Meet the Natural Veg Men from Malpas

The Natural Veg Men; Matthew Smee, Thomas Whitley and Sam Cooper

The Natural Veg Men; Matthew Smee, Thomas Whitley and Sam Cooper - Credit: Archant

What happens when three young men decide to give up the nine to five to find an earthier way of life? The Natural Veg Men in Malpas did just that.

Rainbow carrotts

Rainbow carrotts - Credit: Archant

Before Poldark made stripping off for some heavy duty husbandry a ‘thing’ Tom Whitley, Sam Cooper and Matthew Smee had already decided to get back to the land.

The trio, who had originally forged a friendship at Chester University, were on holiday in Thailand in 2013 when they came up with the idea for The Natural Veg Men, a business that would allow them to indulge their passion for food and fresh produce and that would free them from the rat race.

Says Tom: ‘Matt was living in Burma delivering international aid, I was in London working in finance and Sam was teaching in South Korea so we were scattered across the world.

‘We met for a holiday and we were all slightly dissatisfied with what we were doing and keen to do something else. Matt wanted to grow and my background is in business. I’ve been very connected to food all my life as my parents had a smallholding, restaurant and bakery in the Lake District. And Sam was keen to educate. That was how it all started.’

Sam Cooper harvesting rainbow chard

Sam Cooper harvesting rainbow chard - Credit: Archant

Their organic veg box business really took off. Not only did they find themselves growing and supplying to individuals but also to restaurants around Cheshire. However that part of the business didn’t work out as planned and they now only supply one restaurant, the acclaimed Chef’s Table in Chester.

‘We used to do a lot more wholesale and various pubs and restaurants outside Chester but we found the growth potential of that wasn’t ideal as it all depended on people getting what it is you do - and if they don’t they are better off going elsewhere,’ admits Tom.

‘That’s why the relationship with the Chef’s Table is so good because they totally understand what we are about and why we grow the way we do. We work closely with them finding out what is going on with their menu and supplying them with exactly what they need.

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‘We grow micro herbs and seek out unusual things like electric - which are known as the toothache plant. They are grown in Brazil and have a mild anaesthetic so that when you bite them it makes your whole mouth tingle. So they are interesting but in the hands of Liam at The Chef’s Table they are turned into something incredible. He really knows how to pair them with the right flavours. There’s a starter they have on the menu at the moment which has watermelon and electric daisies and if you have the chance to go I would highly recommend it because it is sublime.’

Working only a four acre site The Natural Veg Men are forced to buy in bulkier vegetables like potatoes from local farms but that leaves them with the scope to produce a more interesting selection for their customers. Last year, for example, they grew 15 varieties of tomatoes alone.

‘It is about mixing the great quality with the unusual as we want to broaden people’s horizons,’ explains Tom.

‘You want to engage with them, challenge them but it also needs to taste good. It’s balancing all those things. And because everything we do is so locally based then of course it is all incredibly fresh and the food miles are next to nothing.’

The trio have also discovered that their clientele are equally as varied as the produce.

‘There’s a perception that organic food is very middle class and for the more affluent. Our assumptions were the same in the beginning,’ reveals Tom. ‘But interestingly the picture that has emerged is completely different. We have a very broad range of customers and you can’t pigeonhole them at all. There are those who use us because we are organic, or because we are local or because it’s the freshness and quality of the product. Some people come to us because it’s unusual or because it’s a delivery. There are many different reasons why you would get a veg box. But the assumption it’s a middle class product has been blown out of the water by who our customers actually are.’

So successful are they delivering around Chester and the area that surrounds their Malpas-based business that they are now embarking on the next stage of their progress and that is creating their own brand of produce, starting with a highly concentrated vegetable stock.

‘One of the things we noticed is that even the good veg stocks you get on the market have only seven per cent of vegetable content so we decided we could do better. We are about to launch a product we are very proud of which contains 75 per cent vegetables: it’s veg, salt, extra virgin olive oil, a bit of turmeric and that’s it. It’s the next step of what we are doing,’ says Tom.

‘The brand is called Nine Meals from Anarchy and it’s taken from a quote by an American investigative journalist from about 100 years ago who said civilisation is only nine meals from anarchy. It’s a little subversive. Lots of organic brands are a bit cutesy and that’s not really us it’s go with what feels right.It’s something a bit more challenging a bit look at me and it’s a reminder of the preciousness in the food supply chain that underpins everything no matter what we do. w

The Natural Veg Men, Oakcroft Organic Market Garden, Malpas, SY14 8DH

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