The big five-o!

Essential Trading is celebrating 50 years and counting.

Essential Trading has been servicing wholesale communities and supporting the local economy since 1971 when the co-operative’s first Harvest store opened in Bath.

Following a 1991 merger of two worker co-ops, Bristol-based Nova Wholefoods Co-operative Ltd and Bath Wholefood Co-operative Ltd – Harvest being the trading name of the latter – Essential has become a true pioneer in the manufacturing and distribution of vegetarian, vegan, organic, sustainable and free-from produce sourced from around the world.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a dramatic rise in popularity of both businesses. Wholefoods distributors and manufacturers were few and far between and the recognised worker co-operatives quickly gained popularity. The introduction of a unique trail mix (nuts, raisins and dried fruit) muesli creation had particularly impressive margins, as the team was able to mix it in the warehouse themselves.

A range of Harvest pre-packs followed while a wholesale cash-and-carry service was operated from Bath’s Riverside Business Park, from where a small number of daily delivery runs was also scheduled. The commendable Bath shop profits supported the wholesale arm and led to a new Bristol outlet.

“I only remember sleeping and working,” says founding member Patrick Nash. “Wages were £25 a week plus food off the back of the truck. We were paid what we could live on and we all learnt so much about the business in those early years.”

Bulk commodities and a wide range of wholefood brands and herbs and spices were supplied to other wholesalers with a focus on supplying unprocessed, additive-free, organic and vegetarian food at affordable and competitive prices. Another founding member, Paul Grassick, arranged discounts for wholefoods as he was determined to “change society and change the food that people were eating”.

In 1987, trade moved to Essential’s current warehouse to accommodate a more diverse product range and a growth in volumes of products being supplied.

Essential still has the combined customer base of wholesale, retail and buying groups. With an ethical approach to business operations, the communal organisation showcases a 100% vegetarian, vegan and GMO-free range of nearly 5,000 product lines and continues to work on ways to generate less waste. Though leading health food brands continue to be popular, own products produced under organic licence in the large Fishponds warehouse are increasingly popular.

The 50th anniversary this summer is one to be celebrated, particularly as in 1971 such foods were somewhat disregarded and the movement described as a fad. Since then, Essential has grown into one of the biggest co-operative structures in the UK, importing and exporting produce throughout the UK and on the continent.

“We all share passions for hearty and healthy food and an environmental consciousness which are key to the success of the Essential brand,” Essential’s Jimmy Nelson told ‘Insider’. “Delivering goods throughout the UK is a flagship service and we have a significant presence in many health food shops.

“We also donate to a number of good causes in Bristol, perhaps most notably FareShare South West, to whom nearly three tonnes of produce has been supplied since November 2020. Other local charities include Super Supper Club, Project Mama, Borderlands, Bath Vegan Food Bank and the Trussell Trust, all helping Bristol and the South West’s poorer communities, refugees and asylum seekers.”

To celebrate the anniversary, the ecommerce website is being redeveloped and will showcase the business and the products in a far more accessible and impressive format. New photography, information and blog features will grace the pages and make the user experience more enjoyable.

Other celebration features include an Essential ale, Half Tun, brewed by Stroud Brewery. “This is a new venture for us and one we’re thoroughly looking forward to!” says Jimmy. “As for the future, the Covid storm has been weathered and defeated, and even though Brexit is causing some trepidation, the co-operative is at full capacity and ready for the next challenge.”

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