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.

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