Fruit and Veg

How the lockdown created a new home-delivery business model

Written by Garin Auld
August 06, 2020

With the Covid-19 lockdown bringing a dramatic overnight closure to the hospitality industry, all traders across New Covent Garden Market were hit particularly hard. However, ingenuity saved the day for the Fruit and Vegetable Market.

More than 30 businesses were able to rapidly re-calibrate their offer, moving from a business-to-business offer to directly serving consumers via home delivery boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. Always a business to relish a challenge, fruit and vegetable wholesaler Nature’s Choice saw an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. We caught up with Nature's Choice Director Vernon Mascarenhas (below), to find out more.

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide Root To Flower Vernon Mascarenhas

Q. Tell us how your business has changed since March this year.
A. Our primary business is supplying restaurants with fruit and vegetables, but also working with farmers to grow bespoke produce for chefs. So, when the lockdown was implemented it immediately hit us.

Q. How did the lockdown affect you?
A. Immediately we went to zero orders, as all our restaurants had literally closed. So, I got together with my team and within 24 hours they had built a website which people could visit and order fresh fruit and vegetables from. We offered next-day delivery of the produce that was coming in from our farms, concentrating on fresh produce as we could guarantee the quality and freshness. On day one we did about 16 deliveries, by day three it had risen to 100 deliveries, and by day seven we had more than 600 deliveries. It was just that quick!

Q. How did you achieve such a rapid turnaround in such a short time?
A: What we did was minimise contact between staff. We split into two teams and changed our operation so that we opened the business 24-hours a day. We kept staff distanced and this was only manageable due to the cooperation of all our team members, who were brilliant from the start. We worked with all our customers to show them the best way forward to order local, seasonal, British produce. Staff now work night and day and they buy their produce at night from fellow market wholesalers, ready to pack and send out to customers the following morning. This way, the home delivery offer doesn’t put any extra strain on our regular deliveries.

Q. Was it hard to spread the word of your new home-delivery service?
A. I’m lucky that I have contacts in the media world, so I was able to reach out and get publicity in most of the major newspapers, including The Guardian, The Times and The Observer. At the start of the lockdown I was interviewed by Jeremy Vine on his BBC Radio 2 show, which literally has millions of listeners. We’ve now gone full circle, as I was interviewed at the start of August for The Food Show on BBC Radio 4, celebrating how successful our delivery service has become.

Pictured below: Vernon (left) talks fresh produce at the market with chef Jesse Wood from London's Parlour restaurant.

Vernon With Jesse Wood

Q. So as well as allowing your own business to thrive, you were also able to help support the farms that supply you?
A. That’s right, keeping the supply chain going throughout the lockdown was very important to me. We’re talking about saving hundreds and hundreds of jobs in farms across the county. We want to know that those farmers can keep on producing their amazing produce that our customers love so much.

Q. What’s the feedback been like from new customers?
A. We’ve had fantastic feedback. Many customers have never ordered from the market before and are tasting Nature’s Choice produce for the first time. They’re used to getting their fruit and vegetables from supermarkets and, as expected, they’ve been amazed at the taste difference. It's the same quality fruit and vegetables that we deliver to our Michelin-star restaurants. We now have masses of new contacts who love our produce and want to order from us on a regular basis.

Q. How are you factoring in the home deliveries now restaurants have reopened?
A. Now we do a combination of the home deliveries alongside our regular business. We're not doing the 600 a day like before, during lockdown. But we’re still doing enough orders to make it work. We’ve now expanded our delivery area and can deliver nationally, except for the Scottish Highlands and Islands. It’s already proving very successful.

Pictured below: A Nature's Choice delivery box, packed full of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Natures Choice Medium Delivery Box

Q. How have restaurants changed post lockdown?
A. Restaurants are very different now. Before, a chef would place the order and expect it at their restaurant by the next morning. Now, chefs are calling me each day and I explain what's available. They then create their menus from the available produce. What’s different about Nature’s Choice is that we set our prices for restaurants, which are then fixed for the entire month, rather than fluctuating each week. This enables chefs to plan their budget and the dishes on their menus accordingly.

Q. So has this changed the terms of payment to you as a supplier?
A. Yes it has, very much so. Our new customers are now strictly on a seven-day term. Any of our old clients are now also on a seven-day payment plan until that invoice is cleared. Previously, customers would have between 60 and 90 days to pay their invoice, so we were basically a bank. That's changed significantly.

Q. Does the new structure give you more protection as a business?
A: Should there be a second Covid-19 peak, and our customers are unable to pay, then we’re only seven days into debt. If there were invoices from 60 days that needed paying, then we would not be able to survive.

Q. What are your predictions for the future for Nature’s Choice?
A. Going forward, the main difference is that menus will be written daily, with chefs talking to me to determine what produce is available. It's not like before, with a chef coming to me with a list and me going out to source that produce. Now it’s me saying we’ve got this, this and this and they create their menu from that. I think it's a great way of working.

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