Meet Wholegood, an enterprising purely organic fruit and vegetable wholesaler in the UK and one of the exhibitors at this year’s London Produce Show and Conference, 6-8 June, Grosvenor House. They also specialize in hand-picked, unique food brands sourced from around the country. Customers can order Wholegood’s products through the unique direct-to-home offer via Ocado, the online supermarket. With a growth rate of more than 28 per cent per year for the past three years, this model is certainly worth investigating.
Produce Business UK chatted with Wholegood’s founder Carl Saxton to find out how the company came into fruition and how he deconstructed a carrot to make a crunchy market offering.
As the founder of the Wholegood story, it would be great to hear how the journey started for you.
I started Wholegood on my own 10 years ago. I found the produce market fairly lazy: low service levels and, in organic, there was a huge lack of competition. We went from zero to 1 million GBP within the first couple of years, with the growth based on the quality of produce and service level. We took orders seven days a week; we delivered with no minimum order, and we never said no!
I started the business from a disused warehouse in Park Royal. It was an old bakery and had a huge brick oven in the middle of the unit. It was tiny and when I moved in, it had no running water. My first week in the unit was just an intensive plumbing course!
Since then, I have moved the business twice. First, the move was to a brand new facility after the first six months of the business; a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Park Royal. After three years in Park Royal, I raised funds to move to a much larger facility. We moved from 2,000 square feet to 28,000 square feet. It was a big move and came with a lot of risk but, at this point, the growth was over 25 per cent a year and we needed to build a facility that would cope with that.
Let’s talk about the brands you work with. How do you hand-pick them? Is there a criteria, and how has this changed over the years?
We are looking for unique brands and unique products. What we look for has never really changed. We are definitely looking to create trends rather than to follow them.
Could you tell us a little about the juicing bags you offer?
Juicing bags were and still are a big deal for us. When we launched them exclusively with Ocado a few years ago, the term “wonky veg” hadn’t gone mainstream. I was very conscious that as we were exclusively organic, we needed to find a way to sell some core vegetables at a more competitive price point.
As silly as it may sound, I just realised that the size and shape of a carrot just really doesn’t mean much to most people.
The perfectly groomed carrot is nothing more than a spec supermarkets have come up with over the years. Of course this is a race that goes nowhere. Carrots get straighter and more consistent in shape, but where do the rest go?
We were shifting tons of “juicing carrots” into cold-pressed juice companies as, at this point, the growth in that area from a wholesale perspective was really very fast.
I was also conscious that pre-packed vegetables tend to be on the more groomed/ higher end of the market, but with Ocado everything needs to be in pre-pack because of the way it moves through their supply chain. So I also felt like there was an opportunity to try to “De-premiumise pre-pack.” By putting lower-cost vegetables in a big paper sack, we killed two birds with one stone. They have been a huge success for Wholegood and, in hindsight, we probably should have made a bigger fuss about being right at the front of the wonky veg revolution. But, I guess we were just too busy!
They have also been successful due to the fact that they are in a paper, rather than plastic, bag. Customers love that, and we get a few emails a week congratulating us just on the packaging. Its also a great piece of space to place our message. They are covered in copy and allow us to speak straight to the customer.
What is your the unique selling point in 2018? What have been the major instigators of this?
We have become a one-stop shop for our customers. We create solutions for small chains and independents, making sure we list everything they need with daily delivery. That is what has been so successful about wholesaling brands along with our fruit and vegetables. We can supply a lot more to our customers.
Our offer is truly unique. In fact, I don’t actually know of any organic fresh produce wholesaler listing brands, let alone brands as unique as the ones that Wholegood offer.
Over time, our offer has changed a lot. We started with just bulk produce, moving in to pre-packing our produce. Ocado was a major catalyst for this. We then saw that the market was really moving towards convenience, so we looked for companies to prepare produce for us. However, we came up against a lot of challenges.
In many ways, it was similar to when I started the business and had the opportunity to disrupt a lazy market. People just couldn’t do what we wanted — or just didn’t want to do it! So we spent quarter of a million pounds building our own 4,000-square-foot hire care facility in our warehouse. It was a huge learning curve, but it meant that we could capitalise on trends like spiralised vegetables, which has been a huge growth area for us.
Let’s talk about some upward shifting behaviours in the consumption of produce. For example: snacking. Have you witnessed a demand in these categories? If so, what has the company done to cater to that demand? Any new innovations or solutions?
Yes. Snacking has been a growth area for us, but just prepared produce generally has been a huge trend. We were ready to capitalise on this, and already as early as late 2016 we had built our high care facility which was able to move into prepared fruit pots, such as Carrot Batons etc.
Then, as the convenience market got traction, we made big inroads by making fresh cauliflower rice and spiralised vegetables. These lines are big for us as people want to eat vegetables in an interesting way, but they do not have the time (or the inclination) to spiralise them, shred them, etc.
Ok, let’s discuss organic. This is heavily emphasized on your website. Since organic can be misconstrued as a buzzword with vague parameters, could you explain your point of difference here?
We have been in organic fruit and vegetables from day one, and there was very little buzz about it then, especially as the UK was heading for a recession. However, ethically I felt like we needed to draw a line in the sand. We simply had no way of offering the customer clarity about the methods used to farm the product or the impact it was having on nature.
Nine years ago, there were very few regular farmers’ markets and a lot less talk about local produce — it was either conventional or organic. We took the more difficult route!
What global challenges do you see as affecting the produce industry in the future?
Brexit! It’s a game-changer, and it concerns me.
I’m concerned for our growers as they will, and appear to already be having, labour problems. We import from Europe, and currency has a huge impact on us and ultimately our customers. My concern is that by the time that we realise that the whole thing has been a huge waste of time, it will be too late. It will take 10 times longer to repair the damage that it takes to cause it. I just think it’s a disaster. But. if you don’t vote then this is what you get!
Finally, let’s talk about The London Produce Show. Is it your first time presenting there? What do you expect from the show? What can people expect from you?
We have no idea what to expect! I have never attended the show, but I am thrilled to be there with the team. In terms of what to expect from us — well we are there to meet the market. We don’t get out much, so we are looking for some interesting debate and meeting some interesting people.