Neame Lea Fresh is constantly looking for the next big thing. Already one of the largest ornamental plant producers in the UK, the Lincolnshire-based group also supplies potted and cut herbs, as well as living salads and edible flowers. Now microgreens are joining its growing offer, while new cut herb varieties, potted chillies, superfood protein pots, juices and fresh leaf herbal teas are in the pipeline too.
In an industry reliant on weather compliance, Neame Lea Fresh is broadening its horizons with innovative products to anchor the business for the future.
“The business has grown quite dramatically, especially in the last three years, during which we’ve invested £12 million, but there’s still a big opportunity for growth,” Richard Priestley, Neame Lea Fresh’s commercial manager tells PBUK.
Whilst principally Neame Lea is an ornamental plant production business, Priestley believes the largest area of growth is in new product development within the fresh sector, particularly growing herbs, microgreens and living salads.
“Healthy, convenient products like protein pots have almost revolutionised the fresh produce market,” he comments. “Whereas previously people would grab a packet of crisps, they are now picking up a fresh product. That’s the area of the market where Neame Lea is very keen to move into.
“There is also a lot of excitement among the younger generation who are looking to build meals around three vegetables and a little bit of meat, rather than the meat and two veg of previous generations.
“That’s where the market is going – towards new, fresher products, great taste and ease of use. We saw that clearly when we exhibited at the London Produce Show this year.”
First on the list of new products is a range of nutritious microgreens, which will be launched in major UK retail stores later this year.
Following their successful debut at health food chain Whole Foods Market in London, Neame Lea is currently working with mainstream retailers to fine-tune the offer. PBUK will report in full closer to the launch.
The second area of major development is cut herbs, where Neame Lea is eager to refresh its current offer of basil, curly parsley, mint and thyme.
“The herb business has grown without a lot of NPD [new product development],” says Neame Lea Fresh’s managing director David Ball.
“We’re looking to expand our cut herb range by offering new varieties to encourage more people to use herbs and to make cooking exciting.”
Following an extensive selection process, Ball reveals that Neame Lea has chosen to introduce some newer or perhaps lesser known herbs such as Vietnamese coriander, pesto basil, and a mushroom flavoured herb called Rungia.
Priestley adds that customers tend to get tunnel vision with product availability, so the idea is to offer exciting alternatives.
“We want to develop a range of new, interesting and quite powerful herbs that we can offer as either specially selected or limited edition,” he explains.
“The key will be to explain to consumers how they can use these herbs. The biggest obstacle with new products is when consumers don’t know how to use them.
“For instance, lemongrass is available at many retailers. It’s a very interesting and versatile herb but not everyone knows how to use it. It’s largely sold in a clear packet, which doesn’t do it justice. Shoppers would get more mileage out of a recipe, for example.”
Fresh leaf teas
Alongside its cut herb offer Neame Lea plans to offer a line of fresh leaf herbal teas. Initially four mixes will be launched, with small packs comprising bunches of fresh herbs to make tea infusions.
“We’re working on putting the fresh leaves into a format that we can show to a retailer with a view to expanding the range,” Priestley states.
As an extension of its potted herb business, Neame Lea is currently trialling production of year-round potted chillies that are designed to be kept on a windowsill and picked as required.
“I would like to have something in commercial production within six months,” Priestley declares. “At the moment there are pot chillies available in the summer but nothing year round. So we’re working on growing the plant in succession to have continuity. It’s about getting the varieties right.”
In 12 months’ time Neame Lea also aims to launch a juice after receiving positive feedback for an on-trend sample offered to visitors at the London Produce Show.
“We supply wheatgrass to juice bars, so we thought why not produce our own juices,” says Ball. “Richard came up with a wheatgrass, mint and apple juice, which everyone seems to like.”
“I was quite surprised with the reaction at the London Produce Show,” admits Priestley. “I also made some very interesting contacts with regards to ingredients, primarily apple juice suppliers.
“We are now analysing whether it’s possible to produce it on a commercial scale. Then we’ll have to come up with the brand and packaging to sit alongside the juice.”
For the first time last summer Neame Lea trialled a living salad tray with discount retailer Aldi during a 12-week period, which it may repeat in the future.
“It was a mixture of lettuce varieties in a small tray that sits on the windowsill for consumers to cut off what they want, when they want,” explains Priestley.
“The trial at Aldi went fine and potentially we’ll do it again, although we’re not sure when or where. It’s a product that we can turn around quickly and we ran the trial with one eye towards what happened with Spanish lettuce when there was no product available.”
Priestley is also interested in the potential to market superfood protein pots.
“I see products out there on the market and I think that’s a fantastic idea, but we could do x, y or z to it to make it more interesting,” he continues.
“For example, there are protein snack pots with an egg and spinach, or an egg with basil. But that’s at a basic level. We would like to do something more interesting and diverse.”
To accommodate the growth, Neame Lea has invested heavily in automation and robot handling, which will also limit the effects of labour both in relation to cost and availability.
“Automated handling makes the whole job a lot easier and more efficient,” points our Priestley. “But also as labour costs go up it dramatically affects the cost of our products and customers across a broad range of our products won’t accept price rises easily.
“We also have really no idea about how Brexit will affect us,” Priestley adds. “Around 85-95% of our labour force is from eastern Europe, and whilst we accept there won’t be massive repatriation it could possibly become difficult to get the same level of staff.”
With more expansion still to come, Neame Lea is keen to develop a new site to add to its current six in Lincolnshire, which includes a 10-acre fully-automated facility that opened 18 months ago primarily for ornamental plants.
“We’re looking to invest in a much larger automated facility within the next two years,” reveals Priestley. “It’s in the planning stage, so we can’t reveal more yet.”