In 1991, Raphaël Vermeiren, market gardener in Charleroi Métropole, decided to transform his vegetables and sell them in ready meals following his grandmother’s recipes. 25 years later, his business has become a successful company. His secret? Healthy, authentic ready meals.
It is 8:00 a.m., it is a Monday just like any other for the family company Vewi, located in Obaix, in the borough of Pont-à-Celles. Around 15 workers manage the stock, mix and cook the sauces, and package and label the ready meals. There is a combination of smells. There is a lovely smell of 4-cheese or bolognaise sauce, or of chicory roulades. Raphaël Vermeiren, in the kitchens from 6:00 a.m., is checking that everything is okay.
Vacuum cooking, with no colours or preservatives
‘I was a vegetable producer. At the end of the 1980s, I started to lose money by selling my produce. So I decided to add value to it by transforming it. One thing led to another and the quantities of ready meals have multiplied. But despite the size that our company has reached, I am clear that we have retained the traditional aspect’, explains Raphaël Vermeiren, founder of the company. Today, Vewi has around 20 workers and five administrative staff, including his wife and two daughters. Its annual turnover amounts to 4 to 4.5 million.
The special thing about Vewi? Traditional ready meals with no colours or preservatives, cooked at low temperatures, vacuum-packed and pasteurised. ‘I develop the meal recipe and then I get my 8-year-old grandson to try it: his reaction is immediate. I also get my partners to try it. This helps me to refine the recipes’. Vewi can come up with a new recipe quickly based on the customer’s request. ‘Our customers are attracted by our human and efficient approach’.
The dishes resemble traditional family recipes
On the shelves of the cold chamber, we find chicory roulades, osso bucco, carbonades, rabbit, meatballs with tomato sauce, etc. ‘A lot of people no longer take the time to cook traditional meals, so we do it for them’. Their customers, an average of 50 throughout Belgium, work for restaurant chains, catering companies or large shops. The company cooks 7-8 tonnes of meals per day.
The sauces are made naturally without adding preservatives
All the ingredients are found in the fridge. The majority come from Belgium. ‘We select the ingredients depending on what the suppliers offer and availability. The human aspect is very important to us. 59% of the suppliers come from Flanders, 40% from Wallonia’.
The base ingredients are practically 100% Belgian
For this company director, the company’s location is also extremely important. Raphaël Vermeiren started the business in his house near to Pont-à-Celles. He quickly had to expand his activities and had a building built opposite his house for the production workshops. Currently, the kitchens have a production surface area of over 2,000 m2. For him, Obaix is an ideal location: ‘We are 5 minutes from the motorways to Liège, Mons, Antwerp, Brussels, etc.’
The recipes, followed to the letter, are developed for several months by Raphaël Vermeiren
Challenges to overcome and succession already ensured
Raphaël Vermeiren has some difficulties with unfair competition. ‘Large ready meal corporations add a huge amount of preservatives and flavour enhancers to their meals. These meals are not good for health, they are often blamed by the media. Unfortunately, this media message also has an impact on us whereas our philosophy is completely different’, he says.
All of our meals are prepared in a way so as to preserve the properties of each ingredient
In his sixties, Raphaël Vermeiren is gradually leaving the company to his daughters, whilst still remaining very involved: ‘I come every morning at about 6:00 a.m., I inspect the kitchens. The staff finish their day at about 2:00 p.m. I finish cooking and cooling between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m’. Excited about the challenges facing his company, he still has a lot of projects in mind, and wants to develop optimum ready meal recipes.
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