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Welcoming The Trade To London!
Helen Evans Of The New Covent Garden Market Authority
Speaks On The Market: Past, Present and Hopes for The Future

The other day we featured a piece titled 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 which showcased the perspective of the merchants who toil each day on New Covent Garden Market. As is common in most of the world, the merchants don’t actually own the facility. In the UK that is a governmental authority. It is a landlord, but with special responsibilities under the law to promote the success of the market. With New Covent Garden celebrating the 40th Anniversary of its move to its present location and with it undertaking to sponsor the Opening Cocktail reception of The London Produce Show and Conference and thus greet the local and global trade as it gathers in London, we wanted to get the perspective of the Covent Garden Market Authority. We asked Pundit investigator and special projects editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Helen Evans
Director of Business Development & Support
Covent Garden Market Authority
New Covent Garden Market, London

Q: What will attendees at the London Produce Show learn during the tour of the New Covent Garden Market? Why should they be inspired by the opportunity, and what do you hope they will take away from the experience?

A: Our starting point is very obviously that we’re very excited to be a part of the first London Produce Show, and we think it’s absolutely right that it should be in London. This is actually the 40th anniversary of our relocation from the original site of Covent Gardens to Nine Elms. I’ve been doing a troll of our archives. It would be true to say that 40 years ago, if you were thinking of food in a good way, you certainly wouldn’t be thinking about London.

Today, food, and the strength of the restaurant scene in London is such that it is a major driver for tourism. For the London economy, food and hospitality are absolutely critical. The New Covent Garden Market supplies 40 percent of the fresh produce going into that sector, covering restaurants, hotels, schools, hospitals, and work places, with the highest concentration of wholesale catering distributors in the country. That 40 percent relates to fresh produce eaten outside the home, so not through retail.

Q: Does New Covent Garden consider the food service sector the poignant focus for future growth? Do you see the Market’s status in servicing this sector as a defining differentiator from your competitors, and one to exploit, now that larger retail chains have left the Market and more companies look to bypass the middleman to go direct?

A: It’s that sector growth, which is one of the key differences. It’s long been said London follows the trends of New York in food. Eating out has become part of our culture. Certainly when you look back at the recession that hit and the economic problems in the late 70s early 80s, eating out then was something that people pulled back from.

Q: Yet more recent economic volatility hasn’t dampened this vibrant sector growth and eating out trend? Are you finding that the cultural and lifestyle shifts as well as the enriched dining choices are embedded enough to sustain that momentum? In economic downturns, isn’t there a tendency for consumers to trade down, or just stay home, and wouldn’t that impact your sales and profits?

A: But today, even though we’re experiencing economic turmoil, all we’ve seen is that the restaurants have had to get more competitive, get more offers out there, but people are still eating outside the home. They are still ordering take away, they’re still going to restaurants, to fast food outlets, etc. It’s true the standards have improved dramatically, but it’s also totally part of the culture in which people live and how they spend they’re money. That’s what has changed.

Q: In the UK, the retail market is undergoing a tumultuous realignment, as the Big Four retailers—Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, and Morrisons, feel the heat from deep discounters Aldi and Lidl, while Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and other niche, specialty retailers grab market share from the top. Competition is challenging new ways of doing business. Do you see an opening? What customers are you targeting and how is that changing?

A: I would say the Market’s core customer base is very much fine dining, so the top end, but also smaller independent restaurants, and we’ve seen following in the wake of what’s happening in the States, an explosion of street food and many of those startup companies looking to the Market as well. It covers a huge spectrum of businesses, but it’s very much those businesses that are focused on the quality and value of that produce.

Many of the larger chains driven to go direct are very much focused on price, but the offer at New Covent Garden Market is not just about price. It’s an important component and one that people have to be competitive about, but it’s not about just delivering a commodity. The Market’s reputation is not just about the quality of the produce, but the knowledge and expertise behind that.

Q: It sounds like buyers may be remiss in not taking advantage of these Market distinctions…Do you think the message of what the Market has to offer may be getting lost?

A: One of the parallels I always draw, is if you look at the fashion world, what you see on the catwalk is very high end and that gets mirrored in high street fashion very, very quickly. Equally, what’s on the cat walk can come from young individuals with street fashion and create it. I see the Market as a test bed for new varieties, for understanding what chefs want, and ultimately those trends are delivered all the way into mainstream retail.

So over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the growth of what we call gastro pubs. Pubs used to have a really poor reputation for food – so instead of being a place where you’d go for a pint of beer and game of darts, a package of something dubious and pickled eggs. Now you can go and get the pub atmosphere and also really good quality food. And that affects the mainstream to the extent you now get ready meals in the supermarket translating what is coming from the menu at the gastro pub.

Similarly, the very high end trends of Michelin star chefs start to filter down into mainstream. So, things like micro leaves. Building on what comes from the States, our television schedules are really heavy with cookery programs, competitions like master chef, etc., and you see many of these guys imitating techniques and product they see Michelin star chefs putting on their menus. It gets a huge exposure to people, who perhaps couldn’t afford a 160 pound tasting menu at the Fat Duck, but suddenly they’re seeing on their screens a chef who’s entering the competition using those techniques and products, and there’s a great demand for that.

Q: How would you compare New Covent Garden Market to Hunts Point Market in New York?

A: I had a really interesting conversation with Jim Prevor on Hunts Point Market and some of the differences and trends. We are different and London is different. Here we have two separate types of business. We still have that traditional wholesale business, what we call the buyer’s walk. So it’s basically the model of the wholesale market that you see across the world, where buyers come down to the market, you look at the produce, you can touch it, then you buy it and you take it away.

What’s also developed within that community is what we call wholesale distribution, where distributors buy from the market, consolidate loads add value to it, they will process it, and they deliver to the end users daily, and sometimes twice a day. So our offer here is what we call face to face customers where they come down to buy, and they can be from anywhere, Southeast London and sometimes from as far away as Ireland, but also the distributors who are based on the Market and buy from the traditional wholesale Market. And they’re the ones who actually take the product out and they get very involved with communicating with their customers with monthly reports and adding the value.

Q: What is the percentage of business breakdown between the traditional face to face customers and the distributor side?

A: Wholesale is still the core of the market, it’s still the biggest sector and the one that gets the most turnover. But the distributors have been growing steadily over the past 15 years and in terms of value, they are almost equal.

Q: At Hunts Point Market, one of its strengths is that it offers a market for everyone, all types and qualities of product, from narrowly defined specs and standards, to price driven options, an international melting pot, to meet a vast range of customer needs. How does New Covent Garden Market compare to other wholesale markets in London?

A: We actually have three fruit and vegetable wholesale markets in London. We are very central, and our location is key to our customer base. Like in New York, London traffic is horrendous. So the closer you are to your core customer, the better. There is one towards the west near the major airport Heathrow, called Western International, which is also located in an area that has a very high Indian subcontinent population. It tends to have a very Asian focus in terms of product offering and customer base.

The third is New Spitalfields based in the East of London in Leyton, on the edge of where New Olympic Park is. Its trading base and customer base is very diverse ethnically, with a lot of traders that are Kurdish, Turkish, Asian, African, Caribbean, as well as Caucasian. Western International and New Spitalfields have a much higher percentage of retail customers, and these can be small independent retail shops, and many of them are much more price sensitive and able to absorb product nearing the end of its shelf life. That customer is willing to accept a lower specification of quality to pay a lower price.

Q: Does New Covent Garden have a more concentrated quality/price offering geared to the higher end?

A: We’re the largest wholesale market, and position ourselves as high end quality but yes the price has to be competitive because as you mentioned there are alternatives, not only other wholesale markets, but other suppliers. There are big national distributors but their offer is very much at the commodity end, and our customer base will want not just high quality but that level of specialists in the markets for their offer.

It’s very much about links in the chain from the grower to the end customer. There is a huge interest in the providence of product, where it comes from, particularly people that want to buy UK grown products. For example, traditionally our asparagus season is very short. Where growers have managed to extend that season by starting earlier, they have to be sure the end customer knows that that product is going to come in early because the restaurants need to have notice to change their menus. Again, with asparagus where the grower has developed new techniques and is able to produce an autumn crop which was unheard of, it’s important that the message is passed on to the chef, or otherwise he may feel that product isn’t seasonal because he’s used to the asparagus not being around after June, July. In September, he may think someone is trying to pass off Peruvian asparagus as British. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the information that needs to flow up and down that supply chain.

Q: That’s a great example to illustrate your point. Do you have any others?

A: We took some growers around the Market, one who has been supplying the Market for years and a new grower, along with some chefs and the Market became the place where they could actually talk directly with each other. A particular product the growers were growing was cauliflower, and the new grower was mainly growing for supermarkets. When he saw the other grower’s product, his first reaction was that the cauliflower heads were too big. And the chef immediately went to his defense, and said that’s what the kitchen wants. A bigger head means less waste for us. It’s also more efficient so labor saving, and with the bigger head, more florets, or curds, to work with for the time. So it’s sometimes important to have that comment from the end customer, because the chef is not only driven by price, the underlying costs. That price is also about wastage and about the labor that’s involved in cutting that product.

Q: Tell us about the Sprouts Project, another way New Convent Garden is sharing its expertise…

A: Through our Sprouts Project, we’ve been working with schools close to the market. There was an initiative in the UK some years back to try and get children to understand where there food comes from. I’m sure you have the same thing in the States. Many children, if they think about it at all, think that food just arrives vacuumed sealed in a package and you buy it at the supermarket. Particularly in the cities they don’t have the opportunity to actually see it being grown. So what we do is we work with a small number of local schools. We actively encourage them to grow food in the school, take them to a working local farm that supplies the market to see product grown commercially on a big scale, and then bring them to the Market where they can actually understand how that product is in a box with Charlie’s name on it and how that box gets put on a van and delivered to their school kitchen. It’s also about how eating healthy food can be fun, so we do cooking competitions and teach kids how to make smoothies, and they get to taste a huge range of fruit and veg.

Q: What other projects are in the works. Could you talk about the Market’s ongoing redevelopment plans?

A: The organization that runs the market is the Covent Garden Market Authority. It was set up by the government in the 60’s to oversee the Market’s move from its old home in Covent Garden to a new site. We didn’t move until 1974; so it took that long to manage that.

Now, 40 years later, we’ve got plans to redevelop the Market on this site. So we’re a public body, and we report to DEFRA, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, basically the old Ministry of Agriculture. But we get no government money. We have to be self-sufficient, in terms of day to day running of the Market, so any extra money gets put back into the Market but we can’t make a loss.

In terms of plans for the new market, the government is perfectly happy for us to redevelop it but won’t give us money. We have to use the only asset we have, which is our land.

Q: That sounds challenging…

A: We are lucky because we have a very large site and a lot of land that is not being used efficiently. We’ve got a private development partner. In effect, it’s like a land swap; he gets land and we get a new market.

Q: Where are you in the development process? Hasn’t the planning been going on for years now?

A: We have finalized our plans and we expect our planning application to go in shortly and if all goes as scheduled we’d start work next year. But to build the new market, we don’t have the luxury of moving to a new site. The actual project will take seven years.

Q: What are the key things you’re trying to achieve?

A: The infrastructure is over 40 years old, and because of the way we were set up, we were never allowed to retain enough money to reinvest in the market, Our focus has moved now to our main customer being food service so the needs of the buildings are slighting different. What we’ll be providing are modern, flexible facilities that are designed for the 21st century.

Q: Can you elaborate on that? Will you be improving the cold chain, refrigeration, food safety, logistics flow, etc.?

A: We provide the overall building structure but each tenant would be responsible for refrigeration of their own building. What we’re doing is designing a market which is much more efficient in terms of how traffic can move around. The buildings were designed for traditional wholesale and don’t allow efficient distribution. In the New Market, you could take a unit back to back, which would allow linear flow. They could have goods flow in one end and out the other, where at the moment they have to take them side by side.

Also, we are aware standards are ever getting higher and higher, whether it be in terms of environmental performance, in terms of health and safety or food hygiene, so we want to make sure we provide the best possible facilities to insure people are able to meet those requirements in the future.

Q: In the UK, the larger retailers have a reputation for requiring the most stringent standards. Does that carry over to the customers you’re handling?

A: In this country, food safety standards are always higher in retail than food service. But increasingly, as you know, there have been a number of quite high profile food scares, most recently there was the issue in Europe of E.coli that eventually got traced back to sprouting seed. In the past, there was a sense that fresh produce was less risky than meat or fish but while that is the case to some extent there is no room for complacency. We need to make sure our market can meet whatever regulations are thrown at it going forward.

Many of the companies on site have very high levels of accreditation that are served out by third party organizations, and that gives their customers confidence in their processes, and procedures and traceability, etc. And those levels of accreditation, while many relate to internal procedures, the infrastructure is also of relevance. Some of the tenants don’t have enough space to store everything inside of their units all of the time. In the new market, we’ve designed it specifically so that all new product can be stored undercover; those higher standards can be complied with before it is regulated. There’s a difference between the best possible practice and the minimal regulatory standard, and we would aim to be at the best possible practice.

Q: How has the market’s product selection changed to meet customer demands and what are the biggest trends you’re seeing?

A: I’ve been doing a troll through the archives, it’s interesting to see what products have changes in demand, what products increased and declined. It’s very much what’s been happening in the States. There’s been a trend towards convenience. Wider trends still a lot of interest in exotic product, one of the big fashionable cuisines in London is that of South America, so moving away from just thinking about Mexico and thinking about Peruvian and obviously because of the World Cup, Brazil. And I mentioned street food, where we’ve seen a huge explosion in the UK. People are very interested in where food comes from. We find a growing demand for UK products, and along with that, real interest in traditional methods of growing and storing as well. Chefs want something new, and often times that turns out to be quite old. Take carrots; you can get carrots in four different colors. You think of carrots being orange, but originally they were purple, and people are interested in having that variety and color and looking at the heritage of product as well.

Sometimes it’s about the variety, and sometimes it’s about how it’s grown. We’re also seeing an interest in sand grown carrots. Carrots like sandy soil. It means they grow really, really straight. When you get twisted carrots, it’s because of a pebble, where it grows round it rather than through it, which is how carrots are grown commercially. But suddenly we’ve seen this interest in sand grown carrots, so they come in a bit sandy and apparently they keep longer. It’s a technique that was used in the 17th and 18th century.

Q: What about organic?

A: There’s a lot of interest in sustainability, but that’s not the same necessarily as organic, we have a few companies on the market that specialize in organic, but their core customer base actually is the consumer and not the food service. Restaurants struggle to pay the premium for organics, but also to get the consistency for the product. But they are very interested in providence, which I mentioned earlier, and how it’s grown, but sometimes that’s not organic. There’s an organization called LEAF, which is linking the environment and farming and while it’s not organic, it provides product that is grown with integrated farm management systems that use less pesticides. There’s a wide range between conventionally grown crops and organic.

Q: Thank you for sharing so many insights and vignettes about the Market, as attendees at the London Produce Show get the opportunity to come see it in action. Do you have any numbers you’d like to provide as additional perspective on the size and scope of the market?

A: We don’t really collect volume statistics, but we do carry financial statistics on the value. One of my jobs is updating our important accounts, with latest figures out in the next couple of weeks. In very broad terms, the annual turnover of the market is about 600 million pounds.

Q: For context, is the market growing?

A: It has grown and it has plateaued, last year it was actually down marginally. That’s the total market but the core fruit and vegetable market was up five percent last year and is continuing to grow. Where we saw a slight decline last year was in the distribution but again that’s related to the contraction of the economy and we’re looking to see that grow again.

Q: What about the floral side of the market?

A: The floral sector has changed dramatically over the past 20 plus years. New Covent Garden is the only dedicated flower and plant market in the country. Flowers and plants are sold elsewhere but we have dedicated space designed specifically for flowers and plants, which is unique. We have 30 plus traders there. Generally, there are two big trends that hit the flower market; one is that supermarkets have gotten more and more into flowers and that’s had a negative impact on independent floral shops, so we’ve seen a decline in that core customer. But there are some really interesting parallels in the floral world to what’s going on in the fruit and veg world. The traditional retailer has suffered.

We’ve seen growth in contract florists, who don’t go face to face with customers, but provide flowers for weddings, funerals, for big events and for corporate clients, where you go to embassies and see beautiful floral arrangements at reception, but also functions for hotels, etc. In fact at the London Produce Show, one of our contract florists is decorating the ballroom.

So, because the focus is moving towards events and contract florists, there have been changes in the types of product people want. They want bigger range, but smaller volumes. But also parallel to the fruit and veg side, we’re seeing a growing interest in where the flowers come from. Last year we launched the first ever British Flower Week. That will be happening again in June, a bit later than the London Produce Show. And it’s something that’s being taken up nationally.

There’s a huge resurgence in interest. The flower industry has declined dramatically here. The amount of acreage that’s used to produce flowers has gotten smaller and smaller, but people are very supportive of smaller growers, We believe it’s right that the flower market be at the heart of supporting an initiative like this and giving it more publicity. We are bowled over by the support it got nationally, and we’re doing it again this year and again it’s being taken up around the country. Because we’re the only market of this kind, It’s not just about the transactions and product, it’s about the communication, and support that goes with that, that’s really important. Even if British Flowers Week is in Cornwall or Yorkshire, I see that as a huge success and it is right that our market should be driving that.

Q: Would someone shopping for flowers also be shopping for produce? Is there overlap?

A: Sometimes there is a cross over but it does tend to be quite specialized.. Floral is very key in hospitality, so it’s where you’ll get this crossover. You’ll have big events like a launch party for a film premier and there will be food and there will be flowers. That goes back to the fact that the Market is at the heart of the hospitality sector in London.

Q: We come back full circle to how we began this interview.

A: I always say: Food for your stomach and food for your soul.

Q: That’s a fitting way to sum up everything you describe in this interview. It sounds like you’ve got the Market in your soul. Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to your role at CGMA?

A: CGMA is a public body, and while we’re basically the landlord, unlike a purely commercial landlord, we believe we have to support our tenants. it’s not just about providing value for money in terms of that facility, but it’s also about supporting with marketing and communication, and insuring we do everything we can to maintain our leadership role in produce industry. We’ve got 200 companies on site, and they are all small and medium size firms. Individually, they don’t have the resource to do much of the marketing and communication with customers and suppliers. That’s an area where we can work on their behalf. We can lobby at government level and wider community both nationallyand internationally. We work to represent tenants at every level. It could be introducing new growers to the market. I regularly take delegations around the market from other countries. Equally, I will put a lot of resources into trying to attract new customers to the market.

Q: As part of the redevelopment, isn’t there a plan to get consumers to come to the market? How would that work?

A: A lot of work we do, whether with florists or chefs, is business to business, but there’s no reason why those workshops and demos couldn’t be for consumers. Food and flowers in London is our focus, If you think of food and flowers, whether you’re a journalist, or a customer or a member of the general public, you should just think New Covent Garden Market; it should be synonymous. So the idea is that in a new market, the facilities we have to work with for the trade, could also be available at the consumer level. There would also be the opportunity for there to be a retail market, so we could showcase the best of produce to the wider community. People could actually buy, eat and learn about fresh produce in London.

Q: That’s quite a vision…

A: It is, and also quite frightening. Sometimes it’s difficult to describe, but when you look at the design for the new market, there will be a building we’re calling the Garden Heart, with the administration, meeting rooms conference rooms, at the ground level there could be a bank. It’s the core central building, and would act as the physical barrier to the edge of the market, One side could be the public square for the retail market but behind it, where the public wouldn’t go, would be the wholesale market.

Our market is most active between midnight and five in the morning before most people get up. So the market would have different activity at different times and in a different physical space as well.

The hero shots of the new markets are not ready to be released yet, because they will be saved for press release going out imminently.

Q: How familiar are people with the New Covent Garden Market. Do you think this will be an awakening for many?

A: One of the things I discovered when I joined the market is that a lot of people think they know the market, but what they know is the market 20 years ago as opposed to what the market is now. I think people have preconceived ideas of wholesale markets being the dumping ground for supermarket rejects, and a lot people don’t really understand the value that wholesale markets bring. That’s an area we work quite hard at but it is difficult to get the message out. We are a very, very vibrant industry, made up of lots small companies that want to get on with their business. And in the past wholesale markets haven’t been good at communicating, but I think that is changing. We’ve done a lot here in New Covent Garden and in London, but I still think there are many within the produce industry who think they know, but they don’t.

We hope the London Produce Show will help you in your mission!

When the Hunts Point Market in New York opened in 1967 the joke was that it was the newest antiquated market in the world. Why? The planning and development took so long that by the time a design was approved and then executed the world had changed sufficiently that the design didn’t accommodate contemporary trucks in an ideal way. It is inevitable that the efforts to develop a new market will be contentious. But the world needs markets and we hope that the parties involved find a path to make the redevelopment an occasion for the rebirth of a stronger and more vibrant market.

Let that, however, be a battle for another day. For tonight New Covent Garden is the most generous host to the trade, both Authority and Merchants urging the whole industry to join them the 5 Star Grosvenor House for the Opening Cocktail Reception of the London Produce Show and Conference. Let us raise a glass to a glorious history in Covent Garden, 40 years of service and prosperity in the current location and to a future filled with mutual success.

You can register to attend tonight’s Opening Cocktail Reception and the whole London Produce Show and Conference right here.

Let us know via e-mail right here if you would like to go on Friday’s tour of New Covent Garden Market.

And, of course, review the whole event on our website here.

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