But Palmer’s company, Border Fields, has momentum on its side. During a frantic 12 months, each of the big four has bought into the Border Fields proposition, helping it win Outstanding Small Business at the IGD Food Industry Awards last month.
So can Border Fields defy the credit crunch to establish rapeseed oil as a mainstream cooking product? “Consumer education is vital,” says Palmer, who joined as chief executive in January. “ We’ve created a price point that allows both us and the retailers to make a good margin.”
That may be true, but at £3.99 for a 500ml bottle, Border Fields retails at 70p more than Filippo Berio extra virgin olive oil and £1 more than an own-label substitute. The premium, says Palmer, is justified by the health benefits of rapeseed oil – it has the lowest saturated fat content of any oil, 10 times more omega-3 than olive oil and a lot of vitamin E. It also tastes good. “Roast potatoes cooked in this oil are the best you can eat,” he boasts.
Border Fields came into being in 2005, when a group of Northumberland farmers decided to use their crops to produce a rapeseed oil. They spent 12 months researching the market and testing 14 varieties.
The oil hit the market as Oleifera in October 2006. Initially targeting farm shops and delis, it sold well and won several design awards. But two problems held it back from the mainstream. “The bottle was too tall for Tesco’s shelves,” says Palmer. “Not only that, but at £6, the price point was too high.” Palmer, a food industry veteran of 40 years, was brought in to take the product to the next level. “It took a lot of courage to bring in someone like me and allow me to turn the business on its head,” he says.
He ordered a bottle redesign, changed the price and rebranded the oil as Border Fields Cold Pressed Rapeseed Oil. It soon secured listings with Asda, then Tesco and Morrisons came on board on a regional basis. Oleifera is still available, now selling for £4.99 in delis.
Border Fields competes with brands such as Mellow Yellow and Hill Farm, which have both achieved listings on a regional level. But it has established itself as clear market leader thanks to a recent agreement with Sainsbury's to stock the brand in 410 stores nationwide.
If rapeseed oil achieves Palmer’s target of 10% market penetration, the business will no doubt have to contend with own-label imitators. It’s a prospect that leaves him unfazed. Indeed, Palmer’s attitude is that if you can’t beat them, join them. “Our aim is to sell cold pressed rapeseed oil – if that means supplying own label then yes, we’d look at that.”
Maybe 10% penetration isn’t so implausible after all.