FFC Fresh Fruit Company, based in Hamburg, is celebrating its 20th anniversary in fall 2023. Over the years, the company's core business has shifted from importing grapes to sourcing and marketing South African stone fruit. We spoke to company founder and sole shareholder Christian Hencke about the origins and future of his company and stone fruit imports.

When Christian Hencke was made redundant from his previous company in October 2003, he quickly made up is mind: "Now I'm going it alone." Together with his partner at the time, Klaus-Hennig Bruns, who stood surety for him with the banks, he founded FFC Fresh Fruit Company Ltd in November. "After I came back from South Africa for the first time on my own account and presented my business plan to Mr. Bruns, he said nothing, nothing at all. Instead, he picked up the phone and called his notary: 'Bruns here, I would like to have an appointment tomorrow with my new partner Christian Hencke to set up a company'. That was 20 years ago." Hencke bought out his partner in 2015 and has been the sole shareholder ever since.

Nectarines of the Patagonia variety.

Stone fruit from the southern hemisphere played a subordinate role at the time, Hencke recalls. "No one really dared to try it and the available produce was largely inedible." South Africa then recognized this supply gap and, with the help of breeders from Israel and the US, as well as the University of Stellenbosch, set up a comprehensive breeding programme. This has led to a broad, sustainable range of varieties. In the mean time, Hencke made enquiries in the British food retail sector, where the topic of overseas stone fruit was already well advanced.

"In 2018, we were actually able to offer German retailers the first market-relevant quantities with standardized labels from South Africa. Since then, we have increased our market share every year. With a sales share of 20 to 25 percent, the category has now become our most important product group."

Fortune plums.

"Last week, while tidying up, I found a mind map that I had created for the founding of the company. It's still up to date," says Hencke. "We always want to respond to our customers' needs, so we have tried to import the best fruits from Brazil, Peru and Chile in addition to Namibia and South Africa, for example. Over the last few years, however, our core business has shifted. Through innovative packaging, standardized awards and ultimately the packaging of the goods, including pre-ripening, we have taken the sales of stone fruit in winter to another level. Of course, this includes not only the customers who list and pick up the produce, but also the suppliers at the source, who are constantly testing new varieties."

The management attaches great importance to customer and supplier proximity. Hencke: "Honesty and straightforwardness will always prevail. Sometimes it takes a while, but in the end it will pay off if you go your own way. For example, we have found a new service provider for the new 2023/2024 season in Europe Retail Packing in Poeldijk. We've done well so far, but there's still room for improvement and that's where we want to develop together with ERP."

Plums of the African Rose 2 Cum Laude variety.

Mixed forecasts at the start of the new stone fruit season
Hencke is expecting a good harvest for the coming stone fruit season, which gets into full swing from week 48. "The dams are full, but a cool spring with frost has resulted in very high losses for apricots. We expect a 24 percent drop compared to last year's yield. This means that apricots will become almost 'exotic' in the stone fruit sector. At around 13.6/13.8 million cartons, the harvest forecasts for plums are roughly the same as last year. The expected volume for peaches is unchanged and there may be a slight increase. For nectarines, however, new plantings are expected to result in an increase of around 18% compared to the previous year. There will be an increase in late varieties from the Ceres region in particular, which will probably lead to a volume increase in the March/April marketing period."

Red and yellow plums in 500 gr trays for the Austrian market.

High demand for nectarines
Hencke sees further growth potential for South African nectarines in particular. "Pre-ripened and hand-picked nectarines are establishing themselves as an absolute top seller. White-fleshed nectarines, which have so far only been received very cautiously, have been able to establish themselves well in the last two years - especially in Austria. We are also confident about the expected increase in nectarine volumes. In fact, our customers are motivating us to provide larger quantities for promotions. This was not possible last year."

Sea freight costs have fallen slightly compared to the previous year, while general production costs have risen. "This is mainly due to the rise in electricity costs and the increase in the price of diesel fuel. Many producers have now purchased solar systems in order to avoid load-shedding. This refers to the time when there is simply no electricity. Unimaginable for us in Europe, but in South Africa this is part of everyday life," Hencke concludes.

Images: FFC Fresh Fruit Company Ltd.

For more information:
Christian Hencke
FFC Fresh Fruit Company GmbH
Oberhafenstraße 1
Fruchthof, 2. Stock
D – 20097 Hamburg
Tel.: +49 40/32 52 97 – 28 / – 29
Fax.: +49 40/32 52 97 31
E-Mail: info@freshfc.de