What on Earth
Founded 13 years ago by Jeremy Jaffé and Rolf de Polla, What on Earth has become one of the UK’s most prominent producers and suppliers of organic food. EatSleepDrink caught up with Jeremy Jaffé to find out how the company’s organic growth has made such a big difference.
Having built its reputation on making wonderful, award winning organic food, What on Earth has taken great strides since its inception in the late 1990s. Indeed, today the company boasts more than 400 diversified clients across the UK, including delicatessens, restaurants, coffee shops, farm shops, organic stores – in fact, one can find What on Earth’s delicious products in just about any imaginable outlet where quality, organic food is valued. Sourcing only the finest ingredients, such as plump and juicy tomatoes from Italy, What on Earth has become both an affirmation of organically produced food and the value of diversification.
Setting the trend
As Jeremy begins by telling us, What on Earth was borne out of a genuine desire for organic food, at a time when no such market existed in the UK. “I started the company with my business partner, Rolf, 13 years ago, which only feels like two years ago! To begin with, we started off by producing organic pizzas and this has expanded into us supplying a wide range of products to more than 400 customers. Along the way, we met a chap who made juices by the name of Simply Nectar – these weren’t organic but we loved the product. They didn’t want to invest any more money into their product or sort out their branding, which was rather naïve at the time. As a consequence, we decided to buy Simply Nectar and we’ve been running it alongside What on Earth ever since,” he affirms.
“The scale and budgets of our customers range dramatically, from independent farm shops that buy twenty pounds-worth of products per month, to the likes of Whole Foods and chains of restaurants that order several hundred thousand pounds-worth of products per month. As the business has grown, we have really tried to diversify our customer base. We strive to provide the best-possible service to our customers, which is still a rarity in the industry”.
Before business really took off, What on Earth cannily used its own distribution channels to supply customers, as well as distributing products for companies that couldn’t afford their own distribution, as Jeremy continues by explaining. “We realised very early on that it would be very difficult for us to meet the margins on organic food as well as paying a distributor around 30 percent on top of our production costs. Consequently, we used to load up our van and deliver our products that way. I always thought that it was a complete waste of money to be distributing in a half-empty van, so we began distributing for a few little brands in order to make the process cost-effective. Indeed, this was win-win for everyone – our vans were now full and we were also doing other companies a favour while generating some extra cash for ourselves.
“Indeed, we still do this today – why drive around central London with a half-empty van when we can fill up the space with other products?!” he notes. “As the costs of petrol, insurance and vehicle tax continue to rise, it makes perfect sense for us to maximise our distribution, both financially and environmentally. Less vans mean less food miles, which can only be a good thing. The basis of our business is ensuring that our products are as good as they can possibly be and that our costs remain manageable, while being as environmentally-conscious as possible at the same time”.
Right on the money
From the outset, What on Earth positioned itself in Battersea due to its close proximity to New Covent Garden market – a location that Jeremy is still proud of today. “We decided to take some space in Battersea as it meant that we didn’t have to travel miles through central London in order to source our fresh ingredients. Over the years, we’ve outgrown one space in Battersea and moved into another. At present, we have three units in our current location, as well as a factory in Bridgwater, Somerset where we make our cheesecakes.
“Much like our experience with Simply Nectar, we acquired this organic cheesecake company in Somerset from a company that we used to distribute for,” he confirms. “Ultimately, it had got itself into trouble by supplying the major supermarket chains as a core to the business. As margins become squeezed the company was brought to the brink of collapse. In the end, the business had to close down because none of these contracts were making any money at all and monopolised the production time. Contrary to the previous owner’s business model, we have always held the belief that in order to be successful our customer base should be as diverse as possible.
“Just like with What on Earth, we identified that our core customer base for organic cheesecakes were the little guys, if you like, so the deli’s, farm shops, coffee shops and people that we could deliver to directly,” Jeremy testifies. “These are the contracts where the margins are better – the supermarkets see that the product works, but want to buy in bulk for 25 percent less than we usually sell for, which is a false errand for us. The acquisition of the Bridgwater factory was great because all of the people that we were supplying pizzas to were now also able to buy desserts and cheesecakes from us”.
Given the consistent growth of What on Earth it will come as no surprise to learn that the company has continued to expand on its existing contracts with customers across the UK – a feature of the business that Jeremy is understandably keen to highlight. “We supply our desserts to a number of restaurants and eateries, as well as numerous independent coffee chains that are springing up around London. In this sense, I suppose that we were fortunate enough to have established ourselves inorganic market before it was in full flow.
“When we started out, there wasn’t a market to speak of – we kind of hit the bandwagon before there was a bandwagon,” he testifies. “I remember in the early days meeting with the pizza buyer from Waitrose who loved our product and invited us in to see her at their headquarters. She asked us how many pizzas we could make in a day and, very proudly, we told her that we could do 700. She said it was a shame, because if we could have made 10,000 pizzas per day then they would have signed us up. At the time, there was no organic infrastructure at all – we couldn’t have got a pallet of organic tomatoes, let alone enough for that many pizzas!
“I suppose that we have the food scares, such as the Foot and Mouth Crisis, to thank for the increasing awareness of food provenance and proper animal safety,” Jeremy explains. “Scares like this made people question where their food was coming from – because we have achieved steady growth year-in, year-out, we have always been well-positioned to capitalise on the growing demand for organic food products. Indeed, in the last three years we have experienced remarkable growth, which I attribute to two key factors, neither of which are to do with flavour or ethos, but with trend and choice”.
Trend and choice
Despite the well-publicised economic doom-and-gloom across Europe and the UK, figures published by the Soil Association this year confirm that we’re spending more of our hard-earned pounds on organic produce – a sector that continues to buck the financial downturn and a fact not lost on Jeremy. “Ultimately, a good deal of people in the UK have enough money to spend on quality food. Indeed, quality, organic food is almost a badge of honour these days, and the outlets where our products are sold are frequented by the kind of consumers that are prepared to pay more for organically grown products.
“The owner of Iceland, Malcolm Walker, has his own independent and successful organic store called ‘As Nature Intended’, which is at complete odds with the kind of food that Iceland sells, so this is the barometer in terms of understanding consumer demographics when it comes to organic produce,” he confirms. “The fundamental point is that consumers need choice and the kind of people buying our products are those that understand the price implications for a better product. When we first started What on Earth, we used to tell people that we were going to start out making pizzas. It wasn’t until we explained that our pizzas were going to be organic that people were engaged, so ultimately it all comes down to choice”.
In terms of What on Earth’s most popular products, Jeremy was quick to explain the two sides of the company’s sales. “We have a retail side and a food service side, the latter of which is the larger of the two and involves supplying restaurants and cafés. On the retail side, our biggest customer is probably Whole Foods. Other retail customers include the likes of Planet Organic, right down to independent farm shops and smaller delis. This is where there has been good growth over the last 12 months.
“We also make non-organic desserts, with the same level of quality and attention which we primarily design for a premium supermarket in the north of England called Booths, although we don’t do anything that goes into the large supermarket chains”.
Having achieved such remarkable growth, particularly over the last three years, What on Earth is a shining example of how to keep clients and customers happy. Indeed, the company now sells a plethora of organic food, including pizzas and pizza sauces, chopped tomatoes, coconut milk and passatta. On the sweet side of things, the company offers berry bags, cakes and desserts, including its very popular cheesecake. As no strangers to the world of online media and marketing, What on Earth have also made their products available online at www.goodnessdirect.co.uk, while the company also creates exclusive products for Abel & Cole (www.abelandcole.co.uk).
“There are many misconceptions about organic food,” Jeremy concedes. “The main misconception is that all organic food has to be vegetarian and, unfortunately, the mass media tends to only report on the negative associations.
“We like to invite our customers into our factories, so they can see the process involved in making what they end up selling,” he affirms. “We also take our staff out to see where our products end up, so they can see the quality of all of their hard work in action and so they understand why our high standards have to be maintained. It sounds so simple, but if you’re making something for people, you need to know the people you’re making it for and where it’s going to be sold. Similarly, every time we buy something from someone we go and see them in person. Firstly, it’s a necessity for us to see where our ingredients come from and secondly it’s a great excuse to meet people in the industry.
“Fortunately, the organic sector is full of extremely passionate people that operate with a great deal of integrity, which makes running What on Earth and Simply Nectar so enjoyable,” Jeremy concludes. “For us, it’s all about the product and communication with our customers and staff. We really work hard on making sure that everyone we deal with is informed about what we’re doing. It’s not so much phoning customers and telling them what they are getting as it is about phoning them up and explaining what they’re missing out on.
“Over the next 12 months, we have exciting projects with a lot of our existing customers, as well as a couple of projects we’re doing for the London 2012 Olympics. We’re also in the process of moving into another premises to ensure that we’re absolutely ready for all of the work, so, in terms of the future, it’s really just more of the same!”
In the last year alone, What on Earth has grown its business by an incredible 40 percent, which is a testament to its trend-setting philosophy of producing and supplying delicious organic food to a diverse customer base. With so many exciting projects in 2012, it looks sure to be another year of organic growth for What on Earth.