Italian fresh produce marketer Alegra is seeking to consolidate its position in the UK by reinforcing its image as a structured, reliable and powerful supplier of standardised quality kiwifruit, topfruit and stonefruit. Rita Biserni, who manages international marketing at Alegra, tells PBUK why UK buyers should take notice of the group, particularly at a time of economic and political uncertainty.
Point of difference
Established in 2003, Alegra has at its disposal nearly 10,000 growers located in the north-east of Italy; operating as the sales and marketing arm of Agrintesa – the biggest fresh produce cooperative in Italy, which was founded 31 years ago.
The company, like Agrintesa, is headquartered in Faenza, within the province of Emilia-Romagna, and also markets table grapes from Puglia and clementines from Calabria via additional grower partnerships.
“We represent an enormous number of growers, which gives us quite a lot of production power in terms of volume,” notes Biserni, who joined Alegra at the end of 2018, marking the next step in her 15-year career in the Italian fruit and vegetable sector.
“We can guarantee big volumes with the same quality,” she continues. “Although some of our 10,000 growers may be large, and others small, we have a team of 20 quality control technicians who visit all the orchards to ensure the same quality standards and production principles are upheld.”
This considerable structure is one of Alegra’s greatest strengths, according to Biserni. “We are very well structured, which makes us a very reliable company,” she comments. “When you’re working with a perishable product like fresh fruit and veg, reliability is a must.
“We try to plan all of our work in advance, but even in an emergency we can cope because of the way we are structured, and thanks to our great packing capacity.”
Indeed, Biserni claims Alegra is both reliable and flexible. “When you work with retailers, you have to be able to guarantee a minimum volume of fruit, and you need to be quick and react promptly to their requirements in terms of packaging, etc. We are ready for anything, and can react to whatever the demand.”
That includes being prepared for the uncertainty of Brexit – the UK’s anticipated departure from the European Union (EU). Biserni says she and her colleagues at Alegra discuss Brexit every day. Despite this, she claims they are not concerned because of the size, structure and experience of the group.
“We are not worried about what’s going to happen because we sell fruit to more than 50 countries worldwide,” she points out. “Whatever trade agreement is made, logistically speaking we will be used to handling it. For us, it’s not a problem.”
When it comes to Alegra’s UK trading relationship; it supplies mainly the nation’s retailers with around 8,000 tonnes of fruit per year, comprising kiwifruit, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples, pears and apricots. Overall, the cooperative produces 570,000 tonnes of fruit annually, which is processed by no less than 27 packhouses.
“The UK is an important market for us,” Biserni explains. “As a group, we have been exporting to the UK for as long as I can remember, going back 30 years. We were one of the first."
And while its trade has changed with the evolution of Spain’s larger and highly competitive fresh produce offer, Biserni says Italy’s Alegra still offers an important point of difference for UK buyers because of its structure, reliability, flexibility and large volumes of standardised quality fruit.
Currently, Alegra works primarily with UK retailers, accounting for 95% of its UK business, but Biserni says the group could also service any UK foodservice operators or wholesalers who require large volumes.
Kiwifruit and pears account for the majority of Alegra’s UK-bound volume during the winter, which also includes some organic produce, such as kiwifruit, pears and apples. In the summer time, nectarines and plums dominate its stonefruit offer for the UK. And there is scope for more.
“We would love to increase our exports to the UK, especially during the summer,” reveals Biserni.
“There is always room for improvement. We want to consolidate our position in the UK and improve where possible. There are products that maybe we don’t supply enough of, like peaches.”
To reinforce its UK contacts, Alegra will exhibit for the first time at The London Produce Show and Conference 2019 on 5-7 Jun;, an intimate event that focuses on bringing together suppliers and buyers to do business. Both Biserni and her sales colleague, Matteo Tomasini, will attend the trade fair where they will showcase some of Alegra’s in-season fruit.
Eager to remain one step ahead of the competition, last year Alegra installed a new sorting line for kiwifruit and pears that enables the group to check the internal quality of its produce. At the same time, the group continues to seek out the best new varieties, especially for stonefruit.
“Our team of over 70 agronomists are continuing to search for new varieties that have a good balance between flavour, firmness and shelf-life,” Biserni reveals. “It’s one of our continuous efforts. This autumn we will be doing some trials with supermarkets in Europe to identify the best varieties to develop further.”
On the practical side of the business, Alegra has tasked a dedicated team with the objective of finding new packaging technologies.
“At the moment, there aren’t really 100% good solutions,” Biserni explains. “So, while we continue to search, we are doing everything we can at our production sites and offices to become more environmentally friendly, such as getting rid of plastic bottles.”
Apart from that, Biserni says everything is going smoothly at Alegra.
Visit Alegra at The London Produce Show and Conference 2019 in June to find out more about the company and the cooperative.
Register here to attend the three-day event.