Now his eye-catching lorry, a converted old-style wooden horse box, is on shoppers’ maps, often filling the retail gap in places where independent stores have closed down.
Demand for his farm-to-fork, county-based concept delivered a £320,000 turnover in year one.
Forecasts are for it to grow to £650,000 in 2019 as another revamped vintage van comes on board and future opportunities for roll-out to other counties and franchising come closer.
For the present building sales is the priority for the business that is working closely with 20 farms so far, either organic, free range or producing sustainably.
Operating from a mobile shop makes the business viable. It keeps costs and prices down. The way we sell helps restore that direct link between how our food is produced and consumed.
The Peasant travels a maximum of 30 miles to pick up stock which includes a variety of 100 products, from 37 types of freshly picked vegetables and fruits to meat, dairy, fish, juices and baked goods.
Johnstone, a former gardener, explains: “I trade where customers want to buy. I noticed a new retail opportunity emerging as the high street and people’s lifestyles were changing.
“Being convenient and accessible did not have to rule out having really fresh produce. In many ways this is old-style shopping made modern.
“Operating from a mobile shop makes the business viable. It keeps costs and prices down.
“The way we sell helps restore that direct link between how our food is produced and consumed.
The Sussex Peasant owner Ed Johnstone (L) and business associate George Shaw
“Only one per cent of food produced in Sussex is eaten here. But there is a hunger for local. Our customers know our sources, everything in the supply chain is transparent.”
The desire to support local was what drove Johnstone, but another movement was unforeseen: how public concern about waste, especially plastic, is changing shopping habits, bringing them more in line with the firm’s way of operating.
“Our packaging is minimal, our wooden crates are piled high with loose produce, customers can touch and choose. Then they return, re-using egg boxes, paper bags and bottles,” he says, adding greater awareness about well-being is also having an impact.
“It follows on from being fit. Nutrition is right up there too now, people want to know what they are putting into their bodies.”
A first-time entrepreneur one of the hardest parts is the operational model he chose, its unique selling point, is one that requires a tightly managed supply chain and accurately anticipated demand.
The Peasant travels a maximum of 30 miles to pick up stock which includes a variety of 100 products
“Building close relationships with the farms has enabled us to solve that and find the correct balance,” he says.
“At first the prospect of high demand, which happens when the first strawberries or asparagus arrive say, was a pressure but we now understand what our customers, many of them students and younger people, will want and discuss this with our producers.
“This has meant collaborating on long term relationships and embracing shortcomings in supply, because the land and weather ultimately dictate that.
“For customers that might mean getting up early to be first in the queue, or trying something else, although we can take email reservations too. We are all set for this autumn with plenty of quashes, pumpkins, roasting joints and game.”
A spell playing rugby in Argentina opened Johnstone’s eyes to closer connections between farmers and consumers.
On return although though his earnings from paid for the horse box conversion, but made it impossible for him to raise the £2,000 business finance he needed for fundamentals such as fridges and batteries.
A loan from The Prince’s Trust through its enterprise programme, backed by its long-time sponsor NatWest, however changed that, also providing a mentor and crucial guidance, he explains.
“I could stock the truck from day one, the mentor was a tremendous asset. I was able to create a detailed business plan, track stock movements so knew what people where buying and wanted, and have a target and direction for my first year.”
While Johnstone believes he would have started the Peasant brand anyway, the Trust has put him on sounder footing from the get-go and at least a year ahead.
Now with stops in key places with high footfall such as near railway stations and schools, he also has three spots in Brighton.
This summer he branched out with a day-long food and music festival and an online delivery service is planned with more events this winter. The new van will create another job and grow the team to five.
A loan from The Prince’s Trust helped Ed to start his business
And very clearly on the horizon are those further county and location roll-outs – The Avon Peasant for example, perhaps through franchising.
“I see opportunities both in the UK and overseas,” adds farmer’s friend Johnstone.
“But wherever they may be, local and quality come first.”
www.thesussexpeasant.co.uk, Instagram @thesussexpeasant.co.uk
The Prince’s Trust works with 18-30 year-olds helping them turn their big ideas into business reality through its enterprise programme that provides training and mentoring support as well as funding and resources.
NatWest bank is the project’s largest backer, helping for over 18 years and raising almost £24 million. This year it enabled 921 young people to explore their business propositions.