Phil Haughton of The Better Food Company in Bristol
"Organic principles are the foundation of healthy life for all humans, animals and soil. Without sustainable agriculture we are stuffed."
The Better Food Company originated as a home delivery service in 1984. Since then it has grown to encompass a box scheme, an organic supermarket and cafe, and a wholesale vegetable operation and a growing operation, based on a 24 acre site in Chew Magna, North Somerset that Phil took over in 2009. The company now employs around 50 staff. The Better Food Company has won many awards including Natural and Organic Best Independent Retailer Award (2010).
Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you ‘went organic'?
I've been organic since the age of 14. My mum gave me a subscription to the Soil Association back in 1972. I went to do smallholding in Scotland – John Seymour style. I read Newman Turner and Soil Association-type old farming books and never looked back. I was manager of the Windmill Hill City Farm in Bristol from 1981-84, teaching kids and others about food production. I set up a home delivery service and then shops between 1985-89. During a break as house-husband and dad and in 1991, I set up the box scheme. I started supplying wholesale to shops, restaurants and box schemes at the same time. I took on big new premises in St Werburghs and also Victorian walled gardens in Wrington in 2000 and then launched the organic supermarket in its current site at The Proving House, and stopped home delivery apart from the veg boxes. I took over the garden café 2003, and in 2006 doubled the floor space of Bristol site to incorporate a café and eco-centre.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
Hectic and people-driven. I start with sanity by walking the dogs at 6.30am. After that I go to the farm, get the day's produce picked, and check in with farm and wholesale staff. I then set the day's horticultural tasks before usually going to the Bristol office. I say hello to as many people as possible, and work through my stuff and meetings. Leave for home between 5pm and 7pm and usually cook food and then work for an hour or so in my home office. I usually stop by 9pm, watch TV and news, read and sleep.
Who are your customers and where are they?
65 per cent of our Bristol customers are within walking or cycling distance of the shop, the rest travel from all over Bristol and much further because we have the biggest range of organic foods in the South West. The mix of customers is huge. We took this site on so we could offer less affluent folk good access to organic food, but we also depend on bigger spenders from other areas.
Organic principles – why do they matter?
They are the foundation of healthy life for all humans, animals and soil. Without sustainable agriculture we are stuffed. The Soil Association needs to keep as close to this notion as possible, and keep the barking compromisers away from the door.
What does the Soil Association mean to you?
They are the backdrop to my organic life – always there fighting the cause, searching for answers and debating solutions and compromises. They mean too much paper work in certification, but security of standards and trust in products both home and overseas.
What is your greatest achievement?
Having the home and family I always wanted. I lived in a village in North Yorkshire as a kid. Living in a beautiful village in Chew Valley only happened because Geraldine and I took on another project, the house, just when I had started the new supermarket and the gardens. It was a wreck and total madness, but one of the last affordable places under the hammer. Charlie, my boy, has grown up in a great place very like the one I grew up in. Geraldine and I work too hard and come home to a huge garden. It's mad but the garden gives us time to catch up with each other while we work in it.
How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?
I split my time between the farm, my home office and the Bristol office – at certain times of the year I'm nearly full time on the land. In five years I would like to have another two shops. Then I'd like to move on to do other things such as help make Bristol great, do my bit for the Soil Association and visit some farms around the world. Food production and processing fascinates me and yet I know so little about it.
If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?
I guess I would find some money and then do it, rather than do it and hope the money will happen. I would take time to design a whole operation with sustainability in all aspects at its heart before starting. It's so difficult to get it done in retrospect.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Remember you have a choice. Whatever situation you're in, whatever you feel, there is a way of saying ‘its fine' and feeling that.
Who or what's your biggest inspiration?
Gosh! Nature I guess. It constantly amazes me. If only we could be less human and more like the rest of the natural world. I love the art people produce in so many forms.
What is the key to your success?
What is success? Drive, energy, and tenacity. Maybe also my madness.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love the people most. The feeling I get about offering something people want, be it staff working for an ethical company, customers getting what they want and need or my family who love me despite my over-indulgence in work.
What keeps you awake at night?
Not a lot. Stress and agitation when I'm in the middle of a project.
What single thing would most improve your life?
Relaxation, letting go of control and opening my eyes to wider choices about what I do with my time.
What do you find most frustrating about what you do?
Me! I get in my way too often. I stop myself being effective and I stop myself having fun.
Any unusual hobbies?
Dancing. I love to dance, alone at home, in crowds at a party. Wherever. I have an ambition to fly, hang glide or the like. Not done it yet. I do landscaping in the field that is now our garden. I cycle too little. I did a Soil Association-sponsored ride, Bilbao to Barcelona. Loved it so much.
How can the organic market be improved?
Take out all big business. Connections are the key to the sustainability of a whole life. We need a far more radical marketplace. It is very ‘me me' orientated. Its vitality as a market is now in question. Roots - give more people the chance to feel roots and then you have vitality. We need people to change their life styles more radically than just buying organic, so much of which is over-processed, over-packaged, over-travelled and has lost 90 per cent of its soul on the way. The new food is surely soul food and you get that from close to home.
What's the main benefit of being organic for you?
Soul and vitality.
What other organic ventures do you admire and why?
The small ones who have no desire to be otherwise. The people who love with a passion the venture they started. The names that spring to mind are suppliers for our shop like Adey's Farm (Caroline and Tim Wilson), Somerset Organic Link, because they do what they say - they link producers with a market in a small and friendly way. All the new Community Supported Agriculture enterprises. There are so many of them starting up and it is these that are forming the new way forward in food and farming.
Supermarkets - good or bad?
Terrible way beyond what most people realise. They have played a huge part in taking away our choice and control of food, leaving a path of devastation in food production and a nation totally out of touch with its agriculture.
What is the biggest threat to what you do?
There are no real threats in comparison with the threat for us all of global catastrophe, which we can all do a lot to avert if we choose.
What's the best thing about organic farms?
Diversity, heart and soul.
What's the best thing about organic food?
Vitality and soul at its best. Little more than other food at its worst.
What is your favourite meal?
Any meal with vegetables at the centre of it cooked with flare and creativity.
If I was Prime Minister I would...
Make our country a better place by putting people and planet before everything else, in all cases, even if the economy suffered because of it. The only way to a better world may be painful in some ways. Localised economies would fill the gaps much faster than we realise and empower people to take ownership of their communities in a way that we do little of just now
The world would be a better place if...
The human condition was not addicted to wealth and possession.
I'd like to be remembered for...
Being able to let go of all the passion and just relax with my family at the heart of my life.
When were you happiest?
Now. In some ways life gets easier as you get older. There is so much to love and learn about, but I would like to be better and relaxing more.
What is your greatest fear?
Probably believing all is okay and relaxing more!
What is your favorite word?
Today it's diversity, because it's important to me.
What would be your ‘Desert Island' luxury?
A good woman!
Is the customer always right?
Not on your life! Honor them and be humble, do all you can to give them a good service but remember they are also a partner with some responsibilities.
For more information about The Better Food Company visit www.betterfood.co.uk