Helena Drakakis looks at how the UK’s largest wholesale market is adapting to changing times.

Fresh produce and provenance are high on the agenda, with today’s consumer expecting a lot more from eating out.

Therefore, the sector needs its premier supplier to have a site that is not just fit for purpose, but inspiring.

Helen Evans is speaking to me from a Portakabin overlooking London’s New Covent Garden Market (NCGM) in Nine Elms: “On the one side, there’s building work. Then, every so often, my desk shakes because, on the other side, a new Tube extension is being built,” she laughs.

Evans is director of business development at NCGM, and is at the heart of a major transformation of the site, whose traders collectively deliver an annual turnover of around £635m.

It’s five years before the transformative facelift of the UK’s largest fresh produce market will be completed, with the final bill expected to come in at around £200m.

The redevelopment of the site, which opened in 1974 following a move from its original home at the world-famous tourist calling point, is aimed at making the market a destination famed for the experience it offers, and flocked to by sellers, buyers, and diners who are passionate about food.

Redevelopment in action

The pièces de résistance that ensure the site won’t become a relic of the past – albeit in a shiny new building – are the ‘food quarter’, encompassing cafés and restaurants, and a state-of-the-art ‘food exchange’, which will act as a hub for food-related businesses, as well as an education centre for aspiring chefs, cooks and foodies.

Currently, only one milestone has been achieved – the relocation of the flower market in April: “It’s a bit like the Chinese puzzles that you get in crackers at Christmas with the blank space,” explains Evans. “We build something and move people into it. Then we demolish the unit that the sellers come out of and build something in its place.”

The market is part of a £2bn regeneration of the whole Nine Elms area, which also includes the new home of the American Embassy and numerous blocks of luxurious apartments overlooking the River Thames.

As Evans touches upon, the challenge is how to negotiate building work on a live wholesale market site bustling with activity from 10pm to 6am six days a week. To accommodate this, construction starts at around 8am and continues throughout the day. It’s a 24-hour operation that’s been met with resistance and expectation. “If traders could come in one morning and find it finished, they’d be happy. It’s something we’ve all had to get used to,” Evans admits. 

Catering for convenience

Amid the upheaval, the function of the market remains unchanged. NCGM serves 40% of the fruit and vegetables eaten out-of-home in London, at venues including the Savoy Hotel, eateries at London Zoo and London’s increasingly popular street-food markets.

As well as housing the traditional fruit, veg and flower wholesalers, the site is also home to a growing army of wholesale distributors able to respond to customers working in an increasingly fast-paced and competitive industry.

These distributors buy in bulk from the market, consolidate, and then break down and deliver to foodservice outlets and several independent retailers.

To meet the demand for convenience, they prepare food, too. Evans says: “This has been an accelerating trend over the past five years, so these guys peel, dice, juice – whatever is needed – and then deliver direct to kitchens. It’s become a just-in-time service: a first delivery for such firms tends to happen at around 7am with room for a second, if needed, at around 11am.” 

Despite being smaller in scale than regional or national wholesalers, these wholesalers are located in the heart of the city, can respond quickly to customer needs and provide a bespoke offer, which gives them a level of service that’s hard for larger operations to replicate. 

Not only that, but they are also food experts: many have been chefs themselves, and understand the pressures of the kitchen and the profit margins to which foodservice outlets work.

“When the craze was to spiralise everything, we called it ‘the courgette crisis’ here,” Evans recalls. “All a chef wanted was courgettes, even if they were high in price. Our distributors were able to recommend savoy cabbage or kale, which could similarly be served in strips and was much more economical at the time.”

Quality counts

With 20 years on the market behind her, Evans has seen expectations for quality rise higher than ever before in recent times. “Traditionally, markets have been seen as a dumping ground, but that’s not the case here,” she says.

Around 10 years ago, she explains, there was a drive to convince British growers who traditionally supplied supermarkets that quality counted in foodservice wholesale, given that a third of all consumer-spending happened outside the home: “We saw this market growing from early on and we worked incredibly hard with suppliers,” she says.

As a result, suppliers like G’s, which is one of the UK’s largest salad growers, now has a brand dedicated to upmarket foodservice customers, alongside a sub-brand that’s more price-sensitive.

“Quality is a given now, but we also worked very hard with growers to make sure there was a market for everything that was being produced – for example, if vegetables are misshapen, they could go into soups,” Evans notes. “This market’s real strength is its ability to work up and down the supply chain.”

Lasting effects

Another milestone, the exact make-up of which is due to be announced this month, is the creation of a London Markets Board, which will advise on the delivery of a London markets strategy and on action to promote the capital’s growing wholesale, street and covered markets: “We pushed for the creation of a London Markets Board and it’s happening. In terms of recognition, that’s a real success for us,” says Evans.

The board will comprise around a dozen industry experts. It will sit inside City Hall, and highlight the importance of employment, food supply and community. “It’s also about supporting small businesses – in some cases one- or two-man bands – who collectively are very powerful,” Evans adds.

As you will be aware from your own wholesale businesses, sustainability comes in all shapes and sizes. Included in the revamped NCGM will be numerous electric charging points for vehicles. Attention is also turning to encouraging more sustainable packaging. As of six years ago, the market became zero-to-landfill: “We recycle everything we can in terms of wood, plastics and cardboard. In organics, wastage is split between creating pig feed or composting. Anything we can’t recycle is turned into waste energy in the form of briquettes,” Evans says.

Then there’s food sold off before it becomes waste. Soft-fruit, for example, is sold on to jam- and chutney-makers. And food charity City Harvest collects for food banks and homeless kitchens.

“Much of the food that charities get through retail is pre-packaged, and so fresh food is incredibly welcome,” says Evans, highlighting the link between the wholesale market and efforts to tackle food poverty. 

She concludes: “There’s always something new here and there are fresh challenges to face. Markets get under your skin. I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t love it. It’s very real and very immediate.” 

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Helena Drakakis
Helena Drakakis is a journalist for betterWholesaling. Liaising with some of the leading suppliers and industry experts, she aims to bring wholesalers the best advice, latest news and inspiration.

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