North East Fresh Produce Hub aims to revitalise regional wholesaling

North East Fresh Produce Hub aims to revitalise regional wholesaling

Gill McShane
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Having traded since 1983 on the North East Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market just outside of Newcastle upon Tyne, one of the region’s leading produce suppliers JR Holland Group has a vision to breathe new life into wholesaling in the north of England.

By investing £3 million in a state-of-the art ‘Fresh Produce Hub’ on Gateshead’s Team
Valley trading estate the company aims to create a inclusive, vibrant, digital, user- and
eco-friendly modern market environment that will attract suppliers, buyers and likeminded wholesalers to jointly progress the industry.

John Holland, CEO of JR Holland Group, speaks exclusively with PBUK about the hub’s point of difference, and why he believes it could become the largest produce importer-wholesaler-distributor to retailers, restaurants, hospitals, caterers, schools, and universities in northern England.

JR Holland Group fresh produce in cartons

Go-To Destination

“We want to establish The Fresh Produce Hub as the go-to fruit and veg destination in the north of England for growers, traders and customers,” explains regional entrepreneur Holland. “Wholesale markets have very much been perceived as the poor relation of our industry. But we’re not getting dragged down to that level. We’re taking a fresh approach to the partnerships with our suppliers and customers.”

Holland says his company and other wholesalers who join The Fresh Produce Hub have the opportunity to reach further afield, and to develop better supplier and customer relationships. Indeed, he has set a target of raising JR Holland’s turnover from £33 million (m) to £50m.

“By making this investment and making ourselves more accessible, I think we’ll get a lot more customers and broaden our business,” he projects, explaining that JR Holland
currently supplies 100,000 packages of produce weekly to independent retailers,
foodservice and catering business and secondary wholesalers.

“Our area of coverage will run from north Yorkshire up to Edinburgh and back down to
Glasgow, which is a big area,” Holland notes. “We do reach north Yorkshire already but we don’t have as much impact as we should. On the Scottish border we have a very strong presence but I think we can do more in Glasgow and Edinburgh.”

Glasgow and Leeds are home to the nearest produce wholesale markets, but Holland
claims The Fresh Produce Hub will be “very different” and “completely innovative”. 
“Glasgow is another dinosaur market that hasn’t adapted and isn’t fit for purpose,” he cites. 

“Leeds is a half-way house from where we are at the moment versus where we are going to be. We are building a bright, tidy, covered and clean place where the fresh produce community will want to come and feel inspired.”

JR Holland Group fresh dragonfruit

Transparent Communication

The project, says Holland, has been two years in the planning and was borne of his
frustration with the North East Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market in Gateshead.

“When we started trading there were around 30 businesses and now there are only three: JR Holland, Thomas Baty, and Total Produce,” he laments. “It has suffered from
mismanagement and a lack of investment. It reached the point where we’ve grown while other companies have disappeared, and the mismanagement has started to affect our business too.”

Holland feels his access to customers is being restricted at a time when he wishes to grow the business, and move wholesaling forward. “We have a very innovative view of how we want to trade and how we want to partner with our suppliers,” he states.

When it opens in early 2021, The Fresh Produce Hub intends to shake up how produce is marketed and sold in the region. To that end, Holland says he is pioneering an open and transparent customer-facing and supplier-facing relationship through digital communication where traders can be more proactive.

A key ambition behind the initiative is to invest in and build long-term, robust relationships with local and global producers and growers; ensuring provenance, and guaranteeing traceability and value.

“The wholesale market has always been a warehouse where customers walk in and buy what we have to sell,” Holland points out. “We want to digitalise our communication and hear what it is that you want that maybe we haven’t got. With much better accessibility, and much better communication, we will be able to reach further, and to those that maybe don’t know we exist.”

Ultimately, the plan is to introduce an app where customers can order in real time. “You won’t have to worry about being the first through the door,” Holland enthuses. “We’ll have a bright, colourful app through which we can communicate and sell our fantastic fruits and vegetables.”

JR Holland Group fresh raspberries

Complete Cool Chain

The Fresh Produce Hub also intends to raise produce and environmental standards for
wholesaling. Built to bespoke requirements, the building will have vehicle access and
parking facilities around its entire perimeter. It will also be fully electric, featuring electric fork lift and pallet trucks.

Importantly, the facility will have a complete cold chain to keep produce fresh. Delivery
vehicles arriving from across the UK, as well as France, the Netherlands or Spain will be able to reverse onto large loading docks and unload into product-specific, multi-
temperature-controlled coldstores.

“The food will be handled the way food should be,” affirms Holland. “There will be
improved shelf-life, the process will be more economical, and we will pass on those
savings to our retail and foodservice customers. We are creating a hub that will offer
produce through digital communication, a better facility, lower overheads, and a greener, more pleasant environment.”

The facility is also well placed in terms of access to the North East, the North West and the Scottish border. “The Team Valley is absolutely in the epicentre of arterial road access,” Holland points out. “Running directly past us are the A19 and the A1, which are [southbound] arterial trunk roads that access Leeds. On our doorstep is the A69 to the west. Going north, we have the A1 and the A69 up to the M8 towards Edinburgh in
Scotland.”

Community Environment

Due to operate seven days a week with extended hours to maximise customer
accessibility, The Fresh Produce Hub will handle produce such as kumquats from Kenya and local leeks from Morpeth. Encompassing over 25,000 square feet across the centre of a two-acre site, there is plenty of space for other innovative businesses to set up shop too.

“The reason we’ve chosen the name ‘The Fresh Produce Hub’ is because we’d like the building to have a clear identity that allows for the creation of a market environment for others to join,” Holland explains. “We are very open to bringing others into the hub. The facility is substantially bigger than what we’re trading out of at the moment.”

Firstly, however, Holland is eager to establish a community-style environment that is built upon a culture of cooperation and innovation. “If others want to join us, we want them to buy into our culture and environment,” Holland stresses. “We’ve got to develop trust to make our industry sustainable. The days of ‘us and them’ are gone. Rather than working against each other, we want to work with each other. It’s very important that anyone joining the hub understands that need for sustainability. You have got to be willing to work in partnership with both customers and suppliers.”

For those interested in moving into The Fresh Produce Hub, Holland says the values of their business must be honesty, value, transparency, and safety. They should also be pioneering, innovative, customer facing, and supplier facing.

So far, the response to the project has been “phenomenal” from industry players both in the UK and on the Continent, according to Holland. “Our suppliers are very excited that someone is investing in wholesaling, and creating a vibrant environment,” he points out. “Our customers are excited about our digital platform, and we’ve seen quite a bit of commitment already.”

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