Second chance spuds

In partnership with Mail Metro Media, we’ve created a series of articles to share the stories of how we’ve responded to the Covid-19 pandemic through our supplier partnerships, our work to support vulnerable customers, and our community initiatives.

To help hard-hit farmers, potatoes destined for the chippy and high-end restaurants are now being served on supermarket shelves

The closure of most restaurants across the UK over the past few months could have had a devastating impact on the farmers who usually supply them with ingredients. Without this business, farmers who rely on the food service and hospitality sector faced the prospect of financial difficulty and much of their hard-won produce going to waste. 

Yet, lockdown has also meant people are buying more spuds than ever. A combination of more time at home and no more eating out means we are all buying and cooking more of these kitchen staples. This urgent need to get greater volumes of food to our supermarkets has given the potatoes once destined for restaurants and fish and chip shops a new lease of life.

In just a few weeks, almost 2,000 tonnes of potatoes that were headed to the food service industry have been diverted to Tesco stores. That is the equivalent weight of 158 double decker buses. This feat has only been possible through the combined efforts of Tesco’s buying teams and its supplier Branston, which has been working with Tesco for more than 30 years.

Emma Richards, Category Buying Manager at Tesco, explains: ‘We have been extremely fortunate in this challenging time to have such dedicated and focused suppliers and growers. ‘They’ve adapted to the new circumstances incredibly quickly and worked with us through what have been difficult times personally for many people.’ The close relationship with Branston has been crucial. ‘We speak several times a day, which, in my view, allows us to work side by side and do the right thing for our growers and customers,’ says Emma.

‘In just a few weeks, almost 2,000 tonnes of potatoes that were headed to the food service industry have been diverted to Tesco stores’

James Truscott, managing director of Branston, says: ‘What became clear early on in lockdown was that we were seeing a higher demand in supermarkets as a result of restaurants closing and more people eating at home and cooking from scratch.’ Working closely with Tesco, says James, Branston was able to redirect the crops normally destined for pubs, bars restaurants and cafes, to Tesco stores, to help meet the increased demand for fresh food.

Branston works with many potato growers, and prepares the crops for partners such as Tesco. ‘We employ about 1,000 people and source our potatoes from 130 growers around the country,’ says James. ‘The products we make vary from bags of fresh potatoes like Maris Piper to ready-to-cook chilled products such as roast potatoes. We also peel our less beautiful potatoes and send them to Samworth Brothers, another Tesco supplier, which uses them for the mash on top of things like Tesco Cottage Pies.’

Tesco is taking as much of the farmers’ crops as possible to make sure growers have the support they need and to keep food on the shelves for customers. ‘Logistically it meant that we needed to think about how to sell the processing potato varieties that would look different to the “normal” potatoes,’ says Emma. ‘They can be more scarred and not have as perfect a skin finish.’

Left, produce on the shelf; right, Lucy Carroll, of Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes.

Tesco had to work very quickly with Branston to plan how to communicate this on the packaging in-store. Those potatoes that would have gone to the chippy are being used in the Tesco Perfectly Imperfect range, stickered with a message of support for British farmers. And it’s not just ordinary spuds. Tesco is also taking on specialty varieties from Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes. The business near Berwick-upon-Tweed supplies unusual heritage varieties to high-end restaurants that are now closed due to lockdown.

‘These wonderful potatoes now risk being thrown away,’ says James. ‘We’ve put some of these varieties into a Seasonal Spuds Discovery pack, to allow Tesco customers to try out some delicious rare varieties that previously might only have been available in a Michelin-starred restaurant.’

Emma credits the success of these efforts to the speed and resilience with which the industry has been able to rise to the challenge of Covid-19. ‘This has been something that everyone working for Tesco is proud of, and, for us in the fruit and veg team, it is a privilege to contribute.’

‘We at Branston feel very proud to be part of the national effort to keep the UK fed with healthy, nutritious fresh food,’ says James.



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