Steve Evans, MD of Freshtime, says you can learn a lot from what people like in their salads today.
UK business Freshtime, which supplies chilled, ready to eat salads, snacks, prepared vegetables and sandwich fillers to retailers, began life more than 20 years ago as the East Lincolnshire Farmers Cooperative selling vegetables direct to retailers.
One of the keys to the company’s original success was that farmers realised there was money to be made out of making use of all vegetables and not just the unblemished, perfectly shaped ones that supermarkets wanted to put on their shelves.
As Managing director Steve Evans says, the idea was that “nothing went to waste” and the farmers soon realised that in a convenience-driven industry there was a market for the whole product. “Freshtime went from being a farmer-led business to a consumer-led business built around the convenience trends that were emerging at the time. The business started working with multiple retailers at precisely the time that consumers were developing ever busier ‘on the go’ lifestyles.”
Evans says the vegetable market remains core to this day but the make-up of the business has completely changed. “We have gone from 100% of the business selling fresh produce to about 40% today as the trend for food-to-go salads becomes increasingly popular.”
The company continues to source many of its products from the Lincolnshire farmers who set up the cooperative, but at certain times of the year does have to import products which cannot grow in the UK winter.
Evans says his business has to be “right on trend” to react to fast-changing consumer habits. “The challenge is that you have to constantly innovate to keep the consumer interested in what is an increasingly competitive market. If you take salads there are more and more choices on the high street, not just in terms of the food itself but in terms of the different outlets from where you can buy the product. Salads aren’t just sold in supermarkets anymore.”
He says the defining trend is that consumers are now far more health-conscious. “They are not necessarily dieting, instead it is often more about being careful about what they eat, and vegetables and salads play a major part in that. For instance there has been a notable move towards ‘meat-free’ in recent times, epitomised by the Veganuary campaign which encourages people to try vegan just for the month of January. We saw a notable spike in demand.”
Another trend is flexitarianism or ‘casual vegetarianism’, an increasingly popular plant-based diet that’s mostly vegetarian yet still allows for the occasional meat dish. “This is something we are seeing a lot of, people happy to move between vegetarian and meals containing meat. I read a recent survey that 30% of evening meals now contained no meat or fish which is actually a very striking statistic. More and more people are mixing vegetarian and meat meals, it’s no longer an either/or. Demand for meat is still strong and the best-selling salads still contain chicken and prawns, but consumers are increasingly looking for protein-replacement products such as lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans in their salads.”
Freshtime supplies to retailers ranging from high street chains to convenience stores to foodservice groups, many of whom package the product as own brand. Evans says the company’s point of difference is the huge range of capability it has at its Lincolnshire factory from which it sells around 60 million units a year.
“The business has been through significant growth over the last three or four years and last year we invested in increasing capacity at our factory. In terms of possibly expanding the site further we are currently reviewing our options.”
Evans says keeping a mix of products is central to his strategy. “We are never going to supply to huge numbers of retailers with just one specific product, that is not our model. We are always looking out for further channels of expansion.”
He says one of the key innovations that Freshtime has made is to employ its own chefs who spend time not just in the UK but also abroad looking at latest trends. “We also invest a lot in consumer insight and research while we also do our own market research, regularly talking to shoppers. It’s important to invest in understanding these food trends and what consumers are looking for.”
Innovation also extends to packaging. “As a business we have been really proactive in terms of reducing plastics in packaging, taking more than 10% out of the business in the last two years alone. We have also been moving towards making all of our packaging recyclable and today more than 80% of the plastics we use are recyclable. As a society we will probably never fully remove plastics but we can certainly cut it down significantly.”