"Organic holds a place as it is a solution for agriculture going forward. It forms part of a jigsaw puzzle for living and farming differently as we move forward"
Planet Organic is the UK's largest fully certified organic supermarket and sells over 8,000 product lines in eight stores within the M25. Women In the Food Industry co-founder, Mecca Ibrahim, chatted with the supermarket's founder Renée Elliott about her mission to push organic and natural food out of the niche it was in back in 1995.
It was never Renée's initial aim to be retailer. An English major and journalist, she moved to England from the US when she was was 21 straight out of university. When she was 28 she returned to the US with her husband and took a six month personal development programme. She told Women In the Food Industry: "I walked into an organic supermarket in the States, and thought Oh my God this pulls in everything I believe in, in terms of doing things better and doing things differently". Renée had also studied nutrition in university and knew that health and physical wellbeing were at the foundation of what she believed in. "No matter how talented you are, or how big your dreams are, if you don't have your health you're not going to do anything." she said, "So I opened up the my first store in Westbourne Grove in 1995".
Working for a health food store for a couple of years, after that light bulb moment in the US meant she got to know her first suppliers very well. "We introduced organic meat into what had been a vegetarian arena. We had a full service organic meat counter, with British Soil Association organic meat. We had a wet fish counter with sustainable fish, the first one in the country. We had a juice bar, we were the first to do wheatgrass in England. We had bodycare too. I wanted it to be the one stop shop. We had a corny slogan at the time, "We read the labels so you don't have to". We don't only ask ourselves will it sell, but should we sell it. I read every label and tasted every product."
Renée has seen many changes to the organic world snce opening her first shop. But being ahead of the curve and a pioneer is not the easiet route as Renée recalls: "I thought we were going to go under in the first few months. But then things started to turn around with the first BSE scare and then ecoli later than year in 1996. Then organic started to take off. When the recession hit around 2009, organic slumped again, as the big supermarkets pulled organic out of stores. However, there now seems to be a big sea change again with the whole free-from market and people respecting themselves and what they put into their bodies. There is a real momentum of change with people also thinking about the impact of what they eat has on the environment".
She strongly believes that the move towards plant-based eating is not a trend but part of a growing repect for food and the people who produce it. She said:
"When I started Planet Organic we started with respect. Respect for the land, respect for the farmers, the animals, the plants, the people who consume that and respect for the planet as a whole. It's a real theme running throughout my life and the work I do today. Organic holds a place as it is a solution for agriculture going forward. It forms part of a jigsaw puzzle for living and farming differently as we move forward".
Renée was asked about her plans for Planet Organic in the future: "We are on an expansion plan again" she said. "We have just landed our eighth store in Queens Park. The plan is to open ten stores in the next five years, so we will more than double. We want to keep things local and keep them all within the M25. Location is really important to us."
Never one to sit still, Renée is putting her experience of mentoring start ups into her latest venture: "I started Beluga Bean my second business in the past couple of years, it's a mentoring academy. Belagu Bean is about wellbeing across six spheres. As I've said, for me everything's about making things better, whether it's about going into work life balance, early motherhood, taking care of self or starting a business. I've had that concept of how do we make things better since I was 19. At the heart of Beluga Bean are our monthly Connect Breakfasts. They're across all areas of life - relationships, spiritually, psychological wellbeing and it's lovely work around all of the stuff that you didn't learn at school but all of the stuff that I think really matters".
You can read the full interview with Renée Elliott, founder of Planet Organic on Women in the Food Industry's website.