Ambitious food hub at New Covent Garden Market to foster industry innovation

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London’s New Covent Garden Market (NCGM) is pushing on with its bold venture to turn the historic wholesale market into the capital’s dominant food hub, as well as an incubator for up-and-coming food makers, creators and thinkers from the UK and beyond. PBUK uncovers the progress and plans to learn how this £200m-plus redevelopment will benefit and inspire traders, entrepreneurs, the local community and the food industry at large.

As part of its grand plan to build a modern fruit, vegetable and flower wholesale market, NCGM aims to create a vibrant, 37-acre food industry campus for small businesses, featuring a food destination for consumers called the Food Quarter

Located just minutes from the new Northern Line tube station of Nine Elms opening in 2020, the venue is designed to ‘nurture the future of food’ and cement NCGM’s position at the epicentre of London’s culinary scene.

“This is about securing and safeguarding the market’s future,” Alastair Owen, NCGM’s communications manager, tells PBUK. “New Covent Garden Market has been on this site since 1974. We want it to be here for generations and for it to have a firm place as thousands of new homes are built around us.” 

The first phase of this ambitious journey started in February [2018] with the launch of a ‘first-of-its-kind’ food innovation hub – the Food Exchange – which serves as a creative workspace, kitchen space and food culture venue for food entrepreneurs. 

The centrepiece of this building will open next summer [2019] in the form of London’s largest shared kitchen and co-working space for small food makers, thanks to a partnership with food incubator Mission Kitchen. This also will serve as an event and meeting space for the wider community to appreciate London’s renowned food culture.

Long term, NCGM’s vision is to support further small businesses and to serve the public by housing independent restaurants, cafés and food shops within a retail market area – the Food Quarter – that will source and supply fresh produce from the market’s 175 traders. 

“This project strengthens who we are,” Owen explains. “We want to build on our heritage and how wholesale markets can add so much value to the industry and the community, because this is where new ideas come from.

“We want to be the most important place in London for food, and the wholesale market is the biggest part of that; it’s the flagship,” he continues, highlighting that the market supplies 40 per cent of the fresh produce eaten outside the home in London, as well as 20 of the capital’s top restaurants, plus cafés, schools and businesses.

“We’re a market of small businesses," Owen says. "Our traders go back generations, and that’s the ethos for the place we’re building. It’s about finding and supporting small businesses.” 

Supporting start-ups

To that end, NCGM recently opened the doors to the Food Exchange – 40,000 square feet of lettable office, kitchen and co-working space spanning three floors and three roof terraces.

So far, the building is home to Oppo, Spoon Cereals, Wheyhey, Young Foodies, CocoPro, Joe’s Tea Company and Swig Wines, amongst others, with room for more than 130 businesses working in food.

On the top two floors, private studios can be rented by teams working in food, including start-ups, recipe developers, photographers, PR agencies, magazines, stylists and writers. 

“The Food Exchange will start the process of NCGM becoming to food what Canary Wharf is to finance, and Old Street is to the tech industry,” claims Owen. “There isn’t somewhere like this for food, where people in the industry can work alongside each other. Food is so fragmented. Everyone says it’s about time someone did this. 

“We’re creating an environment that fosters innovation, a hub of knowledge and ideas where over lunch you can create new ideas and partnerships.”

Rory Lawson, co-founder of hydrating recovery drink supplier CocoPro, says the Food Exchange is already having a positive impact on his business since moving in at the end of April [2018].

“Being in the great space we have and with other businesses around us has opened up one or two opportunities that maybe we wouldn’t have had elsewhere,” he reveals, adding that he is “bouncing around ideas” with a couple of companies.

Lawson discloses that CocoPro – a pure coconut water drink with added protein – is going to join Young Foodies, a start-up incubator based upstairs in the Food Exchange that nurtures so-called ‘challenger brands.’

“Young Foodies is looking to build a real case for young food and drink companies,” Lawson explains. “It makes sense for us to work together, to bring something to the table and to take away some learnings.”

Annie Morris, the co-founder of Spoon – a healthy granola company on a mission to make breakfast better – believes her company is reaping from the shared environment too.

“You have more motivation because everyone’s so like-minded,” she notes. “It’s not easy working in a start-up, but everyone’s so passionate about growing their business. I’m looking forward to more companies joining. 

“There are a lot of complementary brands working here; already we’ve made partnerships for marketing purposes,” she adds.

Since moving in, Spoon like CocoPro, has become a member of Young Foodies. “Having them on the floor above is great,” Morris says. “They help on the operations side and give us the answers we’re looking for.”

Already, Lawson is confident there are “strong collaborative opportunities” for CocoPro with other businesses located at the Food Exchange.

“It’s amazing how you can tap into a number of crossovers and share ideas, or get a neutral opinion from someone,” he comments. “A community is starting to build." 

The facility has emerged at the right time, according to Alessio d’Antino, the founder and CEO of ForwardFooding, which facilitates collaborations between innovative food start-ups and established food corporates.

“It’s a well-needed space in terms of serving a community of food entrepreneurs who are just starting out,” he tells PBUK. “It will bring together a network of industry players that are hungry for innovation and new products, alongside serving the local community.” 

The community aspect was precisely what attracted Morris, and Lawson.

“It’s an amazing concept,” Morris enthuses. “Being with other food start-ups – that appealed to us. Plus, it’s a new building. It was great timing.”

As for the cost, both Lawson and Morris agree the rent is reasonable for what’s provided. Equally, they look forward to the expansion of the infrastructure.

“Spoon is one of the first companies to move in, so we had a good offer,” states Morris. “The building is not pristine yet; it’s still in development, but that’s not fazed us. We’re excited to grow together.”

Lawson concurs the rent is good value, while the location is solid. 

“It’s better than market rate; certainly for the space we get,” Lawson comments. “It’s not far to walk from Vauxhall station.

“Of course, we’d all like coffee shops and convenience stores on our doorstep, but it will grow. There are plans for the ground floor [the Food Quarter] and with Mission Kitchen [the shared kitchen space]. 

“If they realise half of their ambitions, it’ll be a great place for our business,” he affirms.

Morris adds that the new Nine Elms tube station will be a further advantage.

“It will create this exciting, new hub for foodies and people supporting smaller businesses,” she concludes.

D’Antino describes the facility as an “exciting, end-to-end” proposition.

“I think having a 360-degree solution – from prototyping your product to understanding how to market it – will make the space a go-to destination for food entrepreneurs,” he asserts. 

Filling the commercial kitchen gap

To broaden its support for small businesses, next summer Mission Kitchen will open a shared, commercial kitchen space on the first floor of the Food Exchange, complete with professional equipment and mentorship from industry experts. 

Private kitchens will be available for larger companies, or those preparing free-from allergen products. Additionally, there will be co-working areas for service-providers, such as graphic designers and finance consultants. 

“We’re filling that gap for small businesses; for example, those baking at home that are far away from having their own commercial kitchen space,” explains Owen at NCGM. “It’s for start-ups, street traders, recipe developers and general innovators.” 

Mission Kitchen managing director Charlie Gent says the space, which is designed to benefit the public and local schools too, covers nearly 19,000 square feet.

“That’s a lot of room to create an effective, impactful workspace for entrepreneurs, and also an educational forum for the public to engage with food and the food industry via classes, tastings, dining events, talks, indoor markets, etc.,” Gent tells PBUK.

Indeed, the facility will include a cookery school for home cooks, a vocational training kitchen for professionals, an evolving food museum and a test kitchen. Outside, the two roof terraces could host anything from beehives to polytunnels for growing herbs and vegetables.

“Growing food that can be used by our members directly is high on the list of priorities, as is experimenting with growing food indoors,” Gent reveals.

D’Antino is certain the kitchen will add value. “We get a tonne of requests from people asking for commercial kitchen spaces to rent out,” he points out, adding that many existing facilities are too expensive for start-ups.

“There is no other space in London (that I’m aware of) that’s as big as this, and complemented by a community of people.” 

Morris says Spoon will use the shared kitchen. “The kitchen will be great for recipe development, not just for the business but for social media and our blog,” she says.

Likewise, Lawson at CocoPro believes the shared kitchen will be beneficial. “We might tap into it as we develop the use of our drinks and start trying different recipes,” he notes. “We have big ambitions, and for CocoPro the product range to be much more – from drinks to snacking.” 

Certainly, Gent envisages the kitchen space will connect with its surrounding facilities. “Our intention is to create an ecosystem both within our space, and one that connects with the ecosystem of the wholesale market and the Food Quarter,” he says.

“There is such an amazing range of produce right on our doorstep; we’re really excited about our members building relationships with the market traders to access their produce, and for the traders to really showcase what they can offer. 

“We have a shared vision and ambition to work together. Over the coming year, we’ll try to set up a streamlined system and procedures by which produce can be ordered directly from the market.”

As for the Food Quarter, Gent hopes the flow will go both ways too. “We’d love to see our members growing, moving out of our space and into the Food Quarter, as well as other independents coming into the retail market and benefiting from our community and space.” 

Morris says that would mark the realisation of a dream for Spoon. “When we started, we looked at opening our own café or site, and that’s still a dream of ours,” she reveals. “Once the retail market is active, we’ll definitely explore how we can play a part, maybe via a stall to interact with consumers.” 

Connecting with consumers 

The idea of reaching out to the people living around the market is a clear winner for d’Antino from ForwardFooding.

“I think it’s a great concept,” he states. “The one thing that struck me positively when I visited was that they want to connect the communities surrounding the venue through the food market. I thought that was really interesting, and the setting is perfect in terms of making that happen. NCGM is one of the very few large distribution networks of fruit and veg in London.” 

Of course, although NCGM is London’s “original and largest” fruit, vegetable and flower market, Owen says that fact is only well-known by the trade.

“Because we operate at night and behind a brick wall, many people don’t know what the market does and what it offers to London,” he notes. “This project takes it to a completely new level. 

“One of the things we’ve looked at is the role a wholesale market plays in a city centre, and how we can redefine that role for NCGM within an environment and an area that is changing.”

Redefining the market

Back in 2007 when the redevelopment of NCGM was first discussed, Battersea Power Station entered its redevelopment phase, 25,000 new homes began to emerge in the Nine Elms area, and the US Embassy announced a relocation.  

This regeneration presented an opportunity to redefine NCGM completely by adding value to its traders, its evolving local community and the wider industry. 

“We want NCGM to play a really central role in this area,” Owen states. “We’re in a fantastic location in London, and we’re adamant that this market and these businesses will remain here.”

The £200m-plus new market is being funded from the release of 20 acres of surplus land to a private development partner, who, in return, will construct a set of interlinking facilities on one triangular site in the coming years.

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