After years of decline, the UK’s wholesale sector has levelled out. The key players are looking to the future with optimism thanks to a combination of redevelopment, innovation and adaption. New Covent Garden Market is undergoing a massive renovation, while across the city New Spitalfields is talking about a new composite market. Produce Business UK investigates
Contrary to what some might think, time at the UK’s wholesale markets does not stand still. For a sector that was considered in terminal decline a generation ago, those involved have proved to be not only a resilient bunch, but an innovative and forward-thinking group to boot.
And nowhere is this spirit of adventure and modernisation more pronounced than in London’s two biggest wholesale markets, New Covent Garden and New Spitalfields. Over in south-west London, New Covent Garden Market is undergoing a revolutionary transformation at its Nine Elms site in Vauxhall, while across the capital in east London talk of a new composite market, incorporating New Spitalfields, the UK’s largest wholesale meat market Smithfield, and Billingsgate Fish Market, refuses to go away. Speaking to Helen Evans, director of business development at Covent Garden Market Authority, and Chris Hutchinson, chairman of the Spitalfields Market Tenants’ Association, however, and it’s clear that both are pursuing their own distinctive paths to this, hopeful, promised land.
Covent Garden Market Authority’s Helen Evans
Evans, unsurprisingly, focuses on the on-going £2 billion redevelopment at Nine Elms, a project that should be completed in 2022. “We really want people to get their heads around what it will actually mean,” she explains. “It will mean we’ve got the most modern and efficient market in Europe.”
That’s not all. Evans hopes that by the end of the build, New Covent Garden will have reinvented what it means to have a wholesale market in the centre of a capital. “I think there’s only one other wholesale market that’s still in the centre of a capital and that’s Berlin,” she says, “and that is relatively small. We see our redevelopment as a real opportunity for the industry as a whole to get better known by the general public.”
Evans believes that alongside the public not generally knowing where their food is grown, they also don’t know how it gets to them. “It’s the bit that people miss out,” she asserts. “With the rise in interest in local food there’s somehow an assumption that the chef meets a farmer and the food magically appears at the chef’s back door. I think the wholesale sector is a link in the chain that people forget and they possibly see it as adding costs whereas we would see it as adding value.”
This value, she affirms, resides in being able to move produce to London’s top restaurants and hotels quickly and efficiently, but also the movement of information up and down the supply chain. The market acts a pivot between the producer and the chef and the redevelopment is an opportunity for people to understand that better.
Chris Hutchinson of the Spitalfields Market Tenants’ Association
Efficiency and a composite market
Hutchinson isn’t too concerned with raising awareness of New Spitalfields. The market, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary at Leyton, runs at full capacity, but he agrees with Evans that an increased acknowledgement of how wholesale markets work within the industry would be good for all.
“We’re always trying to encourage suppliers and customers alike, that meeting in the market is a very good place to come together for both produce and people to create very efficient business. There’s been a trend over the years to do things directly but customers still come to us for top-ups. We are efficient, we are high quality and we are competitive.”
Efficiency – much like sustainability – is one of the phrases that you hear a lot within horticulture at present, and it’s something that Hutchinson is clearly an advocate of. Hence the discussion of a new composite market designed with the needs of the 21st century in mind.
“It’s certainly in its infancy at this stage,” he says. “There are noises being made at the moment to see whether this can happen or not – studies and the like. It’s a big, big project – a huge project. The City of London Corporation is possibly the only body that could even contemplate putting such a thing together.”
New Spitalfields Market has been in Leyton for 25 years
One efficient saving of housing a fresh fruit and vegetable market, a meat market and a fish market all on one site would be that there would no longer be a need for three separate vehicles supplying restaurants with goods across London.
“If you had a composite market you could have one vehicle – these days you can have compartments on the vehicle dedicated to each product – delivering to the restaurants in London,” says Hutchinson. “That is one vehicle on the road instead of three. And that vehicle would be electric too. So emissions in London would be reduced tremendously as well. There are nothing but positives for a composite market in London going forwards.”
Markets are good places for meeting up
Hutchinson also believes that increased efficiencies are one of the keys to survival for the wholesale sector. Having spent years absorbing rising energy costs – now thankfully levelling out – he says the landlord at New Spitalfields, the City of London Corporation, is now trying to increase the tenants’ rent.
“We’re always getting hammered with costs, our expenses are going up all the time so becoming more and more efficient seems to be our only way to survive,” he explains. “Making more profit out of the produce is very difficult because it’s such a competitive industry and so that keeps prices – especially in our sector, in the independent sector – extremely competitive.”
He continues: “And the forecast is that for another five to eight years produce will be cheap due to oversupply. It’s going to be survival of the fittest at the moment. People that are producing tomatoes and cucumbers are really not earning a great deal at the moment because it is so competitively priced.”
Wholesale is a competitive sector where profit margins can be tight
Selling more intelligently
Becoming more efficient is part of what Evans describes as “not only selling more, but selling more intelligently.” It’s about understanding developments in IT – something the wholesale sector may have been slow to pick up on initially, but now fully embraces – and latterly adopting the benefits of amplification that social media provides.
She explains: “Consumers are never going to get hugely excited about a new vehicle or some other method that happens in the warehouse like racking, you know. I think it’s about understanding that there is an industry there that manages it for them. I suppose it’s like…when you see an amazing film; Star Wars or something like that. There’s a lot more focus these days on how it got made. And when people are passionate as they are about food, I think they are interested in the actual mechanics of how it gets to them. And there’s a huge focus on the people who are responsible for that journey.”
And this is where social media can help tell the story of that journey and the provenance of the produce. Twitter, Instagram and the like also go hand-in-hand with the rise in food bloggers and the on-going revolution in street food. Evans sees street food, pop-ups and independent restaurants as a real opportunity for wholesale traders.
“People are always looking for something new and something exciting,” Evans says. “And the new doesn’t always have to be new. The new can be old, as in traditional produce or things people have forgotten about. Just look at kale. That came from nowhere. That’s partly because it’s deemed a super food, but on the back of it you’ve got kale flowers, kale in different colours. Very often when I take people around the market, especially chefs, I would say broadly on the market there are three trends – one is size, one is colour and one is provenance – the tradition of where it’s come from; its story. So the story of where food has come from is more important than it’s ever been – social media helps.”
How the renovated fruit and vegetable market will look at New Covent Garden
Trends and education
Adapting to the ever-changing needs of the food industry is key then for the future of the wholesale sector, and both Evans and Hutchinson appear optimistic about the future.
“The future, if handled correctly, is bright,” notes Hutchinson cautiously. “People will always need to eat. We need to get more education to people regarding how to eat our produce and how to prepare it, and we need to educate people about where the best value to buy our produce is – and that doesn’t include going to the multiples.”
And with 40% of household expenditure on food now being spent outside the home, Evans quite rightly says that the food service sector is key for the wholesale markets. She proudly boasts that wholesale markets are now in effect extensions of restaurant kitchens. As space in restaurant kitchens is squeezed in order to seat as many customers as possible, buying your produce pre-prepared is one area that wholesale traders can grow revenue streams.
She says: “If you buy your product ready prepped you might pay more, but you don’t have to employ a member of staff to chop, dice and peel, and you don’t have to deal with the waste. It’s as sophisticated as car manufacturing. You call in the product in the shape and size that you want as you need it and it can be delivered from the market. The guys here have very skilled people – there are people that do it by machine and there are people that do it by hand. So that oft-seen phrase hand-cut chips means there are people here hand-cutting those chips.”
It’s clear then that both New Covent Garden and New Spitalfields markets are not standing still. Both are looking to the future with confidence, thanks to a combination of development, re-interpretation and innovation. The next decade promises to be an exciting time for the capital’s wholesale markets, and those across the UK.
To find out more on this topic read Tommy Leighton’s post What next for London’s fruit, vegetable and flower wholesale markets?
New Covent Garden Market and New Spitalfields Market are both exhibiting at The London Produce Show that runs from June 8-10 at the Grosvenor House hotel. Register here.