New, integrated Birmingham Wholesale Market Company proves a buyers' delight

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Last week, Birmingham officially launched one of the largest wholesale markets in the United Kingdom. Set across 18 acres in Witton — an inner-city area that is also home to Aston Villa Football Club — the new market contains 78 units selling fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and flowers, along with nine warehouses, a café and management offices. It is also the UK’s only integrated market. 

At the launch day, visitors enjoyed food prepared by Michelin-starred chefs, international musical entertainment, reflecting the diversity of Birmingham’s market traders, and displays of fresh produce sourced from around the word. 

Among the celebrities who attended the opening were Chris Bavin, the star of Britain’s Best Home Cook, Eat Well for Less? and Tomorrow’s Food, and renowned Birmingham historian Carl Chinn. 

The nearly £50 million development, funded by Birmingham City Council, has been positioned as an investment into the general economic well-being of Birmingham, creating approximately 15,000 jobs and attracting businesses from across the UK and Europe. 

The overall aim is to provide low-cost, top-quality food and produce for Birmingham and the West Midlands, supporting businesses, retailers, retail markets, restaurants and the growing foodservice sector. 

Facilities-wise, the main areas are dedicated to fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers. This is followed by the meat, fish and poultry sections, which are equipped with their own draining system and, at the end of the complex, are a series of giant fridges and freezers. Here at the market however, due to the large freezers and the building's doors being open most of the time, there is no heating system, but staff seem to be prepared for that with warm thermals and socks.

The market has been designed as a place for wholesale customers to shop from 3:30am until 11:30am during the weekdays, and from 3:30am to 9:30pm on Saturdays. There is a central blue pathway indoors — the Buyers' Walkway — for customers to walk along. Outside, cars are also allowed to drive the entire complex at 10 mph. 

To understand the ins and outs of the market development, Produce Business UK sat down with Eddie Price, managing director of Technolink, the business management consultancy introduced to the Market seven years ago to find a solution to building a new marketplace in Birmingham.

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Can you explain a little about the setup of the market?

Birmingham Wholesale Market Company (BWMC) has been set up to run the market on behalf of Birmingham City Council and the tenants who trade here. BWMC is a 50-50 joint venture between Birmingham City Council and the Birmingham Wholesale Fresh Produce Association (BWFPA) to run the Wholesale Market of the Hub.

We, as the management company – a joint venture between the traders and the city council – wanted to thank the Birmingham City Council leader Ian Ward and Waheed Nazir, Director of Planning and Regeneration for Birmingham City Council for their significant contribution, without which the market could not have opened.

What are some of the aims of the market?

Birmingham Wholesale Market Company aims to provide an attractive, modern and professional market for tenants and customers alike. The creation of the new Birmingham Wholesale Market is a unique concept aimed at creating a market environment for the tenants that offers the only fully-integrated fresh produce wholesale market in the UK.

We aim to increase the number of employment and training opportunities for local people, supporting the local economy by choosing suppliers close to the point of service delivery where possible, building the local economy by supporting local businesses and building the supply chain locally.

What makes it the “biggest” market in the UK?

This is where we have to be clever with words. We believe it is the biggest integrated market in the UK. What that means is that within our market, a retailer or restaurant can come and buy flowers, fish, meat, poultry, or horticultural products all under the same roof. There are bigger markets in the UK, for example Smithfield, but those markets tend to have a bigger focus on one product, for example meat. We are the largest integrated market for all products.

Who are the tenants, more or less? 

The tenants range from Total Produce – a multi-billion pound company — to small operations privately owned. We have a large range of tenancy here, from the large PLC’s through to a small family business. 

What about the clients coming into the market?

The tenants’ clients would be independent retail, hospitality and food preparation companies. That client base stretches for a 50-mile radius. 

What are your thoughts in general about the role of these markets, when they are other structures in place now like online delivery? What do you see as the value of having a physical market place these days?

Well this is true, that these fresh produce markets face a higher level of competition than ever previously existed. And, as a consequence, only those companies that are efficient will survive. The thing a market offers is the ability for the customer to come and see and touch the products. And to a good chef, or good restaurateur, this is very important. The important thing is that they can touch the products, feel the products and barter face to face on the price. It’s true that it is a very competitive market. The other advantage is that because we are an integrated market, a restaurateur can come in and buy all these products under one roof. 

What do you see as the plus drivers specifically?

The plus drivers for the market are, for one thing, its ethnic diversity. For example, the ethnic community in Birmingham is very committed to buying from independent retailers who can give them competitively priced fresh produce. Again, the consumers like to go and see the products they are buying. Secondly, Birmingham enjoys a growing reputation as a city of food, and therefore some of our growth is for the expanding restaurant sector.

Does being part of a market afford the tenants any lobbying capabilities or governmental representation?

Yes, the tenants operate through their own voluntary membership of BWFPA – which is the Birmingham Wholesale Fresh Produce Association. The BWFPA retained my company, Technolink, to act on their behalf. We participate both in terms of local and national and maintain the relationship with the local governments. We certainly do make representation through Members of Parliament and other trade organizations nationally too.

The example is that I’m now sitting in a market that has cost £50 million to develop, which is entirely the consequence of our lobbying efforts.

How does this market position itself in terms of the other markets in the UK, like New Covent Garden Market?

Well, New Convent Garden Market is much bigger, it benefits from the huge investments in London and its tourist and restaurant trade. So we are not as large as those markets, but we pride ourselves in the fact that we are the integrated market. We are increasing our business with the continuing success of Birmingham’s growth in the restaurant sector.

One of the highlights of the market is the Birmingham Chefs Forum. Can you explain a little about that? 

The Birmingham Chefs Forum was launched in 2016 to bridge the gap between education and industry across the UK. Staging 36 chef networking events a year, across nine areas of the UK, it offers a unique platform in the industry for chefs to speak to market-leading suppliers face to face, while sharing knowledge, best practice and inspiring the next generation.

At Saturday’s event, our chef forum featured a number of Michelin-star chefs, demonstrating and distributing a wide range of high-quality food. 

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