Advancing lettuce cultivation outdoors is not easy. Nor is stretching the crop in the greenhouse. Therefore, the best thing is to switch as quickly as possible between indoor and outdoor cultivation. That moment took place last month. For Dejonghe Salads, the fresh Salanova lettuce no longer comes from the soil in the greenhouse but from gutters outside the greenhouse. Growing on water and doing so outside is relatively unique, just like the fact that the company stands out by cutting the lettuce by hand in its own cutting facility.
This spring, Olivier Dejonghe represented Dejonghe Salads at the biennial Tavola food and catering trade fair in Kortrijk. It was the first time for the company. "If there is a fair that is important to us, then it is that fair," he says in the May issue of trade magazine Primeur. "We just have to show ourselves there. It is a fair for niche products, where slightly smaller entrepreneurs in particular, as well as the big boys, can showcase themselves."
Within five years, Olivier will also take over the cultivation of the company.
Olivier does not want to say whether Dejonghe Salads itself is 'big' or 'small.' "We have five people working in our slicing department. We also have an area of 4 hectares." The fair was held in Kortrijk. This makes it almost a home game for the company from Westrozebeke in West Flanders. "Most of our customers are in West Flanders. It is the moment for us to see our customers."
As a grower and slicer with a lot of sales to catering wholesalers, Dejonghe Salads has only limited direct contact with the customers who use the growers' freshly cut lettuce. "We often don't know our end customers. We distribute much of our product via wholesalers, who often send it to restaurants. I meet restaurant owners at the fair. If they see me there, they will know who I am. It helps that our name is on the labels. Customers talk to me at times like this. It's nice to hear how they experience our product and what their wishes are. It's in conversations like that that you hear what's going on."
Participation in the trade fair was actually planned for 2020. "But Covid broke out a week before we were due to attend. That meant no fair. Just like for the hospitality industry, the Covid period was a difficult time for Dejonghe Salads. "We did suffer," Olivier says with a sense of understatement. "Growing and cutting Salanova lettuce is our core business."
It is the main product at the West Flanders company, alongside growing and cutting other types of lettuce such as cabbage lettuce and multis lettuce. "Salanova goes mainly to the catering industry. For some reason, it is not a retail product. Don't ask me why, because I don't really know. I can't explain it, but I do find it bizarre. It is such a beautiful product with a beautiful leaf shape and a long shelf life. Especially for the catering industry, the shelf life is really an added value, we notice. I received positive comments about it at the fair. The strength of the lettuce is also an advantage. Sometimes I think that it is precisely because of the leaf shape that the product is not as popular with the supermarkets."
Like many growers, Dejonghe Salads also needed flexibility over the Covid period. "Because the catering industry closed down, we moved more towards retail. We offered our lettuce to local supermarkets. We were understood by them and this led to collaborations. These collaborations are still going strong today, even now that the catering industry is finally fully open again."
The wholesalers that the company supplies also went in search of other sales. "They, too, saw their turnover decrease. Wholesalers also went in search of local supermarkets and convenience stores. For us, it resulted in an increasing demand for small 150-gram packs. For us, the 500-gram flow pack is the pack we do most of. It is the packaging that is most popular in the catering industry. The 150-gram pack is more suitable for private individuals and for the supermarket."
Meanwhile, (almost) all Covid restrictions are behind us, and the hotel and catering industry is back in business. Good news for restaurant owners and for Dejonghe Salads. "It is busy again in the restaurants. People are making up for lost time there. You can see that people have really missed going out to eat. The fact that the catering industry opened up during the Covid summers was "the saving grace" for the salad growing and cutting company, according to Olivier. "Both thanks to the summer of 2020 and that of 2021, in which the weather was not as good, we were able to make up for our year somewhat. An important part of our sales goes to the catering industry on the coast in the summer."
The current situation, with rapidly rising costs and rising inflation, does cause Olivier some concern. "I don't want to call it a crisis, but I do wonder whether people will soon be able to go out to eat as much as they used to. But I'm not really worried, because I believe and see that the younger generation, in particular, is eating out more than before. I don't think they will give it up any time soon. At least, that is what I hope. If they really run out of money, they simply won't be able to, of course."
For the time being, Olivier still sees annual growth in catering demand. "The popularity of the catering industry was already increasing before Covid. Here in Belgium, you now often even have to make reservations. Events and parties are also being caught up on. Our product often comes into the picture in these situations."
The lettuce growing and cutting company is known for its Salanova mix. This contains five types of Salanova mixed with frisée. In 2013, they stumbled upon the Salanova lettuce, and a mix was created. Although the concept is still unchanged today, they are not sitting still. "Sometimes varieties disappear, and we are always looking for new varieties to replace existing ones. Leaf shape is important to us, as is the ease of cultivation. The varieties must be easy to grow in a certain period. We grow all year round. You have to take that into account. We also always look for varieties that give just that little bit of extra weight.
As a cutting plant, they also have a special eye for how the lettuce can be processed well. In Westrozebeke, they do that all by hand. "You can't even cut Salanova by machine," Olivier says firmly. "Manual lettuce cutting is our strong point. It gives a real difference in quality. We don't compete with the big slicing companies. Nor can we. We stand for quality and will not win on quantity. It is important for us to distinguish ourselves on other points. The fact that we cut our lettuce by hand is something we perhaps don't communicate enough."
To be able to cut lettuce manually, Dejonghe Salads relies on a permanent team. "Our staff turnover is not high. We put a lot of time and effort into retaining our people. The fact that we can offer year-round work also helps to retain people."
Olivier himself focuses on the cutting department in the company. He set up the cutting plant himself in 2012. At that time, his parents, Lieven and Bea, had already started the cultivation business over thirty years ago. For some time, brother Kristof was also in the business. He came up with the idea of growing on water outside the greenhouse. Currently, Olivier's parents mainly take care of the cultivation. In wintertime, mainly Salanova, while in summer Salanova is grown outside on water. From the greenhouse come heads of lettuce. "My father also brings products to the REO Auction year-round."
In the coming years, the division of labor will slowly change. "My parents are downsizing. Within five years, I will also be taking over cultivation." When asked whether he will then be twice as busy, Olivier laughingly repeats the question. "It will be a challenge, but everything will work out."
First, the focus is on the coming summer season and then on the winter cultivation. Does Olivier have any concerns about that? "We grow in the greenhouse in winter. We can also buy produce from abroad, but the greenhouse still gives a lot of certainty about the harvest. The influence of the weather is less there. Thanks to the mild winter, the heating costs are not too high now. If everything becomes more expensive, we must also be able to pass on our costs. I assume that the costs, which have now risen enormously, will perhaps go down somewhat, but it will probably not be the same as before. It will also be a challenge, but Dejonghe Salads will do everything in its power to make it work. "Keeping control of local homegrown produce is still our preference."
This article previously appeared in edition 5, 36th year of Primeur. Please see www.agfprimeur.nl.