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The Passion And the Produce:
New Covent Garden Market Strides Ahead In UK Wholesale — Markets Are The Unappreciated Underpinning Of Grower Prosperity And Urban Diversity

Gary Marshall
Covent Garden Tenants Association
New Covent Garden, London, UK

The Pundit is a son of New York’s Hunts Point Market. And the Pundit Poppa used to sell to many a merchant back in the old Covent Garden as well as in the early years of the New Covent Garden market. So it is a particular treat to have had an opportunity to walk the market, meet many of the merchants and feel that incredible pulse of the industry that one can’t really get outside of a thriving wholesale market.

It is estimated that the wholesale markets of the United Kingdom have a combined turnover in excess of £4 billion ($6.7 billion). London alone accounts for more than one-third of that haul, and the three wholesale sites at New Covent Garden, New Spitalfields and Western International directly employ around 5,000 people. New Covent Garden is the biggest of the three.

Since 2005, Gary Marshall has served as chairman of the Covent Garden’s Tenants Association (CGTA). He is also the managing director for Bevington Salads, the wholesale company he opened in 1987 at just 26 years old. It’s been a busy and, at times, challenging period as the CGTA has been involved in planning for the redevelopment of the market for the last eight years. Here he talks to Tommy Leighton.

Q: It’s well-documented that the wholesale market sector has been through some tough times, but we sit here in 2014 and the London wholesale scene appears to remain vibrant. How do you feel the markets have adapted to the huge changes of the past 25 to 30 years, and where do they fit into the current supply chain?

A: The wholesale markets in the UK were put under severe pressure in the late 1980s and the early 1990s when the supermarkets decided that fruits and vegetables would be their next project. Before then, they had focussed more on tins and boxes, but they recognised that fresh produce could play a key role in their growth.

During the same period, the country went through a severe depression, and the high streets were becoming unfashionable as out-of-town stores were built. This put the independent retailers and the local street markets under equal pressure.

If you condense all that, it’s pretty obvious that this was a difficult time for New Covent Garden’s traders. However, on the flip side, another market segment was beginning to flourish. British consumers were traveling more than ever before, and they were seeing in the US or in southern Europe that the trend was to eat out once or twice a week — or more. It was affordable and therefore became popular very quickly. New Covent Garden, located just three miles from the centre of London, was ideally set up to service the growing catering and foodservice customer base.

At the beginning of the ’90s, less than 10 per cent of the business in this market was catering, but today that has risen to 65-70 per cent. This change has been driven by a fantastic group of entrepreneurial traders who have adapted to the new market conditions with great professionalism, great energy and amazing passion.

Wholesalers like myself had to diversify, understand the dynamics of the new business and be willing to change and offer a wider range of products. It is a necessity now that you  offer quality and consistency at an affordable price. You have to get the very best you can possibly get. This has enabled the caterers in New Covent Garden to provide an unchallenged bespoke service to London.The top 20 restaurants in the City all buy from our market, and 40 per cent of all of the fresh produce you will see on any plate in London’s restaurants and cafés is sourced from our market. There are more than 600 vehicular movements into the City every day.

In the past few years, what we’ve seen is the re-emergence of boot sales (flea markets) and local markets, as places where people have rediscovered their urge to go and shop. Having spent the past couple of decades shopping in the same supermarket stores, they began to realise that there are other places where they can go to shop — on their local high street or elsewhere in their community.

People had forgotten how to buy from markets. But there have been a lot of foreign street markets visiting the UK, which opens eyes to what markets can offer. Consumers have begun to touch, feel and taste product again before they buy and to recognise that the product they had been buying wrapped up in smart packaging wasn’t necessarily the best product available. They want less packaging and more authentic, locally grown product.

It’s a trend that started in Italy, where the local trade never capitulated under the pressure of the supermarkets in the same way as the rest of Europe. It’s a gradual change, but it’s really a cause that’s been taken up by the British in recent years and has benefited our local fruit industry, which was on its last legs not that long ago, but has regrouped and come back with a vengeance.

People don’t just want to buy British produce; they want to buy and trade locally, too, and they don’t see an out-of-town supermarket meeting that desire.

For housewives, supermarkets aren’t trendy anymore — they are merely a convenience. The chains have recognised that in their marketing strategies, of course, and tried to flood the local high streets with their own convenience brands. But there is a demand again for high streets to have a good independent fruiterer, baker and butcher and, in my opinion, the professional fruiterer who knows his job is as busy as he’s ever been.

The days of opening up strings of out-of-town superstores are on the decline. People no longer want to go to soulless, lifeless, anonymous sales arenas, they want personalized service from people who really understand the products they are selling. And, they, quite rightly, want high quality and seasonality at a reasonable price.

Q: In terms of New Covent Garden specifically, what sets the market apart?

A: What we have found in New Covent Garden, in the past three to five years in particular, is that top-quality product will always sell at the best market prices. It is absolutely vital to us nowadays that there is a consistent flow of high-quality product available to us. Led by exporters into this market, the British growers have also recognised this and upped their game, presenting their products in a far better manner for the wholesale and catering trade.

The biggest growth in the market is for the products that are in some way over-spec for the supermarkets — whether that be oversized grapes or stone fruits or citrus that don’t quite fit in with what the multiple retailer wants. Companies have seen that by tailoring that product (which is in perfect condition and of the highest quality) to their wholesale market customers, they can achieve a far better return than they would have gotten from their supermarket customers. Brands such as Gomez Reserv have led the way in producing bespoke product for the non-multiple sector, and they have brought fantastic quality gear into the market.

The days of dumping produce in New Covent Garden are long gone, and there just isn’t a customer coming here anymore for product that falls below the quality expectations of its customers. There are still markets out there for that product, but our trade has moved away from it.

One of the reasons New Covent Garden continues to be successful (we have been voted the UK’s best wholesale market in two out of the last three years) is the quality, variety and continuity in our offer. We indisputably have the greatest range of fresh produce in one consolidated area anywhere in the UK. We also have the premier flower market in the UK, with the same reputation for leading the trends in the floral market as we do in the catering sector. We have trucks coming here every night from every other wholesale market in the country and every major catering supplier because we have product that cannot be found anywhere else.

Our market built its reputation as the hub for all fresh produce sold in the UK throughout most of the 20th century. It’s not quite the same as it was, obviously, but we are still the most influential market in the country.

Q: The supermarkets didn’t just remove a large part of the customer base from the wholesale markets; they also took away chunks of the supplier base — with some companies choosing to bypass wholesale altogether. Yet New Covent Garden still has a turnover in excess of £650 million every year, so there is no shortage of suppliers out there who see real benefits. For any reader whose company does not supply New Covent Garden, why should they change their strategy?

A: This is the perfect time to look to supply New Covent Garden — both our customer base and our reputation are growing. The stability of the wholesale sector at New Covent Garden is at the strongest — it’s been for many, many years, thanks in large part to the strong foodservice base we have. After years of decline, there is also a growing high-end retail customer base in London and the South East that, because of the lack of poor-quality fruit in the market, have been able to “up” their game with first-class, unique product from around the world.

If I can use my own company, Bevington Salads, as an example, we have exclusive agreements with several growers. We work the Daza brand, for example, throughout the Spanish salad season and also sell a big volume of their melons. We also exclusively receive the Savéol brand from France and, as with Daza, that product is predominantly bought on a semi-firm price.

We have an exclusivity agreement with EXSA UK as well, mostly on citrus and grapes. For me, it works because I know I can promote that product to high-end customers knowing that it is going to offer consistent top quality across the course of the seasons; while for them, they know that I’m working hard to market their product and they also receive the high-end return that product merits.

All wholesalers in New Covent Garden are looking for those types of relationships, and most of the firms in this market will have similar agreements with other growers and suppliers. We all want unique products to work with and brands that we can build within our own businesses, and to grow those brands for our suppliers, too.

Q: It’s the 40th anniversary this year of the market’s relocation from Covent Garden to Nine Elms, Vauxhall. What would you say are the key differences between then and now?

A: I suppose this market hasn’t changed as much as some other markets. We have changed, of course, over the past 40 years from being a traditional wholesale market to a fully balanced composite market for London with the best mix, I believe, of fruit, vegetables, salad and flower traders anywhere in the country.

This is now supported on the same 57-acre site by meat, fish, ice, organics, ingredients, milk and dairy companies, as well as prepared and processing companies serving customers at the top end of the catering and retail market and, in some cases, going directly to individuals. 

One of the biggest changes, of course, is the ease with which people can buy and receive their products these days in areas of the country that were previously difficult to access; so we have had to rise to that challenge, too.

Driven by the needs of the foodservice market mainly (lunch has become the new dinner, so chefs understandably want their product earlier and earlier), our trading hours have certainly changed. Forty years ago, in the old market, the normal hours would be something like 4 a.m. to midday. Now, the peak time is 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and there are people working onsite 24 hours a day, every day.

We are still owned by the government; and being a free market, which does not benefit from any protection, subsidies or handouts, can only enhance the reputation of the tenants. Even after two savage recessions and the evolution of the trade in ways I mentioned earlier, this market is 98 per cent leased and there is actually a shortage of space for wholesalers who wish to expand. Quite pleasingly, four new companies have opened in the past two years — one selling Italian product, another exotics and two British salad firms.

Q: Marking its 40th anniversary in Nine Elms, the market is a platinum sponsor of the London Produce Show. How will your presence take shape?

A: This is a central part of our celebrations to market the 40th anniversary of our move. We are the main sponsor of the opening cocktail reception on the evening of June 4, and there is a booth for the entire market, as well as booths for several individual traders, in the exhibition on the 5th. One of the tours on the Friday morning will also visit the market, and I look forward to seeing you all there.

It’s not often we get the opportunity to showcase the market at a truly international event taking place on our doorstep. This is a great chance for all of us to promote the integral role of NCGM in feeding London and also to highlight the market as a valuable route to market for international growers and exporters. We’re really looking forward to it.

Q: The market is on the verge of being redeveloped after a prolonged period of planning and discussion between the Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA), the CGTA and, since the deal was struck, the developer VINCI St Modwen. Where do things stand and what are your thoughts at this point in the project?

A: The executive of the CGTA has been in negotiations with the CGMA for over seven years in regard to the redevelopment, and we still have great concerns surrounding the new market being proposed, especially the viability of the new site. We are still to be shown where and how the new flower market will fit and work.

VSM, supported by the CGMA, has put in a planning application that we, the market community, still feel is a long way from satisfying what is required for the 200-plus tenants and their thousands of customers.

When we have a new market, it needs to be better than what we have now and fit for the 21st century in its workability, sustainability and affordability. It also needs to enable the tenants of New Covent Garden, renowned throughout the world as leaders — not followers — to remain at the forefront of an ever-changing industry.

We are hopeful, as is everyone, that our continued negotiations with the CGMA and VSM will lead to a great new market, which is what the hardworking and entrepreneurial traders and customers of NCGM deserve. 

For the tenants, it’s precarious, it’s challenging and it’s frightening in equal measure. There is no hiding from that. We have an opportunity to become the most iconic wholesale market in the UK, maybe even the world, but there is always the possibility that we could become the biggest white elephant in London. We have to make sure that the people who are making the decisions, who have no real understanding of this business, know exactly what they are doing before serious mistakes are made with longterm implications.

The CGMA, the developer and the government must understand why this market is so important to London and the South East of England. Sometimes, with the greatest things we have in our lives, we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. This market survived two world wars, and it’s survived the two most recent recessions along with many before them, but this is probably our biggest challenge yet.

It is a crying shame that when we are at our strongest, we also find ourselves at our most vulnerable.

Q: So, without doubt, the next few years hold some challenges, but what does the future hold for New Covent Garden and its tenants?

A: The wholesale market is, to many people, invisible. We have 57 acres right next to one of the main train lines into central London, but still the vast majority of people, including most of those in government, have never been here and have no idea what we do or how vital we are to London’s food chain. It’s like we’re in a goldfish bowl looking out.

The importance of the 250 companies, 2,500 employees and hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are employed along the supply chain of the products that we bring to market is really not recognised widely enough. Considering we’ve been here for 40 years with minimal support as the face of London, that England has changed so dramatically and the red tape facing small- and medium-sized companies has increased so significantly, it is a phenomenal achievement that we have the most successful wholesale market in the UK. We are in no mood to give up yet — there’s a huge amount of life left in this market.

What other industry has the diversity, the passion, the knowledge or the risk that we show every day? The fresh produce industry can be as exhilarating as scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. It can also be as deflating as being knocked out in the first round of a world title fight. That’s why we love it, and it’s also why we hate it! But one thing hasn’t changed — once you’re in the trade, you’re in it for life.

What incredible passion for his work and his market. One thing that markets have in common all over the world is that they are under-appreciated. In fact markets provide the most valuable of services — but they do it in a way not clear to those not in the business.

First, on the production side, no matter how much large multiples (retail chains) may buy, they are very specific buyers. They want particular varieties, grades and often only one size. Alas, the good Lord has not seen fit to grow produce strictly to order of the multiples, so a robust production agriculture sector depends crucially on the existence of outlets willing to help them move what has actually grown, rather than just what the multiples want to buy.

This is the unique difference between the wholesale and the retail sectors. The retailers buy what they want, but wholesalers assist growers in marketing what they have produced. With good wholesalers helping to guide their producers into producing the kinds of items that can be profitably sold. So anything that weakens the wholesale markets tends to weaken growers who lose outlets for the sizes and varieties that multiples don’t want.

Second, on the independent retail and restaurant side, wholesale markets serve as the distribution center for independents. So if you like a city that is not homogenized solely with large chains, like a city that provides opportunities for immigrants to launch businesses, if you like a city where entrepreneurs of all sorts have the opportunity to compete with large chains, you have to support strong wholesale markets.

Let us hope the fates conspire to allow the market to be redeveloped in such a manner that these businesses will continue to be able to thrive and to support agriculture and entrepreneurial urban diversity at the same time.

Gary is on our “Thought Leader” Panel on Thursday Morning and the tour of The New Covent Garden Market takes place Friday, departing at 6:30 a.m. Come to the London Produce Show and Conference and experience both.

If you would like some additional information, here is a small brochure we prepared.

Or you can check out the website here.

You can register for the London Produce Show and Conference right here.

Finally, though the exhibition hall is sold out, we still have some wonderful opportunities for sponsors to step in and become Charter Sponsors. If you would like to receive more information on how your organization can be part of this great new industry institution, please let us know here.

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