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Food: How Cambridge Fruit Co. was saved by a tweet

When news of Coronavirus broke, Neil Bharadwa faced losing his home and business, but an unexpected tweet from New York changed everything. He’s since reinvented Cambridge Fruit Co. and fed thousands of NHS frontline staff and vulnerable families

Among the horror of Coronavirus, the harrowing tales of loved ones dying alone, of families torn apart, and doctors and nurses working gruelling shifts, sweltering beneath ill-fitting masks, there are heartwarming stories. Parables of human spirit, generosity and simple kindness, which permeate the gloom. Neil Bharadwa’s story could have so easily had a different ending, when, as Covid-19 tightened its global grip, the father-of-three faced the nightmarish vision of seeing everything he’d work so hard to create, collapse into ruin.

Neil, 40, had established Cambridge Fruit Co. in 2005, servicing the corporate market, delivering top-quality fruit, sourced from New Covent Garden and New Spitalfields Markets to businesses, cafes and schools in and around Cambridge.

Cambridge Fruit Co boss Neil: Picture by Perry Hastings for Indie Cambridge (35363242)
Cambridge Fruit Co boss Neil: Picture by Perry Hastings for Indie Cambridge (35363242)

But when lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation suddenly became our new tenets of existence, Neil began to prepare for the worst.

“I felt gutted, on a massive downer, in fear of losing my house, my savings, my business. I was s**t scared,” he recalls, with brutal honesty. “I couldn’t cope with the thought of facing my staff and telling them I’d have to let them go. It was the most horrible thing to contemplate as a self-employed business person.”

Looking to diversify to stave off massive losses, Neil took to Twitter to research options for expanding his business to the domestic market. And it was then that a tweet from a follower in New York – US investor, Jim Osman – put a whole new spin on his enterprise.

“Jim and I have never met - we just follow each other on Twitter; he’s a nice guy and always replies to my tweets,” Neil explains. “I was having a horrible day, tweeting about having to drop staff, and researching what families would need delivery-wise. Everyone was tracking our progress, and just as we were testing out our new website, an order popped in from a guy on Mill Road for a small veg box. I couldn’t believe it! I could see my emails filling up and the tenth email was from Jim Osman, for five family veg boxes, a £150 order.”

Puzzled as to how Jim expected the boxes to be delivered to New York, Neil messaged him. “He said he wanted me to take those five boxes to vulnerable families in Cambridge. I burst into tears because it was such a lovely gesture,” he recalls. “That was my eureka moment; I realised this was the key to keeping my business going and helping people at this weird time be fed - and it was a sign that there would be demand from this new market I wanted to serve.”

Sat at his desk, ‘a blubbering wreck’, Neil watched as the orders flooded in. “My emails went crazy; it was like a ticker tape as the Twitter community started ordering. I got an order from New Zealand to be donated to Addenbrooke’s Hospital staff, orders from the USA from people wanting to look after their elderly parents in Cambridge, they were coming in from round the world. It was insane!” says Neil, incredulously.

The Cambridge Fruit Co. team set up the website so people could order their own fruit and veg box, and then - if they so desired - donate or match their order with a box for local NHS workers or for the Red Hen Project, a charity which supports vulnerable children in north Cambridge.

Staff would then make up the boxes, laden with lush fruits, and add a handwritten thank you note, with the name of the donor on, ready to be delivered onto wards or to charity.

“It was such a good feeling to be dropping the fruit off for the NHS to help power them through the pandemic,” Neil says. “I’ll never forget the first time I went to the paramedics at Addenbrooke’s; one of the ladies there was almost in tears. She explained that they were working 12 hour shifts, weren’t able to get hot food, and the shops were shut at 4am when they finished. So she thought it was amazing to have the fruit delivered.”

Neil delivering to a hospital ward (35363246)
Neil delivering to a hospital ward (35363246)

The Red Hen Project is a cause close to Neil’s heart, as he grew up in the CB4 area of Chesterton served by the charity. “It’s lovely to know these families are getting fresh, high-class green grocer produce, rather than supermarket cast-offs.”

Around 30 businesses - many regular customers of Cambridge Fruit Co. - have generously donated fruit boxes week in, week out, including Barclays Eagle Labs, ARM, and Sagentia. “Their support really has been phenomenal,” Neil enthuses.

As restrictions were tightened to prevent the virus spread Neil was no longer allowed to regularly access the hospital wards, so bulked the NHS fruit box deliveries onto one day, now dubbed #thankyouthursday. “We totted up that we’d had 100 fruit box donations on our latest #thankyouthursday. My jaw dropped at that realisation!”

To cope with the increased demand, Neil has taken on extra staff and rented more vans. He’s also brought onboard friends and fellow entrepreneurs, cake bakers UpperCrusts Catering in Waterbeach, and Andrews Butchers, bolting their produce onto his deliveries.

Neil taking fruit to an ambulance crew (35363267)
Neil taking fruit to an ambulance crew (35363267)

“My friends at UpperCrusts have helped me since I started the business 16 years ago by ordering a couple of hundred pounds worth of fruit and veg every week. These are two incredible ladies, so I was happy to help them,” he smiles. “Another friend, who runs Andrews Butchers, had a shop in the city for 40 years, but was supplying wholesale to places like Cambridge University prior to Coronavirus, so had meat he couldn’t sell. He’s put together fantastic quality meat packs to be delivered with our boxes.”

Both bolt-on options have proved popular, with meat donations also going to Red Hen families and delicious cakes to NHS staff.

Since making the move into the domestic market, literally two months ago, Cambridge Fruit Co has fulfilled a staggering 4,000 orders, received more than 250 donations to the Red Hen Project (feeding around 195 vulnerable children), and taken 400 plus boxes to our NHS heroes.

At a time when we’re facing depressing statistics daily, these are numbers which truly deserve celebrating.

“It’s amazing how things have changed in a matter of weeks. And it’s all happened organically; it was like putting my finger in the air and seeing which way the wind was blowing – and it worked out!” enthuses Neil. “The great thing is that everyone is a winner out of this. Our corporate customers get a feel-good factor from donating their fruit boxes to the NHS, the NHS frontline get fresh fruit deliveries, the Red Hen Project get their donations, we get to keep our staff, and families get fresh produce at home while they are isolating; it’s a win-win.”

The future is looking as bright as its zesty fruits for Neil and his team – with plans to serve the corporate, wholesale and domestic market – plus continue the charity donations. This story, thankfully, will have that much-desired happy ending.

“We’ve learnt so much over the last month or so it would be insane to give that up,” Neil smiles.

* If you’d like to place a delivery or want to donate to make #thankyouthursday even bigger, head to cambridgefruitcompany.com

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