The quality alternative
Fry’s Vegetarian Foods is committed to making a difference to the way we eat and the way we think about food. Becky Done talked to Wally Fry about how he has grown the company from his family’s kitchen to the worldwide brand it is today.
As lives get busier and schedules get more and more hectic, the first thing to fall by the wayside is often our health. Thinking about the origin of our food and what it means for us to purchase and consume it can seem like a luxury that only the cash or time rich can afford.
Fry’s Vegetarian Foods, a range of frozen products made from soy and wheat protein, seems like the perfect solution to that particular dilemma. Low in fat, cholesterol-free and manufactured to closely resemble the appearance and texture of meat, Fry’s products provide an alternative for those thinking about switching to a meat-free diet, or even meat eaters who simply wish to cut down—those whom Fry’s CEO Wally Fry affectionately terms “flexitarians”.
“There are many, many people who have said, ‘I’m going to stop eating meat three times a week’,” says Fry, who is passionate about encouraging people to re-think their diets and the wider impact of what they choose to put on their dinner plates. “And Fry’s makes it so easy for them. It’s something that tastes a little bit like meat, looks like meat, and it’s protein. It’s an easy way to help yourself and help the environment.”
Having worked in the construction industry for 15 years, upon retiring Fry was struck by the notion of developing a meat-free alternative—not as a business, but purely for himself and his family (all committed vegetarians) to enjoy. “Just for fun,” he says. The hobby turned into something of a passion and before long, Fry was working out of his old construction office, which he had converted into a kitchen. “I was determined,” he explains, “because I’d been an avid meat eater for many years and to be honest, I missed the meat on my plate. I would say 95 per cent of vegetarians are probably in the same category—they stop eating meat for any of a whole range of reasons, but they do miss the meat on their plate.”
Fry came up with a range of four products, occasionally sending the odd sample to friends. By coincidence, a marketing expert from Johannesburg heard about the food and following a tasting, encouraged Fry to turn it into a business. Fry told him he wasn’t interested. “But then he offered to draw up a marketing plan for free, saying all he wanted in return was to be able to buy the products on the supermarket shelves,” Fry says.
“And so he wrote me a marketing plan and designed the packaging and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a supermarket buyer’s office and we were launching Fry’s on the national scene here in South Africa! I didn’t even have a factory. I didn’t have any idea how I was going to produce the products for these supermarket chains.”
But the quality of his products was such that Fry was able to rise to the challenge, resulting in a listing at South African retailing giant Pick n Pay. Following that was a listing at supermarket chain Checkers, and within around 18 months, Fry’s was selling all over South Africa.
Eighteen years later, Fry’s, now South Africa’s market leader, has gone global. You can find the brand in the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, India and the Indian Ocean islands, to name a few.
Such growth might sound like a fairytale, but the circumstances have proved challenging. “We went from zero to where we are today in a very short period of time. We were pioneering an industry,” explains Fry. “There’s big difference between opening a bakery and starting a Fry’s. If you open a bakery you can find thousands of experts who can tell you what to do; in our industry, we were the only people who knew what was going on. We couldn’t just phone people for advice.
“We weren’t experienced at the next level, so the challenge was to go to that next level correctly and to minimise the possibility of mistakes that could lead to failure,” he continues. “And still, every single year, it’s the same challenge. Last month, we grew by approximately 40 per cent. Who can plan for such growth in the middle of a recession? And that’s been going on for eighteen years!”
Fortunately, Fry’s is very much a family affair—affording a strong support network that keeps the business on track, despite its breakneck growth rate. Fry’s wife, daughters and sons-in-law have hands-on roles within the business, all with their own remits to keep potential friction to a minimum. “We work well together,” says Fry, “and they’re very proud of their own individual functions.”
As you might expect with a home-grown family food business, quality has always been at the top of the agenda. Fry’s entire range of products is approved by the Vegetarian and Vegan Society of the UK as vegan; as Kosher Parev Mahadrin; and by SANHA as Halaal. All ingredients are non-genetically modified and contain no artificial colourants, preservatives or MSG. The company is also ISO 22000 certified—the top level of food safety certification.
For guaranteed quality, traceability is essential, which means that for reasons of practicality, Fry’s has to import the majority of its raw materials. “And that’s tough on us,” admits Fry, “but our consumer base is insistent that we stick to this model of astuteness and being squeaky clean—so we do. And it’s not cheap—this is a special food that has been highly researched. It’s for people who have a highly discerning way of eating and they don’t mind if they just pay a little extra for that benefit of knowing that it’s not been genetically modified, for example.”
Setting such impeccable standards invariably attracts scrutiny from those with similarly high moral values. The use of soy has come in for some bad press recently, since much of the Amazon rainforest is being felled for soy farming. As Fry’s products contain soy protein, accusations are occasionally levelled at the firm on that basis, but Fry is steadfast in his response. “Less than one third of all the grain crops grown in the world— including soy, maize, wheat and cereal products—are actually fed to humans. The rest are grown to feed cattle so that human beings can eat meat.”
For Fry, the future of the company lies not only in further growth and responsible business practices. “Our future plans are very clear, and they have been from the day we decided to go public with our products. We want to produce healthy, tasty alternatives to meat at a reasonable price.
“I want our product to be everywhere, not because it will make money but because I feel that it is a good, viable alternative to eating meat. Our people are passionate about what they do—there’s a real feeling of working for a moral cause,” he concludes.