The view that you are what you eat has been widely embraced and the word organic appears on so many products these days that even a devotee like me is starting to get cynical. Even though it only accounts for about 5% of total sales, can all this stuff really be organic? Does it really come from muddy fields, pigs running amok, chickens clucking in hedgerows, farmers in dungarees and dirty wellies hoeing the fields by hand?
Realising that my perception may be a mite Neanderthal, ahead of my meeting with Renée Elliott, founder of Planet Organic, I thought I had better do my homework!
In very basic terms, organic food refers to food products that are prepared according to guidelines set out by an organic certifying body. This means it is prepared and processed without the need for any chemicals and remains free of all chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, chemical preservatives, etc.
When something is labelled 100% organic it means it must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients. There are other grades of organic levels but if something is classed as organic then it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
A mother of three children, Renée is a fresh faced, enthusiastic businesswoman who seems as passionate about her beliefs today as she was when she first embarked upon the business model that was to change not just her life but the way that organic retailing would develop in the UK.
“I come from America and grew up in a modest household with parents who possessed an admirable work-ethic. I was the youngest of four – three girls and a boy – and followed in the footsteps of three academically gifted siblings. It put a lot of pressure on me to succeed although my mother and father never pressured any of us. ‘As long as I know you have tried your very best’ my father would say to me, ‘I am happy’.
“When I was faced with university I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do so I took up Computer Science, based on the premise that in the early 80s, this was a subject that was going places. One term in and I realised it was not for me and the following year I switched to English, which horrified my father but proved much more rewarding.
“I also loved being at university even though I don’t recall doing much work there! I achieved very good grades but my memories of that period were all of dancing and meeting people!”
Finishing her course, Renée came to England to work, her arrival prompted by love rather than career.
“Between my third and fourth year at univ, I had gone travelling for the summer holiday and whilst I was on a bus in London I met this wonderful English guy called Brian who encouraged me to return.”
Not a bad decision as Brian became her husband.
“I started my first job in journalism working for a wine magazine and I was based in Twickenham, close to the river. Over the next four years I travelled the world with work and experienced some fantastic counties (not to mention some brilliant wines).
“I married the guy on the bus in 1990 and not long afterwards I decided I wanted to start something of my own. I have never been good at taking orders – perhaps it has something to do with my being the youngest in the family – but I just felt it was time for fresh pastures.”
And pastures fresh were what she decided to move into.
“My husband and I were in the States on a course together when we happened across an organic and natural supermarket - Bread & Circus - unlike anything I had seen before. I liked everything about the store; the products, the ambience, the people shopping there, the team serving them. It was an immediate attraction and instantly I knew this was what I wanted to be involved in. When we returned to the UK I switched jobs and took a huge salary drop to start working in a large health food store. I soon worked my way up to manager and when I had gained enough experience I decided the time was right to open something myself.”
A vegetarian, Renée has always placed a big importance on food and home cooking.
“My mother cooked almost everything from scratch so there was very little processed food in our house. I carried on that philosophy with my family and the importance of good, healthy food is key to my lifestyle.
“When I opened my first Planet Organic store in November 1995, although I was full of optimism, I soon became quite worried. Our first three months were dreadful and I thought the project would die before it even got off the ground.
“And then the BSE scare hit, followed quite quickly by the E-Coli debacle and within the space of 12 months, the misfortune of the food industry became the platform from which Planet Organic really took off.
“Suddenly people realised that we could not trust all the food coming from industrialised farming. Suddenly we saw that we were doing potential damage to ourselves and people reacted. However, the problem, at least in the UK and US, is a cultural one and something that will take a long time to overcome.
“The philosophy in both these countries is more a case of build them big and pile them high with the cheapest foods possible. It’s worse in the States; at least here in the UK you have a wide range of supermarkets. But the problems remain the same. A vast number of British people are more interested in cheap food than quality food and for me that just doesn’t make sense because in most other areas they believe in the exact opposite.
“Most women would be horrified at the idea of buying a cheap pair of shoes or handbag and I don’t believe any man goes shopping for a car with ‘cheap’ as his first priority so why do we do it with food?”
Planet Organic’s success has seen Renée’s empire expand to five stores with a sixth on the way.
“You hear all these reports about sales of organic food dropping in the recession but the measuring stick they use is very different to the reality. Our sales were up 10% last year and up 12% for 2011 and we are still looking to grow. The truth is that in a recession the big retailers often shift out certain ranges in favour of cheaper products and in some cases organic products suffer.
“Make no mistake, if a major chain changes its approach towards organic, then the numbers are certainly likely to take a hit, no matter how well the smaller independent chains are doing.
“People need to start thinking about their healthrather than the cost of organic over non-organic because in many ways the difference is minimal. If you cook from scratch, organic needn’t be expensive.”
Renée and her husband now live with their children in Italy, a country Renée believes encapsulates everything that she believes in.
“When we came to Tuscany we fell in love with the place and here the two most important things to people are family and then food. It says a lot about the culture. I am able to work remotely, although Planet Organic is now in the hands of an impressive new CEO so I can devote more time to being with my family. When I had my first child I would take her everywhere, even breast-feeding in the boardroom but once my second child came along in 2005 it became more difficult and by the third I had already decided to spend more time at home rather than in the office.
“It is so much more difficult for women than men when it comes to raising children and no matter how devoted a father is to his family, it is the mother who usually takes the lion’s share of the responsibilities.
“But I’m not complaining. I love being here for the children when they return home from school and we do so many things together as a family, including baking and cooking. Our weekends are precious and neither I nor my husband allows work to interfere. We like to explore the area, socialise with friends and just appreciate what we have.”
If you would like to learn more about Planet Organic then visit their website at http://www.planetorganic.com
You may also be interested to know that Renée has one book already released - 'The Best Recipes for Babies & Toddlers' - and a next one on the way in March next year, 'Me, You & the Kids Too'.
George R Vaughan
For your chance to win a £100 Planet Organic shopping voucher, to spend in-store or online, enter our exclusive competition by clicking here.