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The proposition of the food box is simple: fresh food delivered straight to your door. With an array of possibilities available – veg, meat, meal kits and all sorts of local produce – this simple concept has come into its own during the pandemic.
Riverford Organic Farmers, one of the brands driving this trend, was already experiencing strong growth pre-Covid, due to consumers’ desire for more plant-based eating and organic options. Then the pandemic hit, and the surge in demand was so great that the business was forced to reduce its range back to only veg boxes and halt new sign-ups to meet its existing customers’ needs.
“Even with these measures in place, our sales increased by more than 40% compared to the prior year,” Riverford managing director Rob Haward tells Speciality Food. “The huge uplift in sales since the pandemic took hold has been driven by people seeing organic veg boxes as a ‘solution’ both to home delivery of food, as well as looking to eat more healthy, fresh vegetables.”
Julian Wilkinson, managing director of Yummy, a business that allows customers to build their own food boxes from local suppliers, agrees. “Supermarket delivery slots were either difficult to book or unavailable. There’s still a sort of dystopian feel to shopping in person even now; queuing to get in, wearing masks and using hand sanitisers. Delivery to your door feels safer and more convenient.”
Plus, food boxes can offer a simpler way to shop. “Pre-selected food boxes, like our meat, fish, fruit and vegetable boxes, are popular due to their ease of purchase – you don’t have to spend a lot of time scrolling through a website to find what you want,” Anna Elliot, sales and marketing director of Eversfield Organic, which has been selling food boxes for nearly two decades, tells Speciality Food.
As Riverford’s spike in sales shows, there is money to be made in food boxes. And while there are plenty of big players in the space, independents are beginning to challenge the status quo with a more bespoke offering, prioritising greater flexibility and higher-quality food.
Booths recently joined the meal kit space with its Let’s Cook recipe boxes, designed for customers who are looking to learn new skills in the kitchen. Each kit is made for two and includes fresh ingredients in made-to-measure sizes, as well as a recipe card with simple, step-by-step instructions.
Kate Rathbone, brand development manager at Booths, says the store’s ability to tailor its menu to suit local tastes and use unique and local ingredients or regional flavours makes it stand out against the sea of competition. “We’ve been able to work with our customers directly on what recipes they would like to cook and we’re very excited to bring a range of seasonal recipes throughout the year.”
Ben Hollins of Fordhall Organic Farm, which runs a meat box scheme, agrees that identifying your unique selling point is key. “Focus in on that, because a lot of people go out and advertise on Facebook and on Google, and you can waste a lot of money with online advertising if it’s not very very focused,” he warns. “Our key point of difference is that our cattle and sheep are pasture-fed. We get a lot of customers all over the country looking for us specifically for those reasons,” Ben says.
Eversfield caters to its conscious customers by telling the story of their products from field to fork. “It’s important for capturing an audience,” Anna says. “Organic certified status, PFLA certification, and awards are also things small businesses need to shout about to gain a wider consumer base.”
Riverford has taken this another step forward with its recent launch of home compostable packaging. “We know that plastic is one of the top concerns of our customers. We’ve already removed as much packaging from our fruit and veg as possible (in 2020, our veg boxes used 82% less plastic than supermarket organic veg),” says Rob.
“An impressive 82.5% of our customers compost their food or garden waste (based on a survey of 10,240 current Riverford customers – July 2018). This, combined with our well-honed system of collecting packaging to bring back to the farm for reuse, composting or recycling, convinced us that home compostable packaging is the right solution for us.”
Creating and managing a food box scheme is resource-intensive, but retailers that want to get involved have another option: coming together with local producers to join a new wave of local food box schemes.
One of the start-ups in this space is Yummy. The Lincolnshire-based service was created to support local butchers, bakers, greengrocers and fishmongers. Rather than having a set menu of ingredients or a single category of products, customers can create their own boxes on the platform, giving them more choice than via a typical food box scheme. “Instead of providing food from just one supplier or food producer, we can act as a hub – a partner – for many local independent businesses and national suppliers of speciality food,” Julian says.
“That means instead of selling a single product category and supporting a single farm or business we can provide fresh produce and quality food whilst supporting many local businesses. We can also provide the consumer with the convenience of a single doorstep delivery.”
Dan Twiselton, CEO of My Local Farm Box, has a similar aim with his business, launching in May. “The idea came about last year. I was eating some strawberries, and people were moaning about them not being very sweet. Then somebody looked at the packet and they were from Spain – and I thought why on earth are people eating strawberries from Spain in the middle of summer?”
My Local Farm Box will rely on local foodie experts to source, pack and deliver boxes of local British produce each week. “The local element is really there because you’ve got someone on the ground in each area who is hell bent on finding you the best local produce they can offer,” Dan says.
So far, he has seen considerable interest in the concept. “There seems to be a real buzz about it. We’re getting a lot of traction. I’m getting people contacting us every week asking if we would be interested in stocking their produce.” Marketplaces like these could be a boon to independents that don’t have the resources to create their own food box scheme.
As sales of food boxes have been increasing due to Covid-19, it’s important to consider what their future will be after the virus fades from society. Riverford’s Rob says this year’s growth has predominantly been driven by existing customers buying more frequently – something he expects to see fall somewhat after lockdown pressures ease. “I then expect the health, ethics and environment drivers that were strong before the pandemic to return even stronger and fuel future growth,” he adds.
With Eversfield’s customer numbers increasing, Anna also believes that food boxes have a bright future. “There is so much variety within such boxes as we change our box content every 1-4 weeks – our fruit and veg boxes are switched up on a weekly basis and our meat boxes monthly. We want customers to always get something new to avoid repetitive meals and food boredom!”
Julian is also positive about the future of food boxes. “It’s a change in behaviour that’s been boosted by lockdown. Now that the consumer has been gently nudged towards online shopping – some trying it for the first time – and have experienced the convenience for themselves, this change in the way we choose and buy food will remain popular even when we find ourselves free to venture out and about.” For retailers looking to capture a part of the food box market, providing their customers with both convenience and quality, along with your USP, is a recipe for success.
Ben Hollins of Fordhall Organic Farm sells set meat boxes and allows customers to choose their own products via an online shop
We launched our online shop in 2006. It’s been ticking along with busy stages and not so busy stages – we tended to focus it on Christmas. When Covid happened last year, at one point, we were doing five times our normal orders on the online shop. That has slackened off now, but we’re still running on about double what we were doing previously. It’s been a good tool because there’s been a lot more interest recently in online shopping and local food.
The biggest challenge for us was staffing, because all of a sudden the farm shop was selling massive amounts more than we’d ever done before. Another challenge was managing to mature the meat and maintain standards. We were lucky we already had a system in place for boxing and processing orders. I know a lot of other shops struggled with putting systems in place to take orders, to process them, to get the payments, and to arrange the deliveries.
Also, don’t try to offer too much. When lockdown first happened, we tried to do local deliveries every day and quickly realised that even though there was demand for it, it was an absolute nightmare for the staff and the team to manage. Now we just do one day a week. It makes that one day a bit busier, but it’s very manageable.
What makes this really work for us is the software, and using the features within it. We use software called FoodCommerce, which has basically been developed purely with farm shops and butchers in mind, down to little features like you can select a lead time for each product. So if somebody places an order for a box that has a sirloin steak in it, and you know sirloin steak takes you two days to prepare, you can put a two day lead time on that product.