Inside Track by Peter Martin
Fresh & Wild, the London based chain of organic food stores, was picked out by M&C Report three years ago as a "hot concept" to keep a watchful eye on. It was small, energetic, entrepreneurial and excitingly combined retail with foodservice, with its takeaway deli and eat-in juice bar – a trend we rightly felt was set to grow. But even we were surprised by the chunky £21m price tag that the company, and its then seven sites in Camden, Old Street, Soho, Stoke Newington, Clapham, Notting Hill and Bristol, attracted when in January 2004 it was bought by the US-based Whole Foods Market corporation. Was the organic and health food market really that valuable? Whole Foods Market and its founder John Mackey had a vision to use Fresh & Wild as springboard to rapidly expand the whole food market both in UK and the market. His confidence was based on the fact that his Texas-based company, founded with one store in 1981, is now worth $8.6bn (£4.75bn). That vision is now talking shape with the announcement this week that the Barkers department store on London’s Kensington High Street is to become the UK’s first organic superstore. Fresh & Wild’s owners will take over the ground and first floors of the site, something in the region of 75,000 sq ft of trading space. It would not be the first time that an ambitious US corporation has come to the UK with big plans, and the Barkers scheme has already attracted a deal of scepticism from the retail sector. The organic food market may be growing, but it is still only 2% of the overall food market, and how can such a large project generate enough business, even in middle class West London? It is estimated it will need £20m in sales to break even. But the health-driven, organic food sector in the UK is growing fast. It has more than doubled over the past five years to be worth an estimated £1.2bn, and growing at a rate £2m of sales a week, according to the Soil Association. One of the brakes on the market seems to be the ability to source enough organic products; an issue that drew headlines itself this weekend with claims that some farmers chasing growing sales are taking short-cuts and not all "organic" food may be what it seems. Fresh & Wild, and its US parent, is confident it can bring more excitement and create new enthusiasm for customers at the Barkers venture, with sampling stations, cooking demonstrations and a range of in-house cafes and restaurants. It may no longer be small, but it remains encouragingly, entrepreneurial - and will certainly be one that continues to be worth keeping an eye on.