Svend and the Garden of Tastes
Last July I visited Svend Davorksen at the warehouse of Aarstiderne – Denmark’s largest online organic grocery. I thought I was going to learn about cutting edge logistics and sophisticated marketing from one of Europe’s most successful organic food business. A year later I’m still trying to integrate what I saw there.
Svend, whose sparkling eyes betray a reserved farmer’s exterior and remind me of a favourite uncle, started at Aarstiderne twenty years ago as an agronomist, (he still dresses like one). Svend’s done just about every role at the company and these days describes himself as Aarstiderne’s story teller.
Set amongst grassy hills that roll down to the sea’s edge, the Aarstiderne warehouse looks from the outside like a long old-fashioned wooden Danish farm shed. Inside however Svend leads me through a thoroughly modern operation. Across half a dozen different rooms a highly organised crew of about 400 busily pack groceries for 60,000 households each week (extraordinary for a veggie box scheme in a country of only 6 million people).
Svend says if Aarstiderne were really business-like they would move the warehouse from rural Jutland to an industrial estate closer to Copenhagen, but believes if they left the farm they would also lose most of Aarstiderne’s staff. Right outside the warehouse door I see one of the reasons why.
Svend introduces me to “The Garden of Tastes”, another of Aarstiderne’s unbusiness-like ventures. The Garden of Tastes”, is a joyfully whimsical four acre market garden where Aarstiderne “play” with 200 varieties of potential new vegetables varieties suggested by farmers and customers.
Walking the rows with Svend, I see the farmer in him lighting up; we taste sweet little dutch carrots, check out footy-shaped cabbages and compare notes on the new Cape Gooseberry bushes. Most crops, he says, are expected to fail, which is fine. It’s one big experiment dedicated to taste.
The next night Svend sends me to a dinner in Copenhagen where I find myself chatting with friendly strangers and eating a delicious vegetarian meal at a long table. Aarstiderneruns these free dinners for its members throughout the summer.
Set in the former pheasant-keepers residence at the Copenhagen Botanic Gardens – the chefs and wait-staff talk passionately about each dish, where it comes from, why it tastes such a way and why this food is different to what you might find in a supermarket.
When we talk later about Aarstiderne’s marketing Svend says, “If you want people to really be with you don’t offer them 25% off their first order. Don’t give away your fourth box free. Just invite them for dinner and talk about food.”
On my last day we travel out of Copenhagen to another Aarstiderne farm in North Zealand. In the traditional Danish farmyard the barns and stables have been converted into a school, a farm shop, a brewery and a festival venue. Outside in the fields are dozens of large garden plots where customers and school groups are learning to farm and cook as part of Aarstiderne’s “Soil to Stomach” program.
A teacher takes us to see a family gardening their plot. Svend helps a five year old boy read one of the hand-painted garden signs then comes over and says something that has stayed with me ever since.
“The longer I do this work the more I understand what’s important is not growing and selling vegetables but building communities.”
And instead of learning logistics and marketing I go home realising that Aarstiderne and CERES are walking the exact the same path only we’ve arrived at it from completely opposite directions.
If you have a dog or a cat and you don’t enjoy hauling home huge bags of food from the shops – let us do the lugging.
After surveying everyone a few months back we’ve got in a pallet of Black Hawk dog and cat food. This is thoughtfully sourced pet food that isn’t bulked up with cereals or have any of those fake veggie bits dyed with house paint (yeah that’s for real).
Oh and there’s also some actually compostable dog-poo bags in there as well
Have a great week