Words by Hannah Tapping
The plastic-free, fresh fruit and vegetable box delivery service that is bringing produce to busy, young families.
The spring lockdown of 2020 might seem like an odd time to launch a business, but that’s exactly what Cornish mother of two Katie Sawday did, and the seeds that she sowed whilst we all stayed at home have flourished.
“We were in the midst of planning and testing FruutBox when the pandemic hit,” says Katie Sawday, who co-founded the business with her husband Jamie. “Friends and family who knew what we were cooking up urged us to launch there and then, to fulfill a need locally for families to get their fruit and veg without having to leave their homes to go to the shops. We had registered the business back in September 2019 and our initial plan was to launch in the summer of 2020 but instead we jumped in, bought a refrigerated van and started to deliver locally, adding more postcodes around Cornwall and into Devon as word spread and orders started to come in.”
Katie describes her own two young children as “a pair of little fruit bats”. The family’s efforts to reduce the single use plastic packaging in their recycling bin each week led them to realise that one of the worst culprits for their family was fruit and veg packaging. Katie’s husband Jamie has a background in fresh produce wholesaling (and grew up on a farm) so knows the industry well. They decided to take matters into their own hands, and created the service that they wanted, but couldn’t find.
As well as the initial focus on eliminating single-use plastic packaging, they also champion local producers and their entire offering is designed for young families. “I wanted the contents to be the same every week, so that families could plan their meals ahead and not have to respond to what is delivered,” Katie told me. “We’d tried veg box schemes before, and the reality of trying to work out what to cook using a Chinese cauliflower or some other unusual item isn’t that easy when you’re making dinner for little people.
I wanted to offer boxes that made life easier for young families, not harder.” That’s not to say that you can’t get a Chinese cauliflower in your FruutBox should you so wish – they have a Funky Veg box with contents that change every week if that is what you’re after – it’s simply that most of the set boxes in their range are full of exactly the sort of fresh produce that people put in their supermarket trolleys each week.
Whilst delivering apples in July, or bananas at any time of year, means that FruutBox are selling some imported produce in just the same way as all supermarkets do, Katie and Jamie have gone on a mission to both explain the realities of seasonality and food miles to their customers as well as to offer locally sourced produce whenever they can to try and strike a balance.
“We have some Cornish produce, such as strawberries from Mevagissey, lemons and limes that are grown in an unheated glasshouse on the Roseland, and St Enodoc asparagus to name a few. They are only available for a short period, so we offer these as add-ons to customers,” Katie explains “But there are also products that we put in FruutBoxes all year round, such as apples. There are only two apple harvests each year – one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere, so for half the year our apples are from the southwest of the UK and the other six months, when no local apples are available, we import them just like everybody else. Having those doorstep conversations with our customers every week allows us to explain why that is though, which is a real privilege.”
The logistics that have led to most supermarket customers expecting everything to be available at any time of the year are really quite incredible once explained. They are also a blessing and a curse to Katie and Jamie, giving them at once an edge over supermarkets on freshness and shelf-life, whilst also throwing up occasional financial hurdles. Katie explains how their shorter supply chain in comparison to supermarkets, who can have fresh produce sat in warehouses and distribution centers for days and weeks before it reaches the shop floor, gives FruutBox’s fruit and vegetables a longer shelf life and allows them to offer the same product without plastic packaging.
Supermarkets need that plastic packaging to extend shelf life, to accommodate their longer supply chain and to reduce the risk of food waste, which would have a worse environmental impact than that of the plastic packaging. As a small business however, to offer some produce all year round Katie and Jamie expose themselves to wholesale price fluctuations that are far more easily absorbed by supermarkets. Jamie’s background is in wholesaling fresh produce, with a specialism in berries, and that experience meant that before they even launched FruutBox the couple had worked out if and how they could absorb the extreme price hikes that some fruits and vegetables are susceptible to as seasons change and sources shift around the world. “There was a point in the spring when red bell peppers wholesale price was £2 each, but obviously nobody is charging their customers those sorts of prices. As consumers, we don’t even know about this and are so used to being sheltered from these price fluctuations. For a start-up contender though, it’s a massive consideration.”
As word of FruutBox spread from friend to friend and through mum’s groups and community networks, Katie and Jamie added more and more postcodes to their delivery area, eventually spreading out to cover most of Cornwall and into Devon. Confident that they had established a large enough base of subscribers and customers once restrictions eased and people began to return to their pre-pandemic shopping habits, this summer the couple moved Fruutbox from their kitchen table and a shipping container on their driveway, to a dedicated unit and storefront in Newquay’s Prow Park. They’ve taken on a delivery driver and shop staff, and have expanded their offering from fruit and veg to include fresh plant and cow’s milk, juices in refillable glass bottles, sourdough bread, local eggs, pasta, rice and every parent’s essential: coffee.
What has happened, though, to their initial plans for a nationwide service? “We continued to trial national delivery to friends and family in other parts of the country through the first year of the business, experimenting with different plastic-free packaging materials to protect the produce, and refining what that service would look like,” Katie says, “But as the demand across Cornwall grew and we developed further and deeper relationships with local farmers and growers, we realised that it would be better and more fulfilling to grow out slowly from our Cornish base. We’re passionate about helping families to reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging in their lives, which is something that chimes with a lot of people here because of the immediacy of the marine plastic problem that we see on our local beaches. However, we’re also really enjoying making those connections between our customers and the amazing local produce grown around them.”
Modern family life can be dynamic and non-stop and Fruutbox’s success over the last year and a half is testament to the way it has adapted to this. “Because we get to see and speak to so many of our customers at their front doors, we get the sort of insights that money can’t buy. Those conversations work both ways – not only do our customers get to understand more about the fruit and veg that they’re eating, but we also learn what is important to them and what they really need; allowing us to adjust, adapt, and grow. Those human connections are what really makes a business.”