Q&A: Vitacress Salads MD Andrew Eastwood shares secrets of company’s success with FPJ’s Michael Barker and 250-strong audience at Festival of Fresh 2024

Andrew Eastwood, Vitacress Salads MD (right) speaks to Michael Barker at Festival of Fresh 2024

Andrew Eastwood, Vitacress Salads MD (right) speaks to Michael Barker at Festival of Fresh 2024

Andrew, you joined Vitacress as MD in November 2023, returning to the salad sector 20 years after starting a graduate trainee for Nature’s Way Foods. What took you from fresh produce and back again?

It took me 17 years to recover from my first job in produce! I had a great opportunity in my first graduate career job at Nature’s Way Foods. That really afforded me great prospects to learn skills and move on. Since then, I have had the joy to work in chilled desserts, pastry, ready meals, curry foods and across food brands at Pilgrim Food Masters. I have had a great exposure to own labels, brands and produce, and I think that has helped me underpin my knowledge across the overall food sector. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that produce is an exceptionally exciting category and I was delighted to come back to it. And perhaps I now bring a bit a of commercial perspective to it as well – drawing from some of the experience I have of brands and chilled food, and bringing that into produce.

Is the fresh produce sector ripe for more branding?

Brands are difficult. We have a brand, Steve’s Leaves, which we sell through Waitrose. Own label has done a really good job of giving customers confidence to buy from the salad category for quality every day of the week. So [salad] brands have got to do something really different around that to stand out. A brand has got to mean something for consumers. Ultimately, we are all looking for volume, and own label is critical for the category.

One of your areas of expertise is strengthening supplier-retail relationships. What experience of negotiating price and contracts with retailers when working in other food sectors can you apply to the UK salad sector?

Everyone has a different experience on this. I would stress the importance of timeliness in communicating difficulties and challenges you may be having with supply [to retail partners]. Don’t sit around around waiting – get to it quite quickly and deal with it now. Ultimately, it’s a partnership. If we aren’t successful as a supplier, we aren’t going to have the product available for the retailers. So it is a constant balance between managing our costs through to availability on shelf.

Because it is a volume business for us, it is hugely important we retain consumers in this category. Having the confidence in your costs and not being scared to pick up the phone and say look we have a challenge and we need to recover. I have been spending a lot of time over last few years making sure when we do have contracts that we have in-built mechanisms for recovering price.

Are retailers open to these longer-term contracts?

Ultimately for us, we are a farming business as well, so it is really vital to get long-term contracts to allow for investment in the business. It is something we are actively engaged in across the market. We are in discussions with present-day and future retail partners finding how we could secure five, or ten-year commitments with them because we need the confidence to invest in the business. The bit for me is that it has to have a benefit for each person in the partnership. We know what it means to us, but we are trying to make sure we can really define why this is important to retailers as well.

The last 12 months have seen a number of UK leafy salad grower businesses going under, largely due to high input costs and labour issues. Yet Vitacress seems to be bucking this trend, reporting a small rise in turnover in its last accounts and holding steady at number 26 in the FPJ’s most recent top 50 company rankings. What factors do you attribute to this strong performance?

The reality is cost control. We are trying to maintain really rigorous control of our costs. It is about making sure we deliver really robust cost saving plans and automating where possible – though it is difficult to automate in salad because the product is so variable. In the last year alone, we spent about £5m bringing in new technology to our St Mary Bourne site to simplify the process and reduce labour. It is a constant balance, and we are always aware we need to be really reactive to the raw material we have every day.

A big area of innovation is produce development. What can you tell us about that at Vitacress Salads?

Innovation is very, very challenging. We do deliver new products to market, new leaf combinations etc. But, actually, we are looking at it another way and asking, what is really important to shoppers: and it is simplification. It is actually probably doing less and doing it a bit better: making sure we have the quality right, the right pack format, the right price points. Those are our real focus areas. So a lot of the work we are trying to do is invest in category insight to find out what shoppers want from the salad category. They probably want great quality every day without the confusion of different names and titles. And they want us to talk about British a bit more. Actually, the salad category doesn’t do enough about celebrating the British season. We are a passionate watercress producer, and are first people in UK to bring watercress to market, but we don’t talk about it enough. Over the last couple of months we have done a bit more to celebrate our watercress heritage in retail magazines because consumers don’t necessarily have a connection to what we do.

Should fresh produce producers be talking more to the consumer even if they are in own label?

Absolutely, yes. I think they need to be proud about it. We have done some work with Waitrose farmers’ Instagram channels to really celebrate watercress production. So consumers can watch a short clip about how we produce the product. It is just a very small moment in time. Likewise, in Sainsbury’s Magazine we have put something there about heritage. This is great for our employees too, so they can see that all the work we are doing is visible and feel a sense of pride about it.

How do you get people to eat more fresh produce?

That is a challenge. The average frequency of salad consumption is eight bags a year – Kantar can correct me if I am wrong! So our biggest job is to increase consumption. We need more people to bring salad into their meal. So we need to figure out how we connect it to a meal, and do that more effectively.

What’s next for Vitacress Salads?

For me it has been very category focused and really focused on our retail partnerships. I have a strong retail background, so for me it is vital we have very strong [buying] commitments from our retail partners. We need to be a profitable sustainable business. The other thing I would touch on are our Second Nature and our environmental programmes. We feel that actually we need to dial up what we are doing there, to make sure everyone is aware of the work we have done and are doing in terms of environmental sustainability, with regards water and waste for example. But ultimately, it comes back to that piece about sustainability: not just environmental sustainability, economic sustainability. We do need to be profitable, sustainable business, so we need long-term retail commitments, really strong plans in the market, and ultimately we need to be as sharp on costs as we possibly can be.

A question from NFU horticulture and potato board chair Martin Emmett in the audience: You are a year-round business so you have a lot of permanent employment. What is your recruitment strategy?

To be honest, it comes back to partnerships. We have been able to foster really strong partnerships with full-time employees and [recruitment] agency partners thanks to the fact we have a work commitment that runs throughout the year. Although we have a peak in demand for labout across the summer, our business operates throughout the whole year. Our recruitment and labour is really strong. We don’t have shortfall of labour, but we do have a high cost of labour.