The right ingredients

Vital Ingredient’s Alex Heynes on the importance of fresh food

Healthy eating foodservice provider Vital Ingredient is working hard to grow its business while sticking to its founding principles on sustainability and responsibly sourcing all of the ingredients for its stores.

Alex Heynes has always put the ingredients used in his Vital Ingredient stores at the front of the business. Buying from transparent distributors and sustainable farmers is an essential part of the set-up and Alex takes the time to visit his suppliers and see the produce through the whole journey. For the customer they see a range of great tasting, healthier options but for Vital the journey starts much earlier. EP joined Alex at home on his farm to discuss the impact of media pressure on food trends, the difficulty of sourcing everything locally amid demand and the many seasonal alternatives that are just as tasty as the more well-known choices.

Mainstream media so often mentions new diets that can amend customer expectations of foodservice companies. The pressure of the press on consumer opinion can in turn alter plans and change perspectives of some. However Alex is keen to ensure Vital keep it simple.

“It’s not just about faddy diets even if they are probably backed by nutritionists. At Vital we’re simply about the basic fact that properly sourced ingredients are really what matter. Generally, if it is carefully and responsibly sourced, it’s probably going to be better for you than something that has travelled across the world, or is grown out of season.

“We can’t yet and don’t profess to sourcing 100 per cent organic and fully sustainable ingredients (there are only two or three multisite operators who can claim this), or only sourcing ingredients produced in the UK (which would be impossible) at this stage in our growth story. However we do aim to build on our existing position as a leading healthy eating foodservice brand in sustainability by
striving for perfection in everything we do, environmentally, socially and even financially.

“The most important bit is our ingredients and to support Fairtrade simply by promising that we’re committed to  developing a sustainable food culture at Vital Ingredient. We know we’re doing better than our peers, but we also know we have a way to go and are working closely within the Sustainable Restaurant Association to achieve this goal. We need to work with our distributors in ensuring both the local and international producers they buy from, act in a transparent and sustainable way. We are already well on the way and basic menu management ensures our food offer follows what mother nature provides for us as the seasons change.

“Things become tricky with our year round and high volume ingredients Ð lettuce and our other leaves. Lettuce doesn’t grow naturally in the UK in colder months, so we are left with no choice but to import off season. At least we know we’re not flying our lettuce in from abroad when we shouldn’t be, and when we should be, we’re buying from a UK farmer. In our case, the picturesque Church Farm in Kent. However, when we have no excuse, why should we be flying in asparagus from Israel? Have some roasted butternut squash instead.”  As well as the demand for British produced produce, there are many food trends that catch on for positive and unfortunately also negative reasons. Alex holds one very close to heart because he is one of an unknown number who has to avoid certain foods in his diet.

”As somebody who fortunately is not a coeliac (1 in 100 are) but does have to avoid eating wheat and gluten, it does surprise and slightly irritate me that this stigma around people who are choosing to follow a ‘gluten-free’ diet has been created in the past 12 months. Believe me, if I could eat wheat with little or no reactionary effect to my body, I would still be tucking into a proper wedge of Victoria sponge on a regular basis. However, like myself, there is an unknown amount of people (often unknown even to themselves) that do have cause to avoid these wheat-based delights, but more complicatedly they also need to avoid foods that you would never realise contained any wheat or gluten products.

”Vital Ingredient would be well placed to take advantage of the recent gluten-free craze from a marketing perspective, however it chooses not to. The reason is twofold. Firstly we believe that is anybody, similar to myself, who is aware they should or must be avoiding gluten, do not need to be preached to by us. Secondly, the last thing we want to do is jump on the bandwagon of telling everybody that wheat is bad for you, because it isn’t.

“Our stores, restaurants, food outlets – call them what you will Ð are saving graces for anybody like myself who is simply way too busy to worry about where my next wheat-free feed is coming from. Same goes for the many more people that are allergic to or have an intolerance of dairy products. Same goes for vegetarians and vegans. If you are avoiding anything specific, even if it’s just the humble tomato (a member of the tainted ‘Nightshade’ family of vegetables), then the relatively small group of people that are local to and have discovered our stores would automatically default to eat at Vital.

Alex is at home on the farm which produces so much for Vital Ingredient. On occasion a founder of a company may visit the source of its supplies for simply positive PR but with Alex you know he has a special connection with the journey from farm to store. Vital was created because consumer demand was changing and people were fed up with unhealthy or boring options. Alex can ensure the best quality ingredients are sourced for his sites, and it’s clear to his customers that he knows the importance of good, honest ingredients.