Rich Osborn left a top position at Proctor & Gamble to start fresh-range, an online supermarket with ambitions to change how food shopping works. With an emphasis on sourcing local produce, but in a way that works for all involved – consumer and producer alike – they have grown substantially in the last few years.
With a successful crowdfunding campaign under their belts, they now deliver to all of Bath and Bristol, selling food and drink from suppliers such as the Severn Project and Farrington’s. Locavore spoke with Rich about food security, Brexit, and the future of food in the UK.
How and why did you start fresh-range?
I founded fresh-range in 2014 to bring a fresh approach to food shopping to the UK. I wanted to provide improved access to fresher local ingredients and provide a viable alternative to the practices of mass retailers. My mission was to change our food culture from the ground up by introducing a fairer form of food supply; fair to producers, fair to customers, and fair to the environment.
I was so determined to try and change food supply for good that I left a senior role at Procter & Gamble to return to my hometown of Bristol and set up the business, originally with one member of staff in a shared office. Three years on, thousands of people are eating food delivered by us every week. We are delivering to every postcode in our target area, and have our own local food hub with a team of drivers, packers, and support staff.
You work with a huge array of producers who are local to Bristol, as well as some further afield. How do you choose who to work with?
We’re looking to provide a full range of food and drink to rival the choice provided by supermarkets. So, we have a target list of categories and we are constantly looking for producers that are doing things in the right way in each category. We seek producers that can make or grow great food efficiently enough to be affordable for our customers yet profitable in their own right. Every producer needs to have the right food safety plans in place, and insurance, but most of all their food needs to be consistently of a very high standard.
You say you are able to offer low prices, whilst paying the producers a fairer amount. How? And why do you think you are able to do this where larger supermarkets do not?
There are a number of ways we do this. Firstly, a local food infrastructure. We’ve developed short, light, and fast supply chains. Locally grown food is fulfilled and delivered by our own fleet without the need for mass haulage or long term storage systems, distribution centres, or the “dark store” costs associated with the mass supermarket model. Our vans can deliver to customers and collect food from farms on the same delivery route. Full vans out of our hub and full vans back into our hub, over short distances, can mean big carbon and financial savings.
Secondly, no bricks and mortar stores. Our beautiful online store and small scale “click then pick” approach avoids the expensive energy and maintenance costs associated with mass scale warehousing, hypermarkets, and other bricks and mortar stores.
Thirdly, minimal food waste. Our producers only supply the food once a customer has purchased it, meaning food stocks are not built up on store shelves.
Fourth, low barriers to entry for producers. We make it as easy as we can for producers to supply customers and approach “perfect market conditions”, a model that delivers a fair price for buyer and seller.
Lastly, a lower retail margin. Producers can sell at competitive retail prices as they receive a higher proportion of the price paid by customers than when selling through supermarkets.
All your packaging is recyclable. Can you tell us a bit more?
We use sustainable, biodegradable, and recyclable packaging. Our chilled foods come packed in recyclable outer cardboard packaging insulated with ‘Woolcool’ lining. This is British sheep’s wool that farmers otherwise struggle to find a market for.
Delicate foods such as strawberries and other soft fruits are packaged in re-usable and recyclable plastic punnets or bags to ensure they arrive in good condition.
It’s an efficient and sustainable way to ensure that food stays at the right temperature even when the customer is out at the point of delivery. Plus, it’s easier to clean, reuse, and recycle than other forms of insulated packaging. We aim to reuse and recycle this outer packaging up to six times. This is one of the ways we keep our delivery prices and carbon footprint so low. Our delivery driver will take them away to be cleaned and then reused or recycled.
What vehicles do you use for deliveries?
We use 3.5 tonne Mercedes Sprinter vans, with a specially made split ambient/chilled back box with a payload of more than 1,000kg. There’s plenty of volume space for our drivers to move food in and out from any section of the van in optimum condition. These factors enable us to deliver food to customers and collect from farms and producers on the same route. We’d love to move to electric vehicles, and indeed I have personally tested some options here. However, there isn’t an option on the market that delivers all of the above yet. I wouldn’t think it will be long before there is.
What has been the response to your business, both from the public and from producers?
We love how involved our customers feel with the business. They often comment on how personal the experience of shopping with fresh-range is, that when they call up, they get to speak to a real person; that they can learn all about the people producing their food and become familiar with their delivery driver; and of course that they can choose exactly what they want to order, unlike a weekly box scheme.
We now have over 3,000 registered customers, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. But we know there is work to do on increasing customer convenience so that we can truly provide an alternative to mass retailers, such as Amazon Fresh who will be coming to Bristol and Bath sooner than we would like!
That’s why this summer we launched an equity crowdfunding campaign, to enable us to provide more, and faster, deliveries, and we were delighted to reach our £300k target in just 24 hours. It’s clear that investors can see the compelling need for an alternative approach to food supply and have shown faith in the fresh-range team to deliver it.
Producers are, of course, hugely supportive of our efforts as they are being given access to markets they would not otherwise have reached.
You say you are as much a tech company as an online supermarket, with a bespoke dynamic ordering system – what is this?
It is technology that can fundamentally change how food gets from farm to fork.
For years there’s been a lot of talk about ‘locally sourced food’ but the reality is that very little food in the retail and catering world is locally sourced. This is because it’s just too difficult and time consuming for people at home and chefs to order from lots of different small suppliers. For suppliers, dealing with huge numbers of tiny orders is equally unworkable.
We realised what was needed was some clever technology that enables customers to demand what they want and when they want it, and producers to be able to supply what they want, when they want to, and how they want to. This, combined with local logistics capability that would for the first time make it simple and convenient to source from small independent producers alongside large produce suppliers, ensures a sufficiently broad range of products to cover most of what you would expect from a supermarket.
The benefits to the local economy of eating and shopping local are well documented, but we are also passionate about the tangible customer benefit of locally sourced food that can be produced, picked, cut, or baked to order. This in turn means far, far fresher food that can taste better or have higher nutritional content. This is what we mean by our purpose is to deliver exceptional food experiences that mass supermarkets simply can’t make happen.
We have also begun serving the public sector with fresher produce and use a dynamic purchasing system to procure food. This is an EU form of procurement that is far more inclusive of small independent producers. We have launched this approach in collaboration with Bath and North East Somerset Council and are sharing the approach with other local authorities across the region. We serve schools, universities and private caterers.
You’ve become the supplier for Bath and North East Somerset Council’s entire school dinner operation. Much has been made in recent years of the paucity in the offering in school meals – how do you make a difference whilst meeting the strict budgetary demands of the school system?
Yes, we have just completed our first year of service to schools in Bath and North East Somerset. It’s gone well. 1.4 million meals served across the year with fresh produce coming from suppliers via the fresh-range platform and delivery. You’re correct when you say budgets are very tight for schools and hospitals. Austerity measures combined with Brexit-generated food price inflation is making it even tougher. The devaluation of the pound has driven a 9.9% food price inflation on fresh produce in the past 12 months. Apply that to a pre-existing ingredients budget of substantially below £1 for a two-course meal in primary schools and you’ll understand why things are tough.
The approach we’ve taken is to give the council control of their own supply chains. By enrolling smaller local farms like The Severn Project and Farrington’s, alongside larger primary wholesale fruit and veg suppliers, means cooks can mix up buying produce with local provenance alongside lower-priced wholesale produce.
The combination of local and scale is what enables the whole approach to be economically viable. For instance, the catering manager was keen to ensure only higher welfare pork was served at the schools, so we were able to ensure two source farms were used with RSPCA Assured outdoor-bred or free-range pork.
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How do you work around the waxing and waning of seasonal availability of, say, fruits and vegetables?
The fresh-range online store aims to be accessible to all and offer a wide variety of food for different budgets. That is why we do also work with local wholesalers, to fill in the ‘hungry gap’ and be able to offer consistently low prices on fruit and veg. We combine local produce with primary wholesale produce. Fruit is on the menu year round so we still rely heavily on imported produce out of season.
Over half of the UK’s consumption is currently imported. In terms of food security, especially considering the challenges presented by Brexit, can a system such as yours feed the growing population using purely local producers?
No, not yet. Actually, some commentators are claiming as much as 80% of our vegetables are imported nowadays. Independent small farms and dairies are in decline, not on the rise, so we’re a long, long way from being food secure in this country in that sense. It’s what puts fire in my belly to bring this local model to life and why I see the public sector as having a great responsibility to lead the way.
I am in no doubt that a badly executed Brexit poses the greatest immediate threat to UK food security since the Second World War in this country. The combined impact of a devalued pound, import tariffs, lower access to EU labour and opening the market to lower standard imports is a recipe for disaster in a country that already has over 1 in 4 children in food poverty.
To be honest, I try not to dwell for too long on the worst case scenario for Brexit. Doomsday projections aside, and on the upside, the government do have an exceptional opportunity to do something exciting, empowering, and radical with the funds that were previously placed in to farming subsidies. By supporting small biodiverse, organic farms in the countryside surrounding UK major cities and using a fresh-range model of distribution we could revolutionise the diet of our population by flooding the market with fresher, higher nutrition content produce. Question is, what do they plan to do with the agriculture subsidy funds? I very much hope it isn’t to drastically cut it in an attempt to reduce national debt.
Do you think that yours is a model that can be reproduced on a national basis? And what would be the implications, economically and ecologically?
Yes absolutely! Of course, I passionately believe this is the right model for today and the future – a model that can revive biodiverse local farms and put us on a positive track to food security for generations to come. This is the purpose of fresh-range. National expansion is what we are going to do. The social and environmental positive consequences of a decentralized food system like fresh-range is building in The West of England are profound and far reaching. Each pound spent locally on food goes substantially further to drive local economic development than a pound spent with a mass retailer.
Fresher local produce available to all in society, not just the privileged few, can mean lower morbidity and mortality associated with obesity and diabetes and less strain on the NHS. Driving demand to farmers around cities to develop bio-diverse operations means a countryside ‘put to work’ for our cities. Connecting urbanites with nature has been well established to support improved mental health.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
The multi-billion pound food industry can do so much better. We have, for too long, been in an oligopolistic controlled market where a few mass retailers are reaping billions of pounds in profits whilst many farmers are receiving below the cost of production and so many of the public cannot access fresh produce. This is a crazy situation and I am determined to do everything I can to change it. I do this because I genuinely want to change food supply for good, for all our sakes.
For the fresh-range website, click here.