A new business model is growing which could help East Anglian food producers reach new local customers and contest the dominance of the supermarkets. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.

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Given the choice, most of us would want to support our region’s industrious army of local growers, by buying fresh local food.

The benefits are obvious – we are surrounded by fields full of super-fresh seasonal produce, grown tantalisingly within a few low-carbon miles of our homes by businesses whose success could depend on our custom.

Yet despite all best intentions, the pressures of work and wage mean many urban dwellers simply don’t have the time or the cash to scour independent grocers or markets in order to fill their larders.

The inevitable fall-back is the convenience of the supermarkets, seemingly located around every street corner, and offering daily door-to-door delivery at discount prices.

But a new business model is growing in a bid to upset that particular apple-cart. Online food delivery networks are starting to emerge, combining a range of staple produce from farmers and suppliers working around a defined customer base, and selling at sensible prices with the same convenience of major online retailers.

A prime example went live earlier this month.

Norwich AtMarket is a home delivery service aimed at bringing foods from around Norfolk and north Suffolk to the doors of customers living in the city.

After two years of work building up to its launch, the company now sells 170 items from 20 producers.

It includes meat from north Norfolk, fresh fruit and vegetables from Broadland, fruit juices and cheeses from the Breckland Valley, jams and chutneys from South Norfolk and bakery goods from Norwich.

All of this can be ordered online one day, picked the next, and delivered the day after that.

Richard Walters, a founder and director of the company, said: “Everybody I speak to says they want to buy local food. Whether they will become customers I don’t know, but they are really keen on the home delivery element of it.

“They might struggle to get out to farmers’ markets and they are used to getting deliveries from Tesco or Waitrose. That convenience is very important to them.

“What we are trying to do is put together a business model which provides both ends of the chain with what they want. It gives more markets for producers and more accessible local food for customers, with the convenience they would get from a supermarket. We are the conduit in the middle of it.

“What people can buy is incredibly fresh food. It is mega-low food miles. If you bought 15 or 20 goods, most of them would have travelled about 30 miles before they got to you.

“We have about 170 products at the moment, but we’re aiming to double that over time. We’ve decided to stop at that level for now, because they all need to be excellent and we need to make sure the supply chain is working effectively.”

Norwich AtMarket delivers five days a week, from Tuesdays to Saturdays, from the warehousing facility at Thorpe which is operated by long-standing family firm D&F McCarthy. Customers can choose a delivery slot in the same way they would from an online supermarket.

But despite its freshness, green credentials and “feel-good factor” for helping the local economy, the food is not given a premium price ticket. In fact, it is pitched roughly at supermarket prices – albeit at the upper end of that spectrum – as it seeks to compete with the online offerings of the big players.

“We offer a lot of every-day goods,” said Mr Walters. “Local food is not just about luxury jams and chutneys that come out of a cupboard once a month. I had a wonderful curry the other night with a leg of lamb from Swannington Farm to Fork and a curry mix from the Bhaji Man (Sri Lankan-born entrepreneur Don Lear, from Great Hockham) and some great vegetables. It is all the staples. It is not just for a special occasion or for Christmas.

“We can deliver when people get home from work in the evening, or we can do it over lunchtime. We even deliver to people’s workplaces if they want us to do that.

“Sixty per cent of our goods are held as stock in the warehouse, but with places like Fresh Approach (in Aylsham) it is delivered to order. At the end of Monday, for example, we collate the orders and we know how many cabbages we need for Wednesday, and we email them to the supplier.

“It will be ordered on one day, picked the next day, and delivered the day after that. The goods we get from the baker are made the same morning, so it has only been out of the oven for a maximum of 10 hours by the time the customer receives it.”

Mr Walters spent 10 years in the farming industry, including managing a dairy farm in Yorkshire.

“I know what it’s like to get up at 4am to make good food for your customers, so I want to help support these people in some of the difficulties that they face,” he said. “We really hope that our business model can help them invest in their business and become more competitive. They are up against some very large producers who are supplying supermarkets at very, very low prices.”

One of Norwich AtMarket’s 18 Norfolk suppliers is Fresh Approach, which grows vegetables and salads on 35 acres of land near Aylsham.

The wholesale side of the operation is run by 25-year-old Louise Brett, who gave up an office-based career with insurance giants Aviva to join her family’s business about two-and-a-half years ago.

They sell mostly to greengrocers, farm shops and direct to local restaurants, but she said finding new outlets was crucial if the farm was to develop.

“The delivery aspect and the promotion of what we do... for a small business generally it is not viable for us to do those things,” she said. “Some customers will go to the effort to go to a farm shop and buy it that way, but it is a lot of effort.

“A lot of customers are looking for the convenience and this gets our produce to the customers which we could never have reached before.”

Norwich AtMarket states that it offers local suppliers, on average, up to 20pc better returns on their produce than they would get from a supermarket – allowing them greater profits to reinvest in their business.

After a week of heated negotiations between farming ministers, dairy farmers and processing firms on fair prices for milk, one of Norwich AtMarket’s suppliers welcomed the flexible approach to pricing which they get from the new delivery network.

Katherine Manning, customer relations manager at the Marybelle dairy, based at Walpole, near Halesworth, said: “When we are dealing with the larger retailers they are not willing to negotiate on price, but people like Norwich AtMarket can look at it and decide what is best for their suppliers and their consumers. With the milk, they are giving us more than a supermarket is giving us. It fitted with our discount scheme, and it meant everybody was getting a good deal.

“If all our customers were like that then farmers would be able to cover their costs, invest in their businesses and to give back to the farms at the other end. That is where the work is being done.”

Louise Brett, from Fresh Approach, said local delivery networks could also remove the risks which small growers face if they choose to sell to large corporate customers.

“Unless we have the right contract and the level of investment, which most small farms don’t have, we couldn’t risk growing a whole field of swedes for a supermarket to say they don’t want it,” she said.

“We don’t have the resources to do a farmers’ market, but this [the local food delivery network] has the potential to reach thousands of people. Each producer won’t have the investment or the know-how to set up a website like this, so to have someone who could help us to promote what we do is really useful.

“At the end of the day, we’re getting more for our produce than we would expect from a supermarket and that helps us to offset the risk of growing things. People only want a fair price for the work they put in. It means we can grow the business if we have more investment, then we can employ someone else in the community. It all has a knock-on effect if we can become a profitable company.”

Company director Mr Walters can often be seen pedalling through Norwich on his bicycle, towing an advertising banner to promote his company. “It’s all hands to the pump when you are running an early-stage company, and everyone has to get their hands dirty,” he said.

“This seemed like an appropriate way to launch the company, and it is a very friendly way to approach people.”

For more information, see www.norwichatmarket.co.uk

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