The tenants of New Covent Garden Market (NCGM) have rallied together to call on the UK government to provide greater clarity and financial support with regards to the impact of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and the looming challenges of a no-deal Brexit.
With market sales down by 80 percent compared with this time last year, the Covent Garden Tenants Association (CGTA) says traders are close to crisis point as their customers – the UK’s hospitality and catering industries – struggle to open and operate effectively, while traders grapple with the unknowns of planning for what is usually their busiest operating period.
The CGTA and over half of the 150 tenants at NCGM have written to Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson both collectively as an industry, and individually as independent, family-owned businesses. The letters ask the PM for financial support and transparency in regards to the metrics used by the government to decide whether certain industries could re-open after the second national lockdown ended on 2 December.
“The CGTA’s letter was a reflection of all the fears, frustrations and failings that the industry has felt or experienced during the pandemic: it was a final cry for help,” Jason Tanner, Deputy Chairman of the CGTA, and founder of wholesale business Premier Fruits, tells PBUK.
“The hospitality industry has been wrongly targeted throughout the pandemic, and even though we have made huge changes to manage demand and continue to supply our customers, COVID-19 safe, of course, we have been disregarded. Everyone has seen the data which suggests that the hospitality industry is, for the most part, not to blame for any spikes in cases.”
While the government has supported the front end of the hospitality industry, Tanner claims the suppliers who support the sector have been forgotten, including the farmers, the growers, the drivers, the caterers and the wholesalers. NCGM wholesalers alone directly employ over 2,500 people from London and beyond.
“As an industry, we want to feel appreciated and respected by the government, and we feel that throughout the pandemic we have been cast aside with little to no thought for how our industry is coping,” Tanner comments. “Our sales are 80 percent lower than this time last year, and the expectation that we can continue like this with no financial support is ridiculous. We hoped to receive some communication regarding if there was any financial support to come.”
If the hospitality industry stays open to some extent over the festive period, Taner believes trade at NCGM may be able to reach “slightly closer” to the levels that are usually expected in December and January.
“It will be a different Christmas and New Year period for everyone this year but for us [at NCGM] especially,” he predicts. “The situation we are facing is close to a crisis and the hardest I have ever witnessed as a trader in this historic market – and it is further topped off by the UK’s departure from the EU in the New Year. The sad thing about this pandemic is that we expect that, when all is back to usual, the market, the high street and the hospitality sector more generally will be a far cry from what it was at the start of 2020.”
So far, the CGTA has received no response from the PM, despite the letter garnering almost 2,000 views and over 200 engagements publicly.
“This is what is so sad about this situation,” Tanner laments. “Picking and choosing whom they listen to, supporting some businesses but not others. Especially with Brexit looming, the lack of communication between the government and those suffering most is worrying. We have emailed and sent letters to other MPs but, as of yet, we have had no response. Even with London appearing to be headed for Tier 3, there is little to no communication about whether this is the case and the support that will be made available to us.”
Tanner believes the source of the problem comes down to a lack of communication between NCGM and the government, where he claims there is little understanding of the impacts of lockdowns on the wholesale market sector.
“Today [11 December], we are five days away from hearing the government’s decision about [changes on 16 December to] the tiered system but for us, we would have to begin our buying on Monday [14 December] to support the industry beyond the deadline on Wednesday [16 December], so there is a clear lack of understanding around the timescales that our industry works upon,” Tanner explains.
While NCGM wants and needs to support its customers with the products that they require to operate, Tanner points out that market traders do not want to buy in excess and see products go to waste, incurring further costs.
“A lot of the tenants at New Covent Garden Market purchase produce in a programmed manner, where schedules are put in place for weekly or even daily deliveries, therefore it is almost impossible for us to be able to simply switch off this supply without much notice,” he stresses.
Ultimately, Tanner believes the lack of understanding about the business model of traders is why there is such a disconnection between the government and the tenants.
“We have lacked the necessary financial support throughout the pandemic, even with the furlough scheme, so we do not expect that to change,” he continues. “With the UK’s departure from the EU looming, we ask the government to provide us with some clarity as soon as possible regarding the result of the negotiations. We need to begin preparing our operations for this period of uncertainty as we expect that we will be one of the industries most affected by Brexit.”
On the contrary, the Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA), which serves as the landlord of NCGM, has been “fully supportive” throughout, says Tanner.
“During the first lockdown, tenants received a three-month deferral on their rent, and this measure was once more put in place during the most recent lockdown in November,” he reveals. “This move highlighted the association’s confidence in, and backing of the tenants of the market.”
At the same time, some market traders have been able to shift their business model and offer new services, such as home deliveries, which has been hugely successful in helping those companies to cope through this unprecedented trading period.
“Rest assured, everyone at the market is doing all they can to make it through to next year, and we can only hope that the government is willing to support us so that we can return to normal, where we had a thriving market,” Tanner states. “All the tenants have rallied together and supported one another in any way possible, and for me, this has been one of my highlights this year. It really shows the camaraderie present within the market."
To promote those home delivery services, NCGM has run marketing campaigns in collaboration with photographer David Loftus. The project was launched via an article in foodism magazine to showcases the efforts being made to promote NCGM and its traders.
“In recent months, the marketing team has made strides to better promote the market and all that it does,” notes Tanner. “To many it may seem that we only supply restaurants, bars, hotels and hospitality, although that is far from the case.”
At the end of the day, the CGTA remains confident that NCGM will bounce back from this difficult period. In particular, the market has been buoyed by last month’s historic resolution between the CGTA and the CGMA over the redevelopment plans for the market, which will bring NCGM up to speed in terms of foodservice in the 21st Century.
“We are the backbone of the hospitality industry, and we will come back as strong as ever,” affirms Tanner. “One of the greatest achievements [of the settlement agreement with CGMA] was the CGTA’s success in securing the long-term future of its tenants in the new market currently under construction. This ensures that even during this period of significant uncertainty that the future of the market’s tenants has been safeguarded for many years to come.
“Gary Marshall, Chairman of the CGTA, along with Amanda Cane, Finance, Operations & Compliance Manager at wholesaler P&I Fruits, were monumental in securing the settlement agreement, and I would like to say a huge well done to all of the people who work at New Covent Garden Market. This is a year like no other, and I think we have done an outstanding job in light of the issues we have faced.”
As such, New Covent Garden Market and its traders continue to look forward. Personally, for Tanner the future holds much excitement following the creation of a new venture, The Menu Partners, through a merger between The Premier Group and The Absolute Taste Group. “We hope to offer our customers a new world-class foodservice experience which will revolutionise the industry as we know it,” Tanner concludes.