Organic empire to open cafes

The leading 'vegetable box' supplier wants to bring a neighbourhood feel to a national chain of restaurants

After conquering the home delivery market for vegetables, Britain's biggest organic farmer is planning to open a series of neighbourhood restaurants serving hearty meals for less than £10 a head.

Guy Watson, founder of the Riverford network, hopes the eateries will become the centrepiece of urban communities and spur interest in healthy eating using good quality ingredients.

Although tentative, his plan could lead to the creation of the first national chain of organic restaurants offering city dwellers a cheap "ethical" alternative to pizza and burger chains.

They would serve dishes such as as roasted root vegetables, winter salad with pears and Moroccan lamb soup.

"Geographically, we probably need to start with a couple, maybe one in Bristol and one in London," said Mr Watson, whose business has annual sales of £34m. "We'd be looking at an area where there are lots of families – it would be off the high street. There would be a row of two or three shops, may be one would be a newsagent and another would be a café, and the idea would be to take over a failing cafe. It would be a bit like Carluccio's but a bit more homely."

Mr Watson, 48, is hoping to recruit a team of entrepreneurial mothers in their thirties and forties who want to do something for their community.

The restaurants are a new twist to his food business, which he started when he quit his job as a New York management consultant to farm three acres of the family's holding at Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor in 1985. He stopped supplying the big grocery chains in the late 1980s after a supermarket buyer told him: "Sonny, when we whistle, you jump".

Riverford is now the largest supplier of vegetable boxes in the country, with 1,000 employees and a network of six farms from Devon to Cheshire supplying 117,000 customers with organic vegetables, fruit and meat.

Mr Watson appointed a managing director to take over the running of the business last year so that he could concentrate on developing its future direction. "The plan is for neighbourhood restaurants," he said, as he researched community restaurants in London.

"In the US, in areas where families live there is very often what they could call their neighbourhood restaurant – they will serve coffee in the morning and there will be a noticeboard, and no more than 60 or 80 covers. There is a limited or set menu – and that is makes it much easier to produce top quality food made from top quality ingredients at an affordable price."

He said: "I want them to be run by local people. I'm interested in the social enterprise, co-operative type thing from the Sixties and Seventies but without worthiness. I've met loads of people who are clever who perhaps started a career and then had a family and they don't want to go back into that type of career structure but need to make a decent income. A lot of them are going into teaching; they want to do something worthwhile and feel that they are contributing."

Riverford recipes Dev-Mex pumpkin soup

From the Riverford Farm Cook Book

*Ingredients:

1 pumpkin (about 1.5kg), peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm cubes

3 tbsp olive oil

2 onions, finely chopped

tsp smoked paprika

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 red chillies, deseeded and chopped

400g can of tomatoes

1 litre chicken or veg stock

425g can of red kidney beans, drained

2 cooked corn cobs

1 tbsp sweet chilli sauce

juice of 1 lime

sea salt and ground black pepper



*To garnish:

100g tortilla chips, crushed

75g Jarlsberg cheese, grated

2 tbsp chopped coriander

1 ripe avocado, peeled, diced and tossed with lime juice

*To cook:

1. Put the pumpkin cubes on a roasting tray and toss with 1 tbsp olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 180°C for 40 minutes, until slightly coloured.

2. Meanwhile, heat the rest of the olive oil in a large pan, add the onions and cook for 20 minutes, until tender and slightly caramelised. Stir in the paprika, garlic and chillies and cook for three minutes. Add the tomatoes, simmer for 15 minutes or until reduced and thick, then stir in the roast pumpkin.

3. Purée with a hand blender, slowly adding the stock until well combined. Bring to the boil and add the kidney beans and sweetcorn kernels. Season well, adding chilli sauce and lime juice to taste, then simmer for 10 minutes.

4. Before serving, add half the garnish ingredients and fold them through the soup, then scatter the rest over the top.

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