Product range

15 February 2022

The wonky road to success: PENNY’s Bio-Helden tackle food waste

With the launch of its ‘Naturgut Bio-Helden’ organic heroes range in 2016, PENNY blazed a trail for the rest of the industry. Imperfect fruit and vegetables have been a success ever since.
Reading time: 11 min.

Launched six years ago with a range of 13 fruits and vegetables, Bio-Helden now offers PENNY customers a choice of up to 37 different products. In our interview, Patricia Hirsch, Purchasing Manager for Ultra-Fresh Products 1 – fruit, vegetables, flowers, plants, explains what has been driving PENNY’s campaign to raise consumer awareness of food waste with misshapen potatoes and bruised tomatoes since 2016.

Wrinkly apples, crooked carrots, discoloured lemons – when it comes to fruit and vegetables, most people know that imperfections, blemishes or different colours have no impact whatsoever on taste or quality. And yet shoppers will often reach for perfect specimens instead. Why is that the case? Not least because fruit and veg ‘with character’ was not available in the supermarket or discount store just a few short years ago.

All that changed in 2016, with PENNY’s pioneering launch of the ‘Naturgut Bio-Helden’ range across its 2,200 German stores. The growth in sales seen by this imperfect range, with an average increase of six percent year on year, is testament to the growing impact of food waste on consumer and shopping behaviour. With one exception. Last year was a record year for the organic heroes, which posted growth of more than 27 percent.

A success story, then – albeit one that started out as an experiment …

Interview: “To taste good, peppers and cucumbers don’t need to look like they do in a glossy brochure”

What started as an ambitious project to sell blemished fruit and vegetables is now an integral part of PENNY’s product range. Patricia Hirsch manages the ‘Ultra-Fresh – fruit, vegetables, flowers, plants’ division and has overseen the Naturgut Bio-Helden journey from concept to aisle. In the interview, she explains why PENNY decided to take this audacious step in 2016, how collaboration with the farmers involved has grown, and what is planned for the future.

Patricia Hirsch

is Purchasing Manager for ‘Ultra-Fresh 1 – fruit, vegetables, flowers, plants’ at PENNY.

Just a few years ago, organic stores were probably the only place you might have found imperfect-looking fruit and vegetables with external blemishes – you certainly would not have found them in supermarkets or discounters. What encouraged PENNY to embark on this path and introduce Naturgut Bio-Helden to its range in 2016?

Patricia Hirsch: We work very closely with our farmers and therefore recognised early on the need to find a way to sell imperfect organic fruit and vegetables. What you need to understand is that organic fruit and vegetables are grown without chemical pesticides or mineral fertilisers, which means that there are likely to be more natural blemishes, wonky fruit or discolouration. These supposed imperfections have no effect on quality. We therefore made a conscious decision to sell the fresh, perhaps imperfect-looking, produce from this labour-intensive practice – and our clear goal was to prevent food waste. It was important not to package the Bio-Helden separately, but to simply mix them with the rest of the ‘normal’ organic range, which means that sometimes the proportion is higher, sometimes lower. This is also the best solution for our farmers, as it means they don’t have to spend time separating their produce. By not requiring the produce to be sorted separately, we are leading the way in the marketing of organic fruit and vegetables in Germany.

We have consciously decided to take these elaborately produced and outwardly perhaps not perfect fruits into fresh marketing – with the clear aim of avoiding food waste.

Patricia Hirsch
Patricia Hirsch

Launched on a trial basis is 2016, Bio-Helden is now an established name at PENNY. How has consumer acceptance developed over time? Were PENNY’s blemished fruit and vegetables well-received from the outset?

Patricia Hirsch: Alongside preventing food waste, it was important from the start that we communicated with our customers and got them on board. When it comes to an issue like this, which at the time was still a really new idea, raising awareness and education are key. We did this through PENNY brochure, our customer magazine as well as by using the store radio and our social media channels. From the start and over the course of the intervening six years, our customers have been very receptive.

The results speak for themselves. Sales have increased year-on-year with no deterioration of the loss rate. For us, this is a clear sign that our customers are buying wonky fruit and vegetables rather than leaving them on the shelf.

How have the participating farmers responded to the project? How has the collaboration developed?

Patricia Hirsch: The response was thoroughly positive; after all, the agricultural sector was driving the need for this sort of scheme. We are still involved in regular discussions with our farmers, holding joint workshops and working together to consider what can be improved in the future.

Even today, we are still in regular exchange with our farmers, do joint workshops and think together about what we can do even better in the future.

Patricia Hirsch
Patricia Hirsch

Since 2018, PENNY customers have been able to buy ‘Junior-Helden’ produce alongside ‘Bio-Helden’. What is behind this project and why did PENNY introduce it?

Patricia Hirsch: Launched in April 2018, PENNY’s ‘Naturgut Junior-Helden’ range supports growers who have converted to organic but have not yet received organic certification, due to the legally stipulated transition period. Let’s take the example of apples. If a farm wishes to convert from conventional production to organic, it has to follow organic guidelines for three years, but it is not allowed to sell its produce as organic during this period. This means that, despite following labour-intensive, organic production methods, it is only paid the price for conventionally produced produce. This is why, by selling ‘Junior-Helden’ produce, PENNY gives farmers a platform to market their products as they convert, thus increasing the incentive to switch to organic farming and meeting the ever-growing demand for organic foods.

In addition to preventing food waste, there are other important aspects of Bio-Helden produce, aren’t there?

Patricia Hirsch: That’s right. The group-wide objective to make the REWE Group’s own-brand packaging more environmentally friendly by the end of 2030 played an important role in the Bio-Helden range. That’s why we either replaced virtually all Bio-Helden packaging with a plastic-free alternative around two years ago or now sell it without any packaging at all. We use alternative packaging with better green credentials, such as cardboard and paper, cellulose nets, or sleeves and stickers, which allows us to reduce our plastic consumption by 50 tonnes per year across the Bio-Helden range alone.

We also focus on the regional procurement of Bio-Helden products and try to sell local produce wherever possible. Products that cannot be grown in Germany, such as avocados, are sourced from southern Europe rather than overseas, including the Costa Tropical in Spain.

The starting signal was given seven years ago: PENNY customers can now choose from up to 37 organic heroes, initially from 13 types of fruit and vegetables.

Back to the issue of food waste. How has this subject developed at PENNY since the launch of Bio-Helden? How does the marketing pay off in terms of specific prevention of food waste?

Patricia Hirsch: You always have to consider food waste from various different angles. With the Bio-Helden, our focus is on the farmers and actually reducing food waste in the farming sector by accepting fruit and vegetables that are blemished and selling them in PENNY stores. Depending on the product category, this may prevent up to five percent of food waste. While that doesn’t sound like much at first, it makes a big difference to the total amount. In our stores, we sell over 98 percent of our food, on average. Almost everything that remains and is still edible is provided free of charge to food banks throughout Germany.

Consumer education is therefore a third and very important point. In addition to our Bio-Helden, we have the “Smell. Taste. Enjoy” campaign. We also reduce the price of products with a short best-before date and offer a wide range of recipes for leftovers on the PENNY website. Together, these initiatives help to ensure that less food is wasted.

Launched with 13 products, PENNY now offers up to 37 Bio-Helden, according to the season and harvest, including exotic produce, like European-grown avocados and mini-watermelons. Are there any perennial favourites in the range and what is the future for these ‘blemished heroes’?

Patricia Hirsch: Our customers’ absolute Bio-Helden favourites are still our organic carrots, bananas, and cucumbers. However, newcomers have also emerged for which we are seeing a strong increase in demand, such as our organic cherry Roma tomatoes and red kuri squash. We have noticed that the demand for organic fruit and vegetables is continuing to rise, and we will continue to offer a wide organic range to our customers in the future.

Looking even further into the future, can you envisage a day when PENNY sells nothing but wonky fruit and vegetables to its customers? To put it another way, will even more consumers start choosing wonky cucumber or green lemons in order to prevent food waste?

Patricia Hirsch: We won’t have to sell only wonky fruit and vegetables at any point because agriculture does not need us to do so. But our long-term objective is certainly to create understanding for the fact that quality is not determined solely by the appearance of fruit. For example, anyone who has ever grown and harvested apples or tomatoes in their garden or on their balcony will already know that the fruit and vegetables tend to be smaller or deformed but are nonetheless delicious and have a wonderful aroma. To taste good, peppers and cucumbers don’t need to look like they do in a glossy brochure.

Naturgut Bio-Helden enjoy continuing success

Since 2016, PENNY’s Bio-Helden range has been supplying customers with organic fruit and vegetables that may look unusual but which are in no way inferior to their ‘perfect’ companions in terms of quality. The volumes sold have been consistently positive ever since. Launched with 13 Bio-Helden, consumers can now choose from up to 37 products, according to the season and harvest. In the last year alone, PENNY recorded a 27 percent jump in its Bio-Helden sales.

‘Naturgut Junior-Helden’ produce joined the Helden family in 2018. PENNY’s Naturgut Junior-Helden range supports growers who have converted to organic but have not yet received organic certification, due to the legally stipulated transition period and can therefore only command the price of conventional produce for their organically produced fruit and vegetables. PENNY pays them an additional fee between the price of conventional and organic produce.

In 2019, PENNY was awarded the national ‘Zu gut für die Tonne’ (Too good for the bin) prize in recognition of its commitment to combating food waste through its Naturgut Bio-Helden produce and its ‘Kostbares Retten’ (Don’t just throw it away) campaigns.

Through its Bio-Helden, PENNY is helping to prevent food waste and making a tangible contribution to achieving the REWE Group’s packaging target of 100 percent environmentally friendly own-brand packaging by the end of 2030. To this end, virtually all Bio-Helden packaging has been replaced with a plastic-free alternative or is now sold without any packaging at all, which will lead to a reduction in plastic of up to 50 tonnes per year.