The growth industry: Veg boxes have gone from a niche product for worthies to a foodies' essential


What is it about veg boxes that they are positively prospering in the recession while supermarket sales of organic greengroceries have plunged? Is it loyalty to an ethical supplier, a determination to maintain green credentials as the planet heats relentlessly, or merely the surprise of not knowing whether a stick of black salsify or a handsome pale blue squash will turn up among the carrots, swedes and spuds to help brighten a winter supper?

One man who has a good idea why the humble box is here to stay is Guy Watson, whose Riverford organic farm built its name on box schemes, becoming one of the main players in the business.

Foodies have become the core customer base, he says, replacing the worthies with less fussy palates who kick-started the surge towards organic 25 years ago.

And the box men have considerably smartened up their act in response.

"It was all started in the 1980s by a bunch of belligerent, value-driven farmers, whose attitude was: 'This is what we produce – like it or lump it'," explains Watson, who has grown organic for 25 years, but only joined the home delivery set in 1993.

"They were selling to customers who didn't care that those first boxes contained a load of muddy swedes, woody parsnips and pigeon-pecked cabbages, so long as they were organic."

Then Abel and Cole and Riverford came along, offering something a little slicker and more appealing to the average food-loving household. "We always believed our customers would expect carrots free of flies and we had to accept they wanted salads even in winter and more exotic vegetables like peppers and tomatoes, even if that meant supplementing their box with the odd import. It's these foodies who are driving the business – and we've had to develop an eye for what they want to eat."

So today's box men are harnessing tunnels to grow rocket in the depths of winter and forming partnerships with farms in other areas so they can offer the added attribute of supplying local – a factor that now carries as much cred as organic certification from the Soil Association.

In the case of innovative growers like Riverford, they are also buying farms abroad to keep control of the imports they supply and adding organic meat, milk, eggs, bread, muesli and more to their list in a direct challenge to online grocers such as Waitrose and Ocado, who boast a strong organic offering.

Abel and Cole, the biggest players in the veg box business, offer even more categories, including baby food, dry goods, wine and washing-up liquid.

Even so, the 30 per cent annual growth Abel and Cole is currently enjoying seems staggering in a recession.

Founder Keith Abel seems slightly stunned: "In 1988 we were delivering five boxes a week. We struggled for years to get to our first thousand," he admits.

"Yet the past two years have been amazing.This year we will deliver nearly 60,000 boxes a week and see turnover climb to £43m."

They are not alone. Box scheme and other mail order sales of organics are showing a strong gain at £155m, while the supermarkets, which still represent 72 per cent of organic sales, have seen that side of their business drop by a quarter since 2008.

Abel thinks this is down to the supermarkets reducing their selection of organic produce and failing to understand the prime attractions of the box: "Our customers want to eat better in every way, which means fresher food from a shorter supply chain, which has not been air-freighted or smothered in polythene," he says.

And the box has the benefit of educating palates in a far more direct way than the supermarket can dream of, he believes: "We will slip in a romanesque cauliflower or some black salsify often enough to excite – and we pack recipe cards into every box."

They also allow customers to exclude beetroots, sprouts, or any other disliked species.

While recipe cards and cookbooks are now de rigeur, the big players are vying with each other to make use of newer technologies. Abel & Cole teaches how to use the more unusual veg on its website, while Riverford aims to go one better with its novel phone app, which employs a fruit machine-style design to call up hundreds of recipes for whatever customers find lurking in their veg bin.

Both companies are constantly expanding their offering. Abel & Cole, which buys in from farmers rather than growing its own, has evolved into a full-scale online ethical general store, while Riverford, more cautious after failing with bread on its first attempt, now also supplies chilled soups, cooked meats and cheeses, eggs, oatcakes and cereals, mayonnaise, pesto and olive oil. Next month they are going to launch a mixed meat and veg box as a standard option.

The success of the box may still come down to cost-consciousness if you clock the fact that veg boxes are a 26 per cent saving over supermarket prices, according to the Soil Association, but even in a recession, Abel thinks box buyers are not motivated by saving money.

"It's like cycling – you may decide to take it up to save money on driving, but you're likely to go out and buy the best bike you can afford.

"Vegetables can so easily be the boring old uncle at the party. What the best have done with boxes is to make them as exciting as a Michelin-starred restaurant arriving at the door."

What else is in the box?

Fruit and veg may have kicked it off, but now the box habit has been hijacked by alll manner of edibles. Some of the newer entrepreneurs in the game include the following:


Field and Flower delivers boxes containing meat sourced within 15 miles of its Somerset farm. Prices start at £55 for a small monthly box and you can easily put together your own combination of meats and cuts online.

Specialist coffee

Kopi will send you 250g grams of a different rare, single-origin coffee each month, together with notes on its provenence and tips for brewing it up. This week, they're offering Independent readers a free sample of a 100g bag of coffee and a booklet explaining its origins. Just go to and enter the code INDPT and say whether you'd prefer ground or beans.

Loose-leaf tea

Tea Horse delivers four different loose-leaf teas every month, with detailed tasting notes and paper filters to minimise any brewing mess. From £10 at


The Larder Box contains five gourmet products monthly, from a bottle of fruit vinegar to a pouch of salted caramel popcorn. It comes with meal suggestions and a rundown on the producers.  From £16.50,

Healthy snacks

Graze targets workers with four punnets of healthy snacks to keep beside the computer – think nuts, seeds, olives, crackers, dried fruit and more at £3.79 per box.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
musicPlus 20 tracks you'd probably forgotten all about
Life & Style
A teenage girl's terror threat 'joke' to American Airlines went badly wrong when she was faced with the prospect of an FBI investigation
Steven Gerrard celebrates with Martin Skrtel after the defender made it 2-0 in the win over Manchester City
Arts & Entertainment
tvSpoiler! (And it wasn't this horse)
The 'Not Fair' singer has missed out on up to £100m after refusing bitcoin payment five years ago
peopleLily Allen opens up about loss after miscarriage in 2010
indybestIt doesn’t have to be all about eggs or even chocolate
The baby mammoth, found in Siberia by a reindeer herder in 2007, is little larger than a dog, and has been nicknamed Lyuba.
news First time the find has been shown in Western Europe

Michael Schumacher in 2010. The seven-times Formula One world champion has been in a coma for more than 13 weeks
peopleHis manager Sabine Kehm gives positive report
Arts & Entertainment
Johnny Depp awards Josh Hutcherson for Best Male Performance for his role in the Hunger Games
filmCheck the full list - although one film dominated
Arts & Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard
tvMartin Freeman on remaking the Coen Brothers’ classic film
Life & Style
techNew app models sunlight patterns to sync your circadian rhythm
Arts & Entertainment
The timelapse video documents Lotte's transformation from birth to teenager in just four minutes
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
tv and filmThe actor dashed fans' hopes at a convention in Australia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Travel Consultant - Aberdeen

    £18000 - £27000 per annum: Flight Centre Limited: Join one of the biggest trav...

    Travel Consultant

    £15000 - £27000 per annum + Benefits & Uncapped Commission: Flight Centre Limi...

    Business Development Manager

    £22000 - £40000 per annum + Proven Yr 1 OTE £40,000: Flight Centre Limited: Ex...

    Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £27000 per annum + Benefits: FCm Travel Solutions: FCm Travel Solutio...

    Day In a Page

    Florida's not-so-coy pastor is just the latest in a plague of fallen preachers

    Florida's not-so-coy pastor is just the latest in a plague of fallen preachers

    Revelations of extra-marital affairs and a porn habit leave the 20,000 worshippers of one mega-church leaderless
    Notes from Madison Avenue: A Mad Men miscellany

    Notes from Madison Avenue: A Mad Men miscellany

    As the ad agency drama returns for its final series, Sarah Hughes considers its best (and worst) bits
    Painting the South Bank red: Celebrating a year of the Shed

    Painting the South Bank red: Celebrating a year of the Shed

    Fiona Mountford hails the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
    Russell Norman reveals how to build a restaurant empire: 'It's not a dinner party'

    Russell Norman: How to build a restaurant empire

    The food, the service and the numbers: nobody knows dining out like the man behind Polpo
    MI6, the CIA and Turkey's rogue game in Syria

    Patrick Cockburn: MI6, the CIA and Turkey's rogue game in Syria

    New claims say Ankara worked with the US and Britain to smuggle Gaddafi's guns to rebel groups
    Courtney Barnett interview: Is she the musical Lena Dunham?

    Courtney Barnett: Is she the musical Lena Dunham?

    She is candid, comic and coming our way
    Britain's best chefs: Seven regional restaurants, seven brilliant local recipes

    Behind-the-scenes: Britain's best chefs

    From Cornwall to Edinburgh, we scoured the country to ask seven restaurants to show that fine dining is thriving beyond London
    Pollen Street Social's Laure Patry reveals how to get the best out of a sommelier

    How to get the best out of sommeliers

    Laure Patry, group head sommelier for Jason Atherton's Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social-based mini empire, reveals all
    Duck & Waffle: Lisa Markwell spends 24 hours at the restaurant that never sleeps

    Duck & Waffle: Restaurant that never sleeps

    It's always open. Always. How on Earth does that work? Lisa Markwell rides up to the 40th floor of London’s Heron Tower with an access-all-areas pass to the never-ending mealtime
    Donald Rumsfeld, the ultimate known unknown of American politics

    Rupert Cornwell: Rumsfeld, the ultimate known unknown

    A documentary just out in the US shows the hard-nosed former defence secretary unapologetic over the Iraq debacle
    Restaurant etiquette: The new rules of modern dining decorum

    Restaurant etiquette: Modern dining decorum

    Speaking with your mouth full, eating off your knife. No longer are these the bêtes noires of the diner with decorum...
    Farewell Maria, what was it you did again?

    DJ Taylor: Farewell Maria, what was it you did again?

    Being culture secretary is a strange role, not least because no politician can say what culture is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef shares his painless traditional Easter Sunday menu

    Bill Granger's painless Easter Sunday menu

    In our chef's menu is so low-maintenance, it allows you to leave the lamb slow-roasting in the oven while you run around hunting for eggs
    Gérard Houllier: Raw emotion will power Liverpool to the title

    Gérard Houllier: Raw emotion will power Liverpool to the title

    The Frenchman came closest to bringing the crown back to Anfield. Ahead of the pivotal showdown with City, he tells Glenn Moore why the current side can win it
    The Calvin Report: Boos show fans don't trust Arsène Wenger any more

    The Calvin Report: Boos show fans don't trust Arsène any more

    Arsenal's manager looks like a man on the edge despite shoot-out win