Chambers plugs gap in UK prepared fruit market with its own snacking division
by Gill McShane 07 February 2019
Chambers’ Commercial Director James Miller
In response to the continued popularity of berries and snacking, Kent-based soft fruit specialist Chambers has unveiled at Fruit Logistica a ‘UK first’ with its new £2 million prepared fruit division. Operational for just six weeks — yet already piquing customer interest — The Fruitery is packing pots and punnets of ready-to-eat, fresh snacking fruit, primarily berries, for retail and foodservice customers. PBUK speaks exclusively with Chambers’ Commercial Director, James Miller, to discover the benefits for UK buyers.
Above all, the state-of-the-art facility enables Chambers to directly supply buyers an own-label and high-quality product that has a longer shelf-life, local provenance and lower food miles, according to Miller. This, he says, will enable Chambers’ customers to compete more effectively in the UK’s ever-expanding take-home and on-the-go prepared food markets.
“Interestingly, in the UK there’s a gap in the market to produce freshly prepared berries,” Miller tells PBUK, claiming that Chambers, a major berry supplier to the leading UK multiples, is the only specialist fruit grower to have invested in its own prepared fruit facility.
“Berries are difficult to produce; they’re volatile in the way they grow, and they’re difficult to handle. That’s our strength. We’re berry growers, and we work with berry growers all year-round. We have the fruit already, so what we’re doing is adding value to an already established supply chain to enable people to eat fresh fruit on-the-go.”
The Fruitery marks the culmination of a two-year ambition to fulfil that demand. Located on the company’s existing site near Maidstone, during the UK season (April to December) the high-care facility will process fruit that has arrived within one hour directly from Chambers’ own production, which spans 400ha in Kent.
Chambers also hopes to operate the facility year-round; importing fruit during the counter season from its overseas production bases in Iberia, Poland, Peru and Bulgaria, as well as via its network of global partner growers in 17 countries.
“What we have at The Fruitery is the ability to select the very finest of berries and the most suitable fruit for the prepared [packing] process, either from our fields or from stock which has been brought in from around the world,” Miller points out.
“That is unique in the way that prepared berry pots are being produced in the UK right now. During the UK season, we’ll pick and send fruit from the farm directly into The Fruitery, which is market-leading. It’ll be the quickest process that’s possible.”
Indeed, Miller says this will translate into an additional two days of shelf-life because of a shortened supply chain, as well as a reduced carbon footprint, thanks to fewer lorries needed on the road.
“The current industry practice requires fruit to be picked and sent to a processor, which could take up to two days alone,” he points out.
“Through The Fruitery customers will get a longer shelf-life, which is all important when it comes to food waste. This gives customers a chance to sell the product, with less waste in the store, and gives consumers a longer opportunity to eat it.
“Also, we are running the fruit through a process which effectively saves shoppers from having to go home to wash the fruit. You can really eat it on-the-go, which is more convenient.”
Operational for just six weeks, The Fruitery is garnering solid interest from a broad customer base who can use either their own labels or The Fruitery branding on the packaging.
“I think we’ll have interest from a number of different parties, including those we currently supply,” Miller reveals. “We’ve already received interest from companies in different areas of the market that we’re not necessarily serving right now.
“We’re going to be quite flexible in terms of customer specifications. We have the ability to pack for retailers and foodservice companies, however they want.
“Plus we’ve had some interest in packing under our own, new brand (The Fruitery) where it fits the requirements of our customers and their final consumers.”
The current range comprises a four and five berry medley punnet in 160 gram (g), 220g and 240g variants; an 80g Blueberry snack pot; a Strawberry, Apple and Grape medley in 130g and 160g variants; a Strawberry and Apple medley in 130g and 160g variants; and a Strawberry and Grape medley in 130g and 160g variants.
In addition, there is a catering pack (600g, 1kg and 1.5kg) in a variety of medley choices. All the fruit (including the apples) will be sourced from Chambers’ own farms or grower partnerships, apart from the table grapes, which will be imported from traditional overseas sources.
Expanding the offer
In the future, Chambers expects to expand the range, and potentially even beyond freshly prepared fruit. Exports are also on the cards.
“The Fruitery is very scalable for demand,” explains Miller. “The gap in the market for berry packs will get the excitement initially. But customers will ask, and have already asked, whether we will be expanding the range and adding different products.”
Miller says the increasing trend towards snacking on fruit in the UK means The Fruitery could supply a range of dried and dehydrated fruits, and other fruit snacking solutions.
Prior to breaking ground on The Fruitery, Chambers already researched the growth in food-on-the-go and eating out of home in the UK; working with Kantar Worldpanel on the prepared market, and utilising its membership of British Summer Fruits and Producer Organisation Asplins for berry sales insight.
“We’ll dive more into the data on consumer habits once we get some turnover to invest back into the facility,” Miller reveals.
“While we do see ourselves as a berry-focused factory, we will adapt our range absolutely to the customers’ needs.”
Built to last
To that end, The Fruitery has been built to last, mirroring the eco-credentials of the wider Chambers fruit business.
The building features roof-top solar panels, recycles water where possible, and uses recyclable PET or cellulose packaging for its punnets and pots.
“We’re very mindful of our impact on the environment,” Miller explains. “On packaging, we continue to work with customers to reduce our use of plastics, while maintaining the protection for produce.
“The use of plastics where they’re not adding a benefit is an issue that does need to be looked at. However, within produce, some plastic packaging can aid shelf-life or have a lower carbon footprint than, say, brown paper bags. There are still a lot of questions.
“But there is advanced work on cellulose packaging, which is biodegradable and maintains its structure. And I’m sure at Fruit Logistica, we will see further progress with new innovations on that front.”
Beyond plugging a gap in the prepared fruit market, the diversification of the business at a time of political and economic uncertainty in the UK is also designed to future-proof Chambers, which has grown fruit in Kent for generations, and has farming links dating as far back as 1624.
“Chambers is a historical, family business, and [chairman] Tim Chambers would say we’ve never really had a time when there hasn’t been political or economic uncertainty,” notes Miller.
“The Fruitery is a natural diversification of our farming business, and not too dissimilar to the core. In this way, Chambers is preparing for the uncertainty ahead. We feel we’re in a very strong position.”
With labour representing one of the major issues for UK horticulture currently, Miller says The Fruitery puts Chambers in a stronger position since more jobs will be created in a division that complements the company’s existing workforce.
Added to that, Chambers is a large, independent grower that already occupies a decent share of the UK’s fresh berry market, and going forward potentially the prepared berry market too.
“We’re fortunate to be in a product area [berries] that is increasingly popular,” Miller admits.
“We have no doubt that UK and European trends will continue to focus on healthy eating. There are government initiatives regarding fruit and what we eat given the larger socio-economic impact of eating fresh fruit. And, increasingly the trend in the UK tends to be around being time poor and eating on-the-go.
“For us to find a product area that enables people to eat fresh fruit at different times of the day – I think that’s a growing trend.”
In the meantime, varietal innovation continues to be a major focus for Chambers, which grows an extensive range of berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries), redcurrants and cherries, as well as gooseberries and rhubarb.
“We want to make sure that we’re continuously improving, that we’re making sure we’re growing and packing the right fruit for flavour, appearance, yield and shelf life,” Miller says.
As an independent grower, Chambers works with a number of different breeding groups, and claims to be at the cutting edge of research into experimental new varieties for commercial production.
Company chairman Tim Chambers is also Chairman of The Rubus Breeding Consortium, which recently released two new raspberry varieties, Bella and Charm, that are now under production at Chambers.
“We’re continuing to work on more varieties,” reveals Millers. “It’s an ongoing process, but there is some final development work that will be released shortly.”