Lessons for the High Street: Natoora

Welcome to our brand new series of articles on retailers that are operating in ways that provide some interesting and valuable lessons to the wider industry.

A display at Natoora’s Sloane Square shop

Name: Natoora

Location: Four units across London in Chiswick, Fulham Road, Sloane Square and Bermondsey.

In a nutshell: In 2004 Franco Fubini founded Natoora in the UK – at the time the first farmers market operating online. Essentially it is still the same proposition now but expanded to include suppliers across Europe and with bricks and mortar added to the mix. It’s trying to find a new way of selling fresh produce which has little in common with either traditional greengrocers or supermarkets.

Walking into a Natoora store is slightly like walking into an art gallery. The lighting and display of the goods is such that one is slightly unsure whether to touch the produce or not. Exotic looking lettuces are arranged beautifully in a glass basin full of water while forced Yorkshire rhubarb is fitted into a vase and resembles a bouquet. Everywhere you look there are vegetables you recognise but not necessarily with these colours.

The overall effect lets the customer know in no uncertain terms that they are looking at works of art into which a grower has put many hours of effort and care. If this all sounds just too rarefied for real life – consider that it might just be the next step in the attempt to give consumers the transparency on suppliers they now want along with the amazing flavours associated with small batches of local produce.

Their real unique selling point is to showcase what they call ‘radical seasonality’. Forget four seasons, they say, each and every plant has its own seasonality with taste changing from early to mid to late season. It is a concept very new to the retail market although the fact that Natoora also has a very thriving wholesale business supplying more than 600 restaurants in London (the River Café was the first) shows that chefs bought into the idea a  while ago. It also supplies the fruit for the barrel-aged wild beers produced at Brewdog’s OverWorks brewery in Scotland.

Winter tomatoes and mini pineapples among the seasonal produce at Natoora

On Retail Insider’s visit, sales staff revealed that the most popular items at the moment were the streaked-orange-and-red blood oranges from Sicily which benefit from its mild winter climate for a high sugar content, and the green-and-orange striped winter tomatoes, also from Italy. They also noted that people have taken the concept to heart and come in regularly to check if a grower is still supplying or when a certain product’s season will begin or where in the cycle it is. Everyone, they say, is waiting for the summer berries.

As a corollary, consider the tomatoes currently on sale in most supermarkets. We can obviously buy tomatoes all through the year but the trade off to that is the reduction in taste and no more idea of who has grown them other than in most cases a country of origin on the packaging. In addition the vast majority will be taken from only one or two varieties of tomato to ensure consistency of look and supply across the estate. Most customers would be amazed to know how many varieties of apples, pears, onions, cabbages there actually are when faced with the choice in supermarkets. But supermarkets have to order vast amounts of produce and their model understandably does not allow for deviation from that.

There is more diversity and time for UK-located small-batch growers to supply their local high street green grocers but those shops do not have the ability to sell usually in any more than one high street and will not be able to get their hands on produce direct from suppliers that are not in the UK. This is the paradox which people choose between when deciding where to get fresh produce and is exactly the reason why farmers’ markets became so popular.

This is also exactly where Natoora enters the market. It does have a European-wide network of specialist growers which means that at a price you can buy your heritage tomatoes in exactly their right season and supplied by small growers whose ethical standards can be traced. Obviously this does not come cheap, and Natoora’s chosen locations give one an indication on the core clientele, but the issues it is seeking to address do trickle down and people of all budgets are increasingly aware that cheap food is a trade off.

Exterior of the Sloane Square store

For those wondering how much British produce is used – Natoora has collaborated with a salad grower in Cornwall to create the Good Earth Growers project. This is a co-operative of very small scale growers who individually would not be of a scale to supply Natoora but who collectively work together to fulfil certain product categories.

Its own green credentials are, of course, impeccable. If any produce has not sold or been used in its food to go range it will be collected and used to make bio-fertiliser, in the warehouse packaging is repurposed wooden crates and in store there is minimal plastic packaging of the produce.

It may be that neither most supermarkets nor green grocers will ever look like a Natoora store but there is no denying that its bold embodiment of a totally new way of thinking about seasonality, heritage and supply is attractive to consumers and restaurants alike.