom varieties and cropped them for up to 40 weeks. You have to have a bit of faith to put these varieties in a trial. The customer reaction was very positive. These heirloom varieties bring something different to the mix, some are architecturally brilliant, others have an intense aroma. We will be planting a wide mix again in 2016, including some new ones.

“The desire to provide something different has increased in recent years,” Taylor continues. “It is up to us as growers to provide the products that meet this innovative demand.”

Benefits all round

Parsonage is convinced this approach will provide benefit to growers, foodservice companies and Fresh Direct. Experimentation is seen as the key to future product growth – and anything will be considered.

“We have even worked with a grower to do some experiments on nettles,” he reveals. “People forage for these, and young nettles can be very tasty. The problem is that nettles can grow quite tall. One grower is experimenting with a micro nettle in drills that could eventually be grown as a commercial crop.

Edible nettles
Foraging for edible nettle

The demand is there if only the products can be provided for foodservice companies to taste and trial, according to Parsonage.

“It is a chicken and egg situation – we have to get growers interested and involved if we are to get customers excited and wanting to buy," he says. "We want growers to work with us in a controlled environment so we can do the tests, approach clients and get them to order.”

Recognising the popularity of Mexican cuisine, Fresh Direct is planning to trial tomatillo – a Mexican green tomato – as a potential crop because it would suit the needs of Mexican restaurants.

Furthermore, it is not just about having something new, but having something local or that can be linked to a specific area, thus linking key themes of experimentation with local sourcing.  

“Hotel groups, restaurant chains and pubs are looking for something that will give them an edge over their competition,” says Parsonage. “They like using local produce and if they can tie it down to a specific area such as tomatoes from Evesham all the better.”

He concludes: “This is an initiative that will strengthen our relationships with growers and suppliers. I like to think we are leading the way. Growers may have to be prepared to plough some crops back into the ground because they don’t work, but there is an equal chance that a crop will be very successful and create a new demand.

“We are working for the long term and want innovative growers to work with us on this to expand the market.”

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