When London secondary wholesaler Natoora announced recently it was the first to start delivering fresh produce to London restaurants on a Sunday, we at Produce Business UK were probably not the only people to be a little surprised, as we thought catering suppliers had been offering this service for some time. We decided to find out more
Helen Evans is director of business development and support for Covent Garden Market Authority, which runs New Covent Garden Market and counts Natoora, among hundreds of other secondary wholesalers, independent retailers, restaurants and street-market traders, among its customers.
“Some of our tenants have been delivering on Sundays for years,” Evans says, “especially those that serve the Jewish community – such as Jewish care homes – as they do not accept deliveries on a Saturday.
“While we don’t have a wholesale market at New Covent Garden on a Sunday, this market has always adapted to give the best possible service to its customers.”
While statutes – and in the case of New Spitalfields Market a Royal Charter – may limit the capacity for seven-day trading, they do not prevent outbound deliveries seven days a week, as Nigel Shepherd, superintendent of New Spitalfields Market points out.
“We actually trade more and have longer hours than the City’s other two wholesale markets – Billingsgate and Smithfield – as we are open six days a week for longer hours each day and they are open for shorter hours only five days a week,” says Shepherd.
Trading hours change
These trading hours have changed to adapt to an evolving marketplace and as Shepherd explains, if it’s in the interests of the market, its traders and customers then it’s something that the City will work to achieve.
“About 10 years ago the tenants wanted to open earlier as they had some customers who wanted to come onto the market and buy their produce at the end of their foodservice day,” he says. “For example, kebab-shop owners that stay open until late at night wanted to be able to come to the market after they closed to buy produce for the next day rather than going home and then getting up early to come to the market. Working with the tenants’ association, we changed our opening time from 3am to midnight in order to accommodate this.”
Several of the catering-supply businesses on New Spitalfields Market, as well as having leases that stipulate they can come and go as suits them to deliver to customers, also operate from off-site premises, adds Shepherd.
But do many restaurants really want seven-day deliveries anyway? Evans points to the experience of London’s hugely successful Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 to suggest probably not. Ahead of the games, New Covent Garden consulted widely with the market’s customers on how best to deal with road closures and the introduction of Olympic lanes and earlier deliveries were offered.
“It sounded great,” says Evans, “like seven-day deliveries. But in reality not all customers wanted to put staff on an earlier shift to receive the earlier deliveries and what we found was that actually some customers wanted fewer deliveries, not more or earlier.”
And at New Spitalfields, which is just opposite the Olympic Park, some of the habits formed during the games have stuck.
Jan Hutchinson, chief executive of Spitalfields Market Tenants’ Association says: “What we have found on the wholesale side is that a lot of customers came earlier to the market to be clear of the roads by the time of the lane closures at 6am and their buying was concentrated into a shorter period – they didn’t hang around waiting for prices to drop. Since then,we have seen this general shift to earlier rather than later trading and whereas five years ago there would still be a buzz of activity on the market at 8am, this is not the case now.”
Any moves for the traditional wholesale side of either market to trade seven days a week, as opposed to the catering-supply operations based on the markets to deliver seven days a week, are therefore unlikely. “I think there would be big resistance,” says Hutchinson. “A lot of the firms are family businesses and could not afford the staff.”
Nationwide foodservice-supplier Fresh Direct has six depots including one in London based at New Covent Garden. The firm delivers on Sundays from its Oxfordshire depot and its Glasgow depot and has been doing so on a regular basis for the past three years. As the largest trucks in its fleet of vehicles are 18-tonne lorries, there are no restrictions to Sunday deliveries.
“Delivering on Sundays has a tonne of benefits,” says a spokesman for the company. “It gives our customers access to fresh food seven days a week, so they’re able to utilise this service to keep the products in their kitchen as fresh as possible. It also frees up their kitchens to hold less stock, which gives the chefs more space to focus on producing great dishes. This factor also reduces the risk of overstocking, which can lead to product wastage. Giving chefs access to fresh food throughout the whole week should also remove the risk of dishes on their menu being unavailable due to the kitchen running out of stock of the raw products.”
As well as individual, independent restaurants, the Fresh Direct business counts a number of restaurant chains among its client list and finds that many of these are among those taking advantage of the seventh day of delivery. “It allows our customers to plan ahead more accurately on the volumes they’re going use each day and maintain a high quality of fresh produce,” says the spokesman.
With bank holidays increasingly seen as ordinary delivery days, watch this space for night-time deliveries, says Fresh Direct: “They offer customers a hugely convenient service as all the products needed for prep and service can be waiting for the chefs as soon as they arrive for work in the morning.”