Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Maarten Bouten and together with Arthur Nijhuis I founded Rechtstreex, an alternative food system based on seasonal and locally produced goods.
Why did you start Rechtstreex?
I remember a very specific moment in 2001, long before we started Rechtstreex (in 2013). I lived in Delft in a high rise. From my window I could see the greenhouses of Westland and I thought: ‘Ok, so, if I want to buy a pepper, I have to go downstairs to the supermarket, but I don’t even know where it comes from. I can see it grow but I cannot buy it. Why is it organized in that way?’ That was the moment that sparked my interest in our food chain.
So, the main issues that triggered you were the intransparency and the disconnection between producers and consumers?
Yes. It’s nearly impossible to find out where the products that we buy in the supermarket come from and how they are produced. And in case we find out, we would most likely get scared. At the same time, we have to be aware that with every Euro we spend, we affect the sustainability of this food chain. But since we have no idea, we also don’t know which effect we have. So, we have a lot of influence, but we don’t know which influence. A lot of decisions are being taken for us as consumers. If we had the choice, we would probably not choose that way. The entire food chain is organized as an industry, so, it’s mainly efficiency-driven. As consumers, we are trained to choose products based on price, therefore, to be very happy when a product has become five cents cheaper. But how it is possible that it could become cheaper? What is the consequence? Did the product also become more tasteful? Probably not. Maybe it has a lot of negative consequences that we don’t want and that wouldn’t make us that happy after all.
Can you make an example?
To be able to deliver fruits and vegetables at a low price companies need to produce very large volumes and have standardized products. It is not a consideration, if they deplete the soil and make it worthless in the long run. When we talk about processed foods, such as cheese or bread, then we get into the area of factories. Chemicals are used or people exploited to make production more efficient. Consumers are not asked, if they would want people to work this way or certain chemicals to be inserted in their products.
On these large scales, it has negative effects on the soil, the environment, the farmer, the social structures and our economy. How can something as personal as our food come from a system that we don’t understand and in which choices are made that are not based on what’s good for people and the environment, but just on increasing short-term revenue?
Arthur and me knew we could not do it differently within that system, we had to – let’s be modest – build a completely new, alternative food system (laughs). So we just got started.
How is Rechtstreex different exactly?
We don’t make our decisions based on profit maximisation, but if they benefit the health of us humans and the environment. Therefore, we don’t choose the products we offer based on price only.
Can you make an example?
Our assortment is very broad. For example, we have 12 types of apples and 16 types of potatoes. From a business perspective, you would never ever do that, but rather stick to a small selection. We would try to find the cheapest producer. To even further decrease the price, we would buy bigger volumes. That means, we would want to buy from one farmer. The year after, we would tell the farmer: ‘If you still want to make business with us, make it 5% cheaper’. He/she will bring his/her costs and prices down every year and become so dependent on us that he/she doesn’t have a choice anymore. So, either he/she is a good negotiator, maybe the best in creating large volumes and is able to create a stable relationship or, what is more probable, he/she goes bankrupt and we would just find another one.
So, what’s your approach following the potato example?
What we do is, we closely work together with our potato farmers. Sometimes they grow five types of potatoes. They just like potatoes, they are really passionate about them. There are probably 300 types of potatoes in the world, why not celebrate that diversity! The farmers can decide what price they need to grow those potatoes in a financially sustainable and also hopefully in an ecologically and socially sustainable way. We have one transparent fixed margin on the product, and that makes the consumer price. We are not differentiating between different products or suppliers. It would get very unclear what the product actually costs (which is what’s happening in the supermarket). We provide the information about the farmer, the product, the way he/she is working and people can decide which farmer they want to buy from and which potatoes they want. So, full transparency.
What is your vision for Rechtstreex?
Our vision is that most of the food that we consume comes from a local food system based on the principles of sustainable agriculture and sustainable consumerism. We don’t want to preach and tell people what they have to do, but we want to create an offer that is so attractive that they proactively want it. The effects will be healthier soil, less pollution, more biodiversity, nicer landscapes and financially healthy farms or companies.
Do you think there will be also less food waste because people appreciate more what they get and know where it comes from?
I cannot judge that as that’s happening in people’s kitchens, but I could imagine. At least in our part of the food system there is much less waste, because we only receive goods based on people’s orders. So, there is no trade waste. In comparison, conventional supermarkets stock bigger quantities and hope they can sell it at a profit. All that cannot be sold in due time goes to waste. That is literally food waste as a result of how we organize the trade of our food. There is a lot of shape waste as well. Vegetables can be shaped in a way they don’t meet the standards. Most farmers have to throw them away. We asked our consumers, if they would mind their vegetables in different shapes and most said ‘Yeah sure’! I mean what does the shape matter?’ That’s for example how we started selling ‘paprikanders’ (different paprikas). When we started doing that, sales of paprikas quadruplet. So, apparently, if people are socially more connected to the product and the producer, they appreciate it. Isn’t that interesting? Another example is organic rucola which we usually offer in the beginning of the season. There is a certain insect that makes holes in the rucola leaves. If the rucola grows, the holes also grow bigger. No supermarket would buy it. We decided to just make it a new product and called it ‘rucola with holes’. And guess what? People bought rucola with holes (laughs).
We have seen that the way you deliver fruits and vegetables is also mostly unpackaged. Except the mushrooms. Is that correct?
Yes. We get the crates with loose fruits and vegetables from the farmer and bring it to the pick up points. Mushrooms, however, are very fragile. Everytime you touch them it has a big effect on the quality. Of course you can say: ‘Hey, I don’t need plastic, I need mushrooms’. But then again, there is logistics and quality considerations. At this moment it’s logistically not feasible for us to deliver the mushrooms to the consumer without touching them and risking quality losses.
What do your customers love about Rechtstreex?
Customers love the diversity and the taste of our products. You can see that they are grown by farmers that really care about quality.
What are customers struggling with?
Planning. More specifically, you have to plan what you are going to eat (five days in advance), make a list which groceries you need for the dishes, order before the deadline, choose a suitable ‘pick up moment’ and make sure your schedule doesn’t change. For some people that is not a problem at all. For some people it is. For them, a shop or next day home delivery would be a solution. But we also have to accept that we have different kinds of customers and cannot please all at the same time.
Going forward, what’s next for Rechtstreex?
Our goal is to further develop our service, so that more and more people buy their groceries from our local food system. The biggest challenge is that we have limited capacity and money to invest in the development of Rechtstreex. So, we have to prioritize very much. We thereby learn from feedback and take the next step based on our customers needs. Our webshop is a good example. For some people the choice had already become too big. So, we started to offer bundles like vegetable or recipe packages to make it easier. That improved the service quality which again makes Rechtstreex more accessible for new customers. Next year, we are going to shorten the ordering time which will make planning easier for people. At the moment you can order twice a week, we will expand that to three, at some point even to four times. In the future, we also consider opening a shop, offering home delivery or ready made meals.
What can the community support you with at the moment?
My biggest hope is that more and more people dare to challenge the current practices of our food system and join us in our movement of creating a healthier and more sustainable ecosystem. The alternatives are directly at our doorstep. If it’s Rechtstreex, your local farmer’s market or producer of trust. We have the opportunity to not only eat healthier and more tasteful, but also support our local economy, and at the same time empower our producers’ path towards a more sustainable agriculture. We as individuals can have so much impact, specifically with these daily choices we make. And the best thing is: We all benefit!