Twenty years ago my evenings were spent chugging around south Devon in a beaten up Transit van, delivering to our early vegbox customers. Our offering was pretty basic but the reception was rapturous and we never looked back. It certainly beat being abused by supermarket buyers. As customer numbers grew, I bought more clapped-out vans, employed wayward drivers, and started getting complaints about service, bruised veg and bad driving. It made sense to contract out the delivering and go back to what I loved and was good at: growing the veg. What started as a loose agreement with musicians and misfits with underutilised vans evolved into a franchise by the late ‘90s. We now have around 70 local franchisees delivering anything from 100 to 1,400 boxes a week, along with great customer service. You’ll know them as your local vegmen and ladies.
I never meant to get into franchising. For years no one could mention the f word; to me it meant bad burgers and a wired-back, ‘have a nice day’ smile. Some franchises are exploitative schemes to make a quick buck, but ours is different. Most Riverford vegmen joined because, like me, they love good food, believe in organic farming, good business and making the world a better place. We are totally dependent on each other and on the growers that supply us.
Last month we gathered at Sacrewell, our farm on the edge of the Fens, to share experiences and innovations, to plan, drink, eat and make merry. Since the recession hit in 2008 it has been harder to win and keep customers. A few franchisees left, but mostly we’ve collectively adjusted to a much harder market with a renewed determination to do better. The feeling of togetherness was wonderful and left me full of optimism for the future. Good business, like many good things in life, is all about nurturing long-term relationships. Selfishness and greed can be good drivers for lazy managers to achieve short term gain; a sense of shared purpose and an innate desire to do things well is harder to harness, but potentially much more powerful. In the early hours, outside a tent full of dancing franchisees, I felt happy that the f word could be good.