When it comes to salad leaves, Simon Ball will take fresh taste over food miles every time. Michael Barker talks to the MD of prepared salad producer Hazeldene Foods

For Simon Ball, MD of prepared salad producer Hazeldene, seasonal always wins out over local. If that means choosing imported over British produce, so be it.

Outside the UK season, a lettuce imported from Murcia, Spain, is of better quality than one produced under forced conditions here, for instance. That doesn’t mean British farmers don’t get a look in – during the British salad season Hazeldene sources an impressive 72% of its leaves from within a 20-mile radius of its Wigan factory. But seasonality is key.

“People want to eat salad all year round, but it’s better to eat a salad leaf from where it’s been grown in its natural season,” says Ball. “If you take a product in its natural season, with its natural flavour and authenticity, it’s going to taste better.”

If purists disapprove of the company’s strategy, they can’t argue with its results. By supplying salad leaves for supermarket own-label ranges as well as onions, carrots, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and cress to manufacturers, it generates a £20m-plus turnover. Half of its produce is supplied to foodservice and manufacturing customers ranging from Greggs and Subway to Solway Foods and Total Produce, while half is sent to retail customers, including Somerfield, Netto and Iceland.

In a bid to underline its commitment to freshness, the company recently underwent a brand revamp under the strapline ‘naturally fresh’. The move was part of a long-term goal to become the number one UK supplier of ready-to-eat fresh salads to the food manufacturing, foodservice and c-store sectors. Although the multiples will remain key to its offer, Hazeldene plans to focus on these other sectors to insulate itself against the volatility of retail. “Retail is the area of the business predominantly affected by seasonal peaks and troughs,” says Ball. “Foodservice is much more stable and predictable.”

Newly branded products will be targeted at c-stores, cash & carries, independent wholesalers and foodservice, while the company will continue to supply own-label salad to the multiples.

Hazeldene has also prioritised the sandwich market, where the task of sourcing quality micro salad leaves presents a major challenge. Leaf quality has already been improved by the recent recruitment of technical director Simon Hendry, an agronomic specialist whose remit is to work closely with seed houses and on varietal development.

Such work has taken on even greater importance in the credit crunch. “We are seeing a resurgence of the discounters and frozen food,” says Ball. “There’s a trend for cheaper mixes, while there’s been a dip in more expensive baby leaf varieties.”

January is traditionally a popular time for salads, as consumers try and clean up their diets post Christmas. But Ball is confident that with its ‘naturally fresh’ strategy, Hazeldene will thrive throughout the year – despite the recession. A seasonal business that doesn’t suffer the usual seasonal peaks and troughs? Ball could be on to something.