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Starting off as a small holding obtained by Donald Watts in 1952, the farm now has over 600 hectares of land, growing 60 different crops and employing nearly 300 people. Their customers include retailers, wholesalers and over 700 restaurants, hotels and contract caterers.

When sales to the restaurant, hotel and contract caterer trade went into rapid decline back in early March, something drastic needed to be done – and quickly.

“We didn’t have a choice really,” says Ed Gray, Donald’s grandson and head of the business’s food service division. “I believed we needed to follow the food. Ultimately every coffee, sandwich, salad usually consumed in restaurants, delis and cafés and made with our ingredients, was now going to be made and eaten at home, so it was clear we needed to deliver direct to houses. The demand was also there due to the food shortage with panic buying, so it made sense to find a way to go direct to people at home.”

The family started to build a new commercial website on 16 March putting in shifts of up to 18 hours a day to get it up and running two weeks later. With a means of getting orders in, the farm was now able to utilise its logistics expertise based on delivering to 700 customers daily to go direct to households.

“We sold £50,000 of produce in 24 hours and £400,000 within the first week. It was a crazy period and we learned an awful lot in that short space of time. Our focus is always quality, service and product range and it is important to maintain this. It’s certainly what has helped to grow our online delivery service.”

The business will continue delivering direct to consumers as long as there is demand. “As our food service operation is only operating at 40% of capacity, we did have to furlough some staff and of course we will be bringing our staff back as soon as we can.”

Ed is also concerned for his regular customers: “Many are in very fragile states and extremely concerned for their futures. I think it could take two years before hospitality gets back to where it was, and possibly Christmas before the main hotel trade comes back. If the industry recovers sooner than anticipated that would be great, but we are preparing for the worst.”

Despite all the news stories about not having enough people to pick crops in the UK, Ed says Watts has been inundated with people wanting to help. “Currently we are full and have no vacancies. I was in a field yesterday and we have an investment banker, a mechanic and a fudge maker all cutting asparagus.”

Ed is very modest about his family’s achievements in diversifying their business in the past few weeks: “People say what a great job and how fast we have diversified. However, I think the reason why British business is so successful is because we are all very good at diversifying. We just need to be pushed. Anyone out there who thinks that online selling is not for them, I would highly advise them to give it a go. It is low cost to set up and you will be surprised at what you can achieve.”

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McBrides Chartered Accountants