New Spitalfields Market has firmly established itself as the number one wholesale market in the UK. The purpose built facilities in Leyton will be twenty five years old next year, having moved from its original premises in Horner Square which it outgrew. The location was key and the current site is ideal for Central and East London, the Channel Tunnel, East Anglia and Kent, whilst still managing to gain a slice of the West End trade. The original Royal Charter was abolished in Parliament and a new one granted.
The market is owned by the City of London Corporation, who also manage Billingsgate fish market and the meat market at Smithfield and is overseen by Spitalfields’ Market Tenants Association Ltd. Jan Hutchinson was appointed the CEO of the Association in 2010 and I met up with her to find out more about the market, its traders and customers.
The complex is home to 120 businesses; the pavilion, as the market hall is known, currently has over 100 traders of varying sizes, selling fruit, vegetables and flowers to a variety of customers. These include restaurant and cafe owners; street markets, catering supply companies and brokers. Supermarkets are noted by their absence. Within these there are approximately 80 independent, small to medium sized businesses, many of whom are second, third and sometimes even fourth generation sellers. Naturally some retire and sell their businesses on, but there is little change in tenancy.
The variety of produce has adapted over the years and fruit and vegetables from around the world are now commonplace, reflecting the cosmopolitan city that London is. Alongside the seasonal, British produce, that New Spitalfields’ is renowned for, sit Asian, Chinese, Mediterranean, and Afro-Caribbean goods. Defra (Department for Environment Food and Rural and Affairs) inspect the deliveries regularly, checking for banned pesticides as well as the quality and grading of the produce. Goods are also inspected at port so the market inspection is a secondary tier to ensure potentially unsafe foodstuffs remain out of the food chain. I was surprised that there was no organic wholesaler represented, but some traders do offer a selection of these items.
The market has an excellent reputation for the quality and price of the produce and overall, trade is good. Volumes have increased over the years, some of which will be the direct result of the Government’s ‘Five a day’ campaign, but the prices have remained static, with one trader claiming that some of the prices are unchanged in twenty years. I would expect that there will have been some ‘trends’ that have come and gone in that period, helping to inflate certain prices during that time.
New Spitalfields’ is now at maximum capacity and the reality is that they may need to look, in the not too distant future, of the possibility of relocating. Finding a site in London that exceeds its current 31 acres is not an easy task and there are already discussions about re-developing the New Covent Garden area of London with several embassies earmarked to be situated there. It will be interesting to see in time whether these changes will affect the market or change the dynamics of it.
The city is always considering the possibility of combining the markets of Smithfield and Bilingsgate with New Spitalfields to provide one large wholesale trading area. This system operates successfully in France, Rungis being a fine example. The Market Tenant’s Association was formed in 1926 and it oversees the day to day operation of the market, and works in much the same way that a union would in so much as that it is there to represent the employee and is a direct link to the City of London Corporation, with whom they have forged a strong working relationship. Undoubtedly problems do arise and the Association has its own Council of Management.
The Council consists of thirteen elected members and is chaired by Chris Hutchinson of Arthur Hutchinson Ltd, who has held the post for over ten years. Much of the market’s policies are formed this way and topics such as health and safety, operating times and procedures and market improvements are discussed. They meet with the Corporation regularly to discuss the operation.
Tenants rent the square footage they require and it is their responsibility to kit it out as they wish. Some do virtually nothing, others have installed mezzanine floors, refrigerators, banana ripening units and portable buildings which they use as a makeshift office; no sub-letting is permitted. These are highly profitable businesses that sell for many thousands of pounds. There are no vacancies at present and as such, there is no waiting list as tenancies tend to be long term.
The charter is for six days a week, Monday to Saturday, with no Sunday trading. There has been suggestions for the market to consider trading to the general public on a Saturday as this is something that both Smithfield and Billingsgate do, but the practicalities of having to split produce into smaller quantities makes it difficult and most importantly, it would be taking trade directly from the street markets, which are one of New Spitalfields’ key customers.
Because of the cultural mix within the market community, the British religious holidays are not always observed and it is down to the individual trader whether they choose to be open or not. An example of this is Good Friday. The market doesn’t operate over the Christmas holidays or Bank Holidays. Trading hours are officially from 12.00-9.00 although these do appear to be getting earlier and the key selling period is between midnight and three am. My visit took place towards the end of the trading period to give me the opportunity to speak with some of the traders, but the area was still alive with activity and everyone was still very busy.
Despite pedestrian hatching to either side of the market hall pavilion, you still have to be careful where you walk as forklift trucks are whizzing about all over the place and despite being in hi-vis, I was aware of everyone around me. Council Chairman, Chris Hutchinson was one of the first people I met. He is a third generation at Spitalfields, with 39 years under his belt, and runs the business with his son Dave, a qualified chef. He specialises in predominantly British produce, with some European fare. Seasonality is key and I was interested to see boxes of cob nuts – something I rarely see these days. He has found that some seasons have extended so that the demand for the British ones is lessened, this is particularly the case with strawberries, but the asparagus and cherry seasons still have a high demand. He also said that retailers at Notting Hill Carnival go crazy for our corn on the cob! There are some traders that specialise in just one product, and walking through the halls I saw areas piled high with, onions, another with bananas. One such specialist is Peter from Poland who just sells mushrooms; boxes and boxes of white button and cup mushrooms from the family farm back home. He has been on the market for four years and is pleased with trade levels.
I was staggered to learn that he sells two lorry loads of mushrooms a week. He claims his mushrooms are the best and use less pesticides than some. Steve of JT Kemsley is a fruit specialist, selling top end produce. He has 39 years trading experience and commented that supermarkets have had an adverse effect on the industry. He has little wastage, due to his vast experience, but the bad weather that week meant that the street market vendors were buying less and subsequently he was having to consider some of his pricing to avoid having excessive stock left. He too actively promotes seasonal produce and said that Bramley apples and gooseberries ‘fly out’ as you can only get them in the UK for a limited period.
I was delighted to see damsons available and it evoked childhood memories spent in the school holidays at my grandmother’s, picking damsons from her tree for making jam. There is one florist and plant specialist and that is Bristows (RJB & Sons). They sell a vast array of cut flowers, cacti and succulents, indoor plants and bedding pants. This is Ray’s quiet time of year but with the wedding season underway, cut flowers are selling well. High street florists are becoming less common but floristry is a popular past time and satellite business for ‘work from home’ mums and retirees, which has helped stabilise trade.
One of the characters of the market was Peter from Tropifresh. He lived and worked in the Caribbean and came into the market by default 35 years ago when an Afro-Caribbean retailer was selling up. He likes to provide a ‘taste of home’ to his customers and often has niche products such as Dasheen Bush, the leaf from the dasheen plant. It is also known as calaloo and not dissimilar to spinach or chard. A surprise find was Aloe Vera leaves and he amused us with a story about a customer who used it as a suppository for his piles! Peter’s daughter also helps out with the business.
There are a large number of Asian retailers and the smell of coriander and ripe mangoes was prevalent around the halls in those areas, interspersed with a myriad of bright and unusual produce. Ronny Liu owns Sunnyfield veg, which has both a wholesale firm in the pavilion specialising in oriental fruit and vegetables and a catering supply company based in a separate area of the site, below the office suite. His wife Sue also runs Cooks Delight, selling specialist Chinese produce to the catering market. Both are well established businesses and familiar faces at Spitalfields market.
There are several catering supply companies within the complex, further adding to the diverse range of products available and five cafes on site for the traders to choose from, one of which is licensed. This may seem quite strange for a business so health and safety conscious, as it could potentially encourage drinking in a traffic heavy environment, but as Jan explained, it is carefully monitored and at the former site, much trade was conducted in the local hostelry at the close of trading! Four out of Five of the cafes are Turkish run and offer a range of products from filled rolls to Turkish specialities. I sampled Dino’s and whilst enjoying my breakfast, it was a great place to people watch and absorb the atmosphere. There was one very smart gentleman in a blazer with a carnation in his lapel and Jan informed me that he was a former tenant who had retired and sold his business, but still comes every day to ‘help out’ and meet up with everyone.
New Spitalfields’ Market may not have the ‘glamour’ of some London markets but it certainly has bags of personality and the passion among the traders to work hard and provide great quality produce at competitive prices, makes it the premier wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower outlet that it is today. The market is open for trading from 12.00am – 9.00am, Monday to Saturday, and can be found at 23 Sherrin Road, London, E10 5SQ.
Anyone wanting more information can contact the Tenants Association on 0208 556 1479 between the hours of 7.00am – 1.00pm, Monday to Friday.