An ex-corporate finance lawyer and a linguistics school marketing manager seem an odd alliance to found a business focused on cutting the number of miles food travels from production to sale.

But James Meldrum and Simon Croft found themselves converging on the same idea for a business – albeit from different directions.

A self-confessed foodie, James spent most of our interview chomping on fresh vegetables.

His driving ambition is food promotion and he wants to make a business that gives others his excitement for fresh, high-quality food.

Simon is a champion of small family-owned businesses, good old fashioned service and being part of the local community.

Both love interaction with their customers and have a genuine desire to build a local produce retail business that benefits local producers and other local businesses.

“Our business plan and vision is in the hands of an independent third party who not only scrutinises the accounts, but challenges whether we are meeting our ethical and social vision,” says James.

Food miles – or as few of them as possible – lie at the heart of Crumbs, the business they launched on 29 October last year in a cabin in the car park of Shoots Garden Centre, near Washington in West Sussex:

“It was the culmination of several months research – identifying whether there was a demand for locally produced fresh food, identifying high quality and trusted suppliers and finally building a business plan,” explains Simon.

The first challenge was to find suppliers within a 4-mile radius and it soon became apparent that this was not going to be easy.

“There is no way we can currently supply everything within a 40- or even 50-mile radius, so we signal what food is grown locally with a green label showing the number of miles the produce has travelled from where it was grown to here,” he adds.

In addition there’s a profile by James – often humorous, but mostly informative – on their local producers, which now total 15.

Do the customers notice?

“Without a doubt; they stand and read the summary on each of the producers and often ask questions,” answers James.

“Consumers here are much more interested in locally produced food, than organic.

Townies associate organic food as being fresh and healthy, but rural consumers value local freshness and appreciate seasonality of vegetables and fruit much more,” says Simon.

They have also identified a big difference in attitudes from different age groups:

“The older generation are much more savvy and ‘nostalgic’ about food in season.

The younger generation of 30 – to 40-year-olds are very interested and want as much information as you can give them to make informed choices,” adds Simon.

Vegetables and fruit in season are “heralded in” with a big display at the front of the cabin, promotional boards featuring the new arrival as well as T-shirts modelled by James and Simon.

On 8 May it was asparagus, but corn-on-the-cob, strawberries, apples and rhubarb will have their time in the spotlight too.

Their cabin is only 300 sq ft, but they plan to expand in size on the current premises by introducing a butchery, cheese counter and fishmonger specialising in local produce.

food miles heros

Their vision is to create five similar outlets in the next two years and to move onto the High Street by the end of the year.

“What we need,” says James, “are courageous town planners who are prepared to support the development of this type of local produce stores rather than national brands that are steadily eroding the unique character of our high streets.”

Key to that grand plan is building a much greater consumer awareness and interest in locally supplied fresh food through recipes and live cooking demonstrations:

“We want to create a theatre for food – and communicate our excitement about freshness, localness and taste to others in our shops,” says James.

They are also turning their hands to farming:

“We are growing a range of vegetables – spinach, spring onions, beans, broccoli, new potatoes and beetroot – in a one-acre walled garden behind Wiston House a mile away from the shop,” explains Simon.

Waste bedevils any fresh produce business and for Crumbs it is no different but James and Simon are addressing this by supplying local restaurants and caterers with vegetables and fruit at cost price “Having our own restaurant would help too – at the moment our wastage is about 15% but we believe we can reduce that to 5%.

But otherwise the business is well on target to achieve projected revenues of £250,000 next year and £350,000 in 2008.

“We know there is an exciting business opportunity for us.

Year-on-year growth of one of our larger local growers was 250% last year!” says James.

That opportunity is one they want to share with others.

Simon spent two years setting up local businesses in London and wants others to build businesses that benefit everyone in the local community.

He is scathing about big retailers:

“They are not locally accountable; they are simply accountable to their shareholders who have no interest or investment in the environmental or social policies of their suppliers.

I genuinely believe many of today’s consumers want a more ethical choice.”

  • Next week’s in Farmers Weekly our Food Miles Heroes are Andrew and Sally Jackson of Pink Pig organic farm shop and restaurant, Lincolnshire.

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