The rise (and some might say fall) of the vegetable box scheme has been one of the hallmarks of the change in the way we get produce through our front doors in recent years.
The problem for me with box schemes however was not so much the lucky dip contents of the box*, but the ‘we’re in your area on Friday and can leave it by your door’ delivery. My front door is shared by two other households, and is 4ft from the street, there’s no garage, neighbour or porch to leave my valuable vegetables in. And so this is where, for me and indeed many others who aren’t at home during the day, the box scheme falls foul of the cheek by jowl nature of most residences in the capital.
There are something like 600 box schemes running in the UK today, and one of the newest is Farm-Direct.com established in 2009 by Robert Baker. His scheme however, is a little different from the big boys like Riverford or Able and Cole. As well as being a lot smaller, it serves at present only one area of North London.
Last summer Robert took premises in an old building a mere mirror, signal and manoeuvre from the thundering thoroughfare that is the Holloway Road. The road, and the A1 it leads to lies at the end of a route for produce into London from the North since the Roman’s laid the first stone of Ermine Street.
Robert found a lot of producers were making night time runs into town to deliver to the wholesale markets, or shops. And so got them to drop stuff on on the way in. Customers browse his website, order what they want by the Thursday, then the orders are delivered on Saturday and Sunday, when most people stand a chance of being in. Delivery costs a few quid, but if there’s another residence in your street also signed up, it’s free.
Incidentally Tim Heywood did an interesting interview with Guy Watson from Riverford recently, where he talked about how relatively efficient lorries are at moving large amounts of produce about. What’s less efficient is the vans out delivering the boxes. Because of the smaller foot print of Robert’s business, and the fact it is, in his own words, ‘no frills’, he’s averaging eight drops an hour. The boxes meanwhile are just simple wooden fruit boxes, and maybe it’s just me, but people are less likely to sling out wooden things than cardboard or polystyrene?
But crucially you can go and pick your box up at a time that suits you, and not the other way round. When I first met Robert in the summer of 09 he’d just taken delivery of a fridge from M&S, and had a handful of customers on his books. Last week the place was packed with people nipping in and picking up their boxes.
He’s begun to carry items for sale directly now too, meaning existing customers who collect can top up, increasing amounts if needs be. This retail element also acts as a way to get people in off the street so Robert can explain the process and get a leaflet in their hand. On my last visit had like jeruselem artichokes, fresh herbs, celeriac, goose eggs, as well as more mainstream items like carrots, apples and spuds.
And so to cost. Robert’s admits he’s operating on small margins, but he also has very little overheads, so produce from him works out rather competitively.
That’s right, organic beef from Essex for the same price as Ocado’s budget range – a range I’ve nothing against, but the above goes to show that farm-direct doesn’t hit you in the pocket. And then there’s things that you never see in a super markets, such as wild garlic from Martin Mackey Ripple Farm Organics, Canterbury, Kent and a mere £1.35 for 90g, Marfona Potatoes, a haunch of venison, or the charming ’3 chicken eggs and 3 duck eggs’, yours for £1.50.
Farm-direct does a great job of getting small producers products together in one space and selling them at a very competitive price to people who want them, including it seems, live chicks for a customers garden, you can’t see Ocado doing that can you?