Fabulous Fresh Food at Basingstoke Market

I always enjoy revisiting markets, seeing the familiar faces along with the new, and observing how the market has grown. It’s been a couple of years since I last visited Hughmark’s Basingstoke Market and there was a real buzz around the place.

When I first visited, Hughmark hadn’t long taken over and MD Lew Hughes was quick to admit that the market was almost in, ‘terminal decline’. Despite introducing various traders over the last two years, not many stood the test of time. It seems now though that the operator has recognised that fresh food works well in Hampshire’s largest town and this was clearly well supported during my visit.

The small, twice-weekly outdoor market has a thriving fruit and veg stall, bakers, butcher, eggs and preserves and a number of interesting hot food outlets, including waffles and crepes, Belgian food, Korean, Japanese and Thai.

Due to the school holidays, there were a few gaps in the market and Lew advised me that there were also a number of new traders due to join, that would then take the market further down Wote Street to join up with the main shopping centre, Festival Place, at the bottom. These include La Pescaderia, a fish monger selling fresh fish from Brixham, with a weekly changing catch, featuring your staples and a few surprises like octopus; a 40’ flowers and nursery stall and also 40’ of ladies’ fashions.

Lew has worked closely with the shop retailers down this area to ensure that their premises aren’t obstructed by the market stalls and thankfully, the shopkeepers acknowledge that the market brings extra footfall.

I arrived on the Wednesday market before the lunchtime trade and the cheery call from the fruit and vegetable trader, interspersed with: “Hot dogs, burgers, bacon rolls a pound,” from Norman’s burgers, makes the market feel like a market, like how markets used to be. There were plenty of people around and trade was brisk.

Meet the Traders

The first thing I noticed was the new fruit and veg stall, which was constantly being replenished. Servers were calling out their offers of the day and shoppers were grabbing baskets and filling them up. The previous greengrocer retired after some 30 years at the market and Bob of B&B Fruits, or Boz’s as it’s known, took over last February.

‘Bob the Gob’ replenishing banana stocks

‘Bob the Gob’ as he is affectionately known had a difficult task turning the stall round, but has done so very successfully. They have bargain bowls as well as weigh ‘n’ pay and a dedicated Asian area with herbs, fruits and vegetables. Bob told MTN: “Our customers are very loyal and they come rain or shine. We take nothing home, except maybe a few apples. It’s built on trust. We buy fresh, quality produce at the right price, which means we can pass on the savings. All our customers know that if they have a problem, we don’t quibble, we just replace it or give them their money back. We have very few complaints.”

I can vouch for the quality, I went home with several bags of produce that was still good the following week.

He also spoke highly of Lew saying: “Lew has done nothing but help, he’s always trying to introduce new traders and gets things done. When we needed more bins, he got it sorted. He looks after us and the rates are fair.”

Market butcher Phil Howe sells bumper packs

Phil Howe is still the resident butcher and there were plenty of bargains to be had from him. Trade for him has been consistent and he has his regulars. As it was a fine day, he was promoting barbecue packs as well as his other bulk-buy offers.

You need to catch Emily early before she sells out

Also still selling well, is Emily from Manor Farm Eggs, In fact, business has been so good that she needed to replenish her preserves and cheese stocks. She was selling white hen’s eggs, as well as the more traditional brown and told me these were becoming popular again. Additionally, she has started selling rare breed eggs to compliment the hen, duck and geese eggs. She told me: “This is my best market. It took a while to build up but I come out in all weathers and it’s paid off.”

Darren and the team at Thai Knights are highly rated on restaurantguru.com

I recognised Darren and the girls from Thai Knight from my last visit, and was delighted to note that they had expanded to twice their original size. As before, the smells emanating from the stall were enticing and all I had to do was narrow it down to one choice – nigh on impossible! The stall is ranked 14 out of 429 on Restaurant Guru.com and #1 of 55 fast food outlets for Basingstoke, quite an achievement. Each session they get through over 50 kilos of chicken, and that’s without the other meat, fish and vegetables. They have specials that change each day but their best seller is the chicken with cashew nuts. Darren commented: “We couldn’t ever take that off, there would be carnage!” So that’s what I went for. Along with a fat vegetable spring roll which I munched, walking around the market. They were both fabulous.

Just some of the bread available from McCarthy’s

Brentwood based McCarthy’s Country Store still have a steady, regular trade at the market selling bread, cakes and savouries. Some they bake themselves, and others, particularly some of the artisan breads, come from Flour Power at Borough Market. As I was en-route to a friend’s, I purchased several cakes and a delicious seaweed sourdough which froze very well. The cakes were soon devoured.

One of Massita’s signature dishes. The ‘noodles’ are in fact crispy potato

I’m always a big advocate for sampling; customers get to taste your product and you have a hook to start engaging with them. The guys at Massita did this well. Massita translates as ‘better taste’ in Korean. Not only did they have a sample dish displayed, they had little pots with tasters of their crispy chicken – Honey Crunch Chicken and Sweet Chilli Crunch, their two biggest sellers. It was this sampling that drew in a customer whilst I was there. He wasn’t local, just passing through, thought: “Ooh, what’s that?” and the next thing he is walking away with a box and a contented smile. Massita also offer Japanese katsu chicken and vegetable dumplings. The prices are competitive – £5 for a small main-meal box and £6 for large. In the four months that the guys have been trading at Basingstoke, they have built up a regular customer base.

Joffrey prepares a white sausage, one of his Belgian specialities

Only on his second week was Joffrey from La Cuisine Belge (Belgian food in case you weren’t quite sure). He is the owner of a restaurant in Richmond that had been damaged by a fire and so decided to turn his hand to markets, starting off from a gazebo. Coincidentally, his home town of Braine-l’Alleud is twinned with Basingstoke. He was selling teas and coffees and home-made cupcakes with Belgian chocolate and Speculoos (which got me excited as it’s not well known in this country). Hot food wise, he has to be careful not to sell the same lines as Norman’s Burgers, although he does offer breakfast rolls. His hot food consists of paninis, duck wrap, lamb with feta and for an authentic taste of Belgium, a white pudding sausage served with cabbage and apples.

The E-liquidator stands on Wote Street, an arm of the main market

Market Improvements

Along with the slight change of focus, the market still has both ladies and menswear, a mobile phone accessories stall and a reputable e-ciggarette supplier and these non-food commodities will continue to grow now that the market has continued and loyal support from the people of Basingstoke.

Another area which the market team has embraced is social media. They employed the services of Paul Allen Media a year ago, starting from nothing. Paul started a Facebook page for the market which now has almost 2000 followers and over 300 Twitter followers. Paul regularly features new and established traders, posting photos and videos, showcasing the best of the produce available. He has also introduced a ‘Talking Traders’ feature, where traders get the opportunity to talk about what they have to offer. Traders that have their own pages are encouraged to link to the official site and social media training is offered to those that wish to get involved.

It’s great to see a Facebook page that is used and regularly updated. Often when you look at a market’s social media sites, they aren’t kept up to date, which I believe does not create a positive message. I appreciate that Council operated markets often don’t allow markets to have independent websites and social media platforms, which I feel is counter-productive. Hughmark has also introduced an occasional French market as well as an Italian market. These usually visit on non-market days so as not to take business away from the established traders, but to help boost the town’s economy and encourage residents to visit the ‘Top of the Town’, the name of the area where the markets are held.

At the end of July, Basingstoke also held a Markets Matter open day event, supporting the NMTF initiative. The event included cookery demonstrations, giveaways and promotions and free face painting for the children.

What is clear, is that Hughmark continue to try to make the Top of the Town the talk of town, by introducing new traders and initiatives to get people talking about the market in a positive way.

Lew commented: “We are midway through our task and on course to exceed our brief. The market is now established as a good market worthy of support. Traders are interested once again in coming to Basingstoke, which was a real struggle when we first started. Shopkeepers and local businesses can now visibly see the difference in footfall on market days.

“It has been a battle to establish this market as a viable asset to the town and our considerable know-how has been utilised to good effect. We saw that the market had potential, but a lot of determination and effort was required which is why we were the only operator around at the time to take a chance on it. We had and still have faith in the good bunch of traders we have assembled and the enthusiasm of the local population for this market. What it needed was drive and an experienced operator. Basingstoke Market is not a finished product but it now has a future and a bright one at that.”

Trader Benefits

Regular traders are issued with free parking permits and pitch fees are sensibly priced with electricity available on certain pitches. Lew and the team want to work with traders to help them to get the most from their business. They are always looking for new and innovative traders as well as experienced professionals. To find out more contact 0118 945 1799 or visit www.hughmark.co.uk and fill in the enquiry form.