This year Swedish organic food producer, distributor, and wholesaler Biofood-Biolivs AB is celebrating 30 successful years in business. The company, which was founded by pioneer and trendsetter Denny Abrahamsson, continues to thrive in today’s growing organic market. OWN talked to Marie Lavén, CEO at Biofood, about the company's journey, food trends, and organic sales in Sweden.
“Denny Abrahamsson has his roots in the environmental- and vegetarian movement. He started the organic food store Gryningen AB in Stockholm in the mid-70s because he wanted to eat organic food or "non-toxic food" as people used to call it in those days,” explains Marie.
In the beginning, Denny drove all over Europe seeking organic and vegetarian food products for his store. Some of his early suppliers, for example, Horizon in the Netherlands, still exist today. Soy and mung beans, brown rice, seaweed and fermented food such as miso and tamari, part of the macrobiotic diet, were trending at the time.
When Marie joined the company in 1993 the organic food movement in Sweden was in its infancy. Although the business was growing, it still faced the challenge of educating the end customer about its products.
“I used to travel all over Sweden conducting demos at health food stores and informing customers about the meaning of organic food and healthier alternatives,” remembers Marie. “Those first years I knocked on many doors and hardly any opened. But slowly more and more doors opened,” says Marie who emphasizes that those experiences have been invaluable for Biofoods’s development. “It takes time to make changes. You can’t do it alone. Biofood was just a small part of the organic movement, but we all had a real sense of achievement and joy. The natural health food stores are the real heroes!” says Marie.
Eventually, their hard work started to pay off. Apart from distributing products from other companies, Biofood also has its brand to sell grains and pulses such as quinoa, amaranth, lentils, and rice. Denny set up the brand 30 years ago to supply consumers and the food service industry with a basic range of organic foods. Marie emphasized that Biofood’s brand does not compete with their imported products, which consists of more than 2000 articles, including approximately 10 percent of skin care products.
Nut-based butter, with or without salt, crunchy or not crunchy, has been popular from the very start. Perhaps even more so today, thanks to the raw food and plant-protein trends where nut butter is added to smoothies or used in food balls. Demand for naturally fermented foods slowed down, but they are again receiving a lot of attention due to their remarkable health benefits. "And after some years of decreased interest for seaweed, there is now a shift towards searching for vegetarian alternatives in our oceans,” says Marie.
Biofood also launched one of the first energy food bars in Sweden. Swedes were reluctant at first. Unlike the Norwegians, who already had a long tradition of bringing healthy snacks when going for hikes, the Swede’s did not embrace the product immediately. Today, the energy food bar market in Sweden has exploded.
“We also introduced quinoa and whole spelt very early, to replace potatoes that were the staple food. Later these products became very popular because of diet-trends like the low-GI-diet and the wholemeal trend in the 90s,” says Marie.
Not every new product introduction, however, has had a favorable outcome. The timing is also vital for success. "We are one of the trend-setters in Sweden when it comes to new alternatives, but sometimes we are a little too early!” says Marie. “We launched some healthy alternatives to soft drinks, but that didn’t work out as well as we had hoped at the time."
Biofood welcomes solicitation from brands and companies looking for distribution in Sweden. “We are always looking for unique products that can fill a gap in the market. The product must be in line with our portfolio. It has to be sustainable, organic, fair-trade, free of plastic, healthy and natural in all senses of the word.”
The company is cautious with the selection process to ensure that each product follows Biofood’s values and is suitable for the Swedish market. “The Swedish authorities are tough, which can sometimes generate questions from foreign suppliers. We have to be able to prove to the Swedish authorities that we have control of the whole chain, from ingredients, production, labels, claims and so on,” Marie explains.
The Swedish consumer associates organic food with better health, higher quality, and less environmental impact. However, many consider that products with organic certification are expensive, which poses a challenge. Sweden’s best-known label for organic food and beverages is KRAV. Its standards fulfill the regulation of organic production at European and international levels and are in some cases even stricter. Besides organic farming methods and animal welfare, it also considers health, social responsibility, and climate impact.
Denny and Marie also attended exhibitions to stay in constant contact with the stores and consumers. Trade fairs offer an excellent way to get inspired, finding out about new products and meet with suppliers. Every year Marie visits BIOFACH, and the company exhibits at the Natural Products Scandinavia & Nordic Organic Food Fair in Malmo.
“I normally also try to visit the SANA trade show in Italy, also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It has become something of a tradition. The SIAL exhibition in Paris and Expo West in Anaheim are also on my wish list.”
In 2001, Denny retired and sold Biofood to Marie and three of their colleagues who continued on his mission of an organic, healthy and vegetarian lifestyle to develop the company further. Marie has been the sole owner, after a joint decision, since 2010.
Although Biofood does business with retailers in other Scandinavian countries Sweden is its primary market. “We distribute to independent health food stores as well as established chains, either directly or via central warehouses for the stores that are members of a chain. We also deliver to large grocery chains, pharmacy-chains and independent, and to food service businesses.”
Biofood with its 45 employees is indeed a company that “walks the talk.” On top of supplying Sweden with sustainable products, they work according to an internal environmental manual to continuously improve on energy efficiency, transportation, and packaging. Moreover, the office, which is close to the original Gryningen organic food store where it all started, has been designed with great consideration for the environment and the wellbeing of the staff.
“We wanted to create a nice and welcoming atmosphere. The wooden desks and tables are handmade, and the walls are filled with pictures of forests, trees, and plants. Our office has also been Feng Shui certified by the Nordic School of Feng Shui,” says Marie.
The organic sector is booming with almost three million producers worldwide. The United States continues to lead the market followed by Germany, France, and China. Denmark has the most pro-organic consumers in the world with more than 50% of the population buying organic food every week. Organic sales are also on the rise in Sweden and grew by almost 10% during 2017. Public procurement, backed by political decision at both national and local levels, for schools, hospitals and kindergartens have been a critical driving force of this development. Sweden has one of the highest organic per capita consumption in the world, only surpassed by Switzerland and Denmark.
The key to Biofood’s success, in Marie’s opinion, is high-quality products, and their commitment to providing top service and a strong relationship with customers built on trust and good communication. Biofood is a company that cares for its customers, suppliers and the environment. They will continue to implement this approach in the future. Another factor is the motivation to build a strong team spirit and camaraderie among the staff.
Biofood enjoys a relatively flat organization where titles are not what is essential.
“We believe very much in our values and hope that it is conveyed to our customers and suppliers. It’s like a marriage; you have to prove yourself every day and be inspired about your work.”