Brand Builders: Riverford Farm

Fresh organic food delivered via franchisees has driven the expansion of this Devonshire farm, writes David Tiltman.

It's a grey, blustery day in Devon's Dart Valley, and Guy Watson is taking shelter over lunch in the Riverford Farm restaurant - a barn-like wooden structure he calls his 'mission statement'.

Not many farms have their own restaurant. But Watson, one of three brothers who run Riverford's various businesses, is no ordinary farmer. Under his guidance, the 1000-acre farm has been transformed from a small supplier to the supermarkets into one of the country's biggest organic vegetable box schemes.

The premise is simple. Customers choose what size box they want, then Riverford fills it with whatever is being grown at the time and delivers it to the customer every week.

The box scheme concept is nothing new. What makes Riverford different is the way it has expanded. Five years ago it began inviting people to set up their own local Riverford-branded delivery businesses, and in the process created the UK's first organic food franchise.

The farm has not been short of applicants: it now has 34 franchisees operating across the South-West and the South. They have found an eager market for their vegetables. 'It's phenomenal,' says Watson. 'We're delivering 14,000 boxes a week, and it's recently been rising by 500 a week.' Not bad given that, a few leafleting campaigns aside, the business has expanded through word of mouth alone.

The scale of the business is clear from the hubbub in the farmyard. Riverford is part of a co-operative of 13 local organic growers, and convoys of vans from neighbouring farms are dropping off trailer-loads of potatoes and onions outside a hangar-like warehouse. Most Riverford veg passes from field to franchisee to doorstep in 48 hours, and the most perishable in 24. That freshness gives the box scheme an advantage over the supermarkets, whose organic fare Watson dismisses as 'overpackaged, tired and pretty bloody expensive'.

At the heart of the brand is what he terms the 'Riverford story': the fact that the food comes from a genuine farm at the heart of a genuine farming community. 'There is a kind of realness about our brand, a robustness that will make it resilient,' Watson argues. 'It's not just the creation of some marketing executive.'

Central to this story is Riverford's determination to be an ethical business.

Not only is the farm committed to organic farming, it recycles boxes, holds pumpkin sales to raise money for Oxfam and works with local schools to educate children about food.

Showing children where their meals come from is all part of Watson's passion for fresh food - a passion he is keen to pass on to his customers.

The co-operative grows 85 different vegetables every year, meaning Riverford can offer not just the staples, but a 'bit of excitement': rocket and radicchio have appeared alongside carrots and cauliflower in recent boxes. And for those who don't know their celery from their celeriac, the boxes contain a newsletter giving some background on their contents - from a brief history of the chilli to tips on ridding your calabrese of caterpillars.

Riverford may trade on its cottage-industry charm, but it is a business with big ambitions. In the small office that clings to the side of the warehouse, a map of London betrays the farm's next target. It has already sold three franchises in the capital, and over the next year plans to add a further 12. With London conquered, Watson will look to replicate the model in a different part of the country, and is helping to set up a franchise scheme based in Peterborough.

If the brand is to live up to these ambitions, it has to keep generating those word-of-mouth recommendations - which leads back to the restaurant, and the plate of bubble and squeak Watson is devouring. He admits the venture will never make money, but is convinced that by bringing in visitors and telling them the Riverford story, the word will spread. 'This is what the business is about,' he says. 'It's about sharing really good food and sharing an enthusiasm for food - with our customers, with the public, with schools, whoever.'

TIMELINE

1985: Guy Watson begins farming on three acres of Riverford Farm.

1987: The Soil Association awards Watson's business, Riverford Organic Vegetables, organic status.

1993: Watson sets up a local organic vegetable box scheme.

1997: The South Devon Organic Producer group, a 13-farm co-operative sharing equipment and labour, is formed.

1999: Pilot franchise scheme set up after hiring a marketing manager.

2001: The franchise scheme is launched fully at the National Franchise Exhibition.

2002: The franchise network grows to 10 distributors.

2003: A further 12 franchisees join the network. The box scheme's turnover totals £3.8m. Watson wins the Soil Association's Organic Business Person of the Year award, and the box scheme wins the British Franchise Association's Brand Builder of the Year prize.

2004: Riverford launches 12 more franchisees. Deliveries rise to 14,000 boxes a week, with a projected annual turnover of £6m.

Discussion

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now

Latest

Ex-Thomas Cook marketer Mike Hoban resurfaces at Morrisons
Barbour creates real-time illustrations of consumers' stories for summer campaign
Viral review: Samsung goes for Apple’s jugular but fails to connect
View from Brazil: why we didn't believe we could lose the World Cup
Heineken unveils ‘Open Your City’ drive with Metro for ‘men of the world’
Unilever continues portfolio 'reshaping' with Slim-Fast sale
Amazon to fight US authorities over in-app purchase claims
Google set to invest $100m in Europe's tech start-ups
Metcalfe's set to release quirky debut TV ad
Samsung pities the iPhone 'wall huggers'
Smirnoff campaign aims to make Formula One less elitist
Apple wins EU battle to register store layout as trademark
Marketing directors need to step outside 'marketing box' to earn seat on the board
Hottest virals: Burger King’s emotional gay pride Whopper ad, plus Apple and Guinness
Developer creates software enabling Google Glass mind-control
Kick-ass girl beats up shopping centre staff in music video
Top 10 ads of the week: Aldi's World Cup cider ad scores with consumers
Sony relives Germany's 7-1 victory against Brazil in Subbuteo Vine
Burberry credits 9% revenue hike on strong online sales and 'more targeted marketing'
Ritz returns to UK TV screens after 30-year hiatus
Mars creates chief health and wellbeing officer role
Brands make the most of Germany's dramatic victory over Brazil
Adios Justin King! Watch our video tribute as he leaves Sainsbury's after a decade
Nike calls time on 13-year Manchester United kit deal
Three TV ad banned over misleading 'free' call claims
GNM boss David Pemsel: 'The Guardian has got its mojo back'
M&S has missed a massive opportunity to put digital strategy at its heart
Google partners with the Barbican to show coders are artists
Samaritans encourages men to talk about issues with #DownNotOut campaign
Lego's partnership with Shell 'not awesome', according to Greenpeace viral