Pocket Herbs: just keep growing

1st August 2020 | Alison Turner

What a time we live in. COVID-19 has wrought havoc on industries right across the globe, including the food industry right here in Australia. The pandemic has had an impact on every link along the supply chain, from the people who grow our food to the ones who dish it up to us. While businesses large and small scramble to “pivot”, the continued uncertainty of our situation here in Australia is leaving many food producers struggling to cope. There have been countless tales of tension, tribulation and triumph in the food sector over the past few long months, but one story that captures elements of all three is Pocket Herbs.

Pocket Herbs is a family-run herb-growing business in northern NSW that grows a range of hydroponic produce. Foods such as microgreens, baby leaves and bush fruits are grown in a super-sustainable agricultural set-up that includes the utilisation of collected rainwater and solar power to nurture and operate controlled environment greenhouses.

Pocket Herbs crops are grown in controlled environment greenhouses using sustainable agricultural practices
Pocket Herbs crops are grown in controlled environment greenhouses using sustainable agricultural practices.

From hero to zero

Pocket Herbs supplies the foodservice industry, including restaurants, cruise ships and casinos. The business had been flourishing. When COVID hit, orders dried up overnight.

“I remember the date was March 19,” says Iain Reynolds, founder of Pocket Herbs (pictured at top). “For the first time since we started trading in 2008, we had zero orders. We went from 100 percent to zero percent in two days.”

Reynolds describes the time as an “absolute nightmare”, as he was forced to make some difficult decisions very quickly. He had to let go of all his staff, which left only Reynolds and his wife and son to run the business.

“We had two greenhouses full of stuff that we had to just throw out,” Reynolds says, “We sold some stuff as seedlings, and we tried to pivot to local deliveries but that didn’t really work because we’ve got a very limited range.

“We did pivot to local retail a little bit, but that’s quite small in terms of volume.”

When COVID hit, orders for Pocket Herbs produce dried up almost overnight
Orders for Pocket Herbs produce dried up almost overnight.

Saved by the bell

Once the government announced JobKeeper, Reynolds was able to bring some staff back on board to keep the farm going. But the situation was looking fairly hopeless, and Reynolds and his wife were unsure exactly what they should do. Then, one day, the phone rang.

It was a Sunday, and an overworked and overstressed Reynolds was taking some rare quiet time to read his weekend paper. When the phone rang, he didn’t recognise the number, and so decided to let it go through to voicemail.

“I thought, I can listen to that on Monday,” Reynolds says. “But then the phone went again with another alert and there was a text message, so I read it. And I thought, okay, maybe I should have taken that call!”

The call had come from Tim Nitschke, the business category manager for fresh produce at Coles. He had seen Pocket Herbs’ dilemma featured in an article on the ABC’s Landline website, and contacted Reynolds to see if he could offer some assistance.

Pocket Herbs pivots to retail
At first, Reynolds didn’t believe his product was suited to retail.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Of course, Reynolds called him back. He laughs as he recalls that he spent the first part of the conversation trying to put Nitschke off stocking his produce in-store.

“I didn’t believe I had a retail product,” he admits. “There’s another grower that I know of in Melbourne who tried with Coles about eight years ago. It was a different format, but essentially the same product. It didn’t work. And then another business, also from Victoria, tried to arrange something with Woolworths about four years ago. That didn’t work either.”

But Nitschke was undeterred. For every concern that Reynolds raised, he assured the grower he could deal with it. “I thought, well, I’d be mad not to give this a go,” Reynolds says. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that.”

The company then went on a whirlwind journey. They developed in-store instructions for the care of the plants, figuring out which varieties of Pocket Herbs’ 46 products Coles would stock (they took 10). Then there was the filling out of all the necessary documentation, learning to use the supplier portal systems and numerous other hoops that had to be jumped through. From the time that Nitschke made that call to the time that Pocket Herbs was in store, it took less than six weeks to get it all off the ground.

Red-veined sorrel
Red-veined sorrel is just one of 46 varieties that Pocket Herbs grows, and one of 10 that Coles now stocks.

Opportunity of a lifeline

“It must be some kind of record,” Reynolds says. “It was all so surreal. I’m aware there are companies who queue up to get into Coles. So for Coles to ring us was pretty amazing.”

When Eativity spoke with Reynolds, he had just sent off his fifth shipment. He’s now sending one carton of produce a week to each of 40 selected Coles stores across Brisbane, the Sunshine and Gold Coasts, Armidale and Port Macquarie. He was also awaiting a meeting with Coles to discuss expanding and selling the range at more stores.

“It’s early stages,” Reynolds says. “I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity, of course. But in terms of volume at the moment, it’s not enough to keep this business from going under. Right now we’re just trying to keep things going while we wait for foodservice to come back. I don’t believe it will to the same level, so we’ll continue to explore retail options.”

Iain Reynolds, founder of Pocket Herbs
The impact of COVID-19 on his business has “knocked the stuffing” out of Reynolds.

I can’t just walk away

That fateful call from Coles was certainly the kind of lifeline that was needed when the business was drowning. And Reynolds is all too aware of how lucky he has been. Others have not been so fortunate. But still, times are tough for the Reynolds family.

“It was a little kick of positivity in a sea of despair,” Reynolds says of the deal with Coles. “We had staff coming in who thought they were rostered on, but there’s no work. They’re crying, my wife’s crying. It’s horrible. It’s been so stressful with not knowing what’s going on; whether the business is going to survive. And the workload has been phenomenal.”

This is not the first business that Reynolds has set up and run throughout his career. So he has seen tough times before, but none that have lasted as long as this.

“It’s knocked the stuffing out of me,” he confesses. “I’m super stressed. I’m waking up at 2am because I can’t sleep. My blood pressure’s up.”

Obviously, there are some businesses that are in a far worse position than Pocket Herbs. Even so, there have been times when Reynolds and his wife have considered calling it a day.

“One part of us is saying, pull the pin and walk away,” he says. “The stress isn’t worth it, life’s too short. But the reality is that I have responsibilities as an employer, a director and a shareholder. And I can’t just walk away from everything we’ve built over the last 12 years.”

To find out more about Pocket Herbs, head to the company website.