The Fox family of Delvin, Co Westmeath, have been providing fresh Irish fruit and vegetables to the people of Mullingar for almost 70 years.
It started in 1953 when Paddy Fox returned from England to the home beef farm and bought a van to sell wholesale fruit, vegetables and fish.
He sourced produce from North Dublin growers at the capital’s Victorian Fruit and Vegetable Market where, in the early morning hours, he joined long queues of farmers on their tractors and trailers waiting to deliver the day’s staples.
On route home, Paddy delivered to dozens of tiny family-owned shops and butchers between Dublin and Delvin.
Today his daughter Bernie and son Fergal continue the family’s greengrocer tradition.
Bernie came on board in the late 1980s when the Foxes opened their first shop at St Loman’s Terrace, just a stone’s throw from Mullingar’s old mart.
“At that time, we had 20 growers we bought from in Dublin, Meath, and some local — we had five mushroom suppliers in the area,” she says.
“It was all turnips, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. We sold three heads of cabbage for £1, 3lb of bananas for £1, a stone of carrots was £1.50… our pound was valuable that time.
“The farmers came on a Tuesday for the mart, it was the busiest day of the week. You’d love to see the farmers’ wives coming because they’d buy maybe two bags of potatoes, six heads of cabbage and a big bag of carrots.
“They’d be going home to the silage cutting, where they fed all the local lads — whoever gave a hand came in for a slap-up dinner in the middle of the day and they sent them out again.
“The lady in the mart used to buy apples from us to bake tarts for the farmers, she made 80 tarts at a time.”
Like his father, Fergal travelled to the Dublin market on Mary’s Lane three days a week for 30 years.
“You’d write the order the night before, land in the market for 7am, go around all the different farmers to pick what you wanted, load up the lorry and race back to be in the shop for 9am,” he says.
“Then about five years ago one of the big traders closed and the market just fell asunder. It closed in 2019, it was heart-breaking for people who ran stalls there for 60 years.
“We saw 70 or 80 vans vanish; kids will be asking in a few years ‘what’s a greengrocer?’ because they will disappear.
“The small delivery guys are gone too, now we go direct to about six growers to collect the order three days a week.
“During the downturn people started shopping in Lidl and Aldi and they got more powerful, they dictated price to the growers.
“Then big coffee chains arrived who don’t support local fresh produce — everything is pre-packed.”
Nevertheless, the Foxes persevered expanding their fruit and vegetable offering while adding other produce and dried foods into their mix.
“15 years ago, we started stocking pasta because a lot of people were looking for it. We had the idea of being a one-stop shop where they could get their veg, pasta, sauce, garlic, onions and then go to the butchers,” says Bernie.
“It was unique at the time, but now you can get your bag of pasta at the petrol station. The point is, you have to keep diversifying.
“We introduced local jams, organic cheeses, fresh orange juices and milk, anyone making anything local we will bring it in.
“Custom definitely increased, particularly during the pandemic, people wanted local produce because they were afraid to go into supermarkets.
“We put our shop outside and kept all the doors open so people felt safe enough coming in.
“They had more time to cook so they tried different recipes. Sales of potatoes increased, there was big demand for peppers, asparagus, tender-stem broccoli, beansprouts, mushrooms went crazy.
“All different tomatoes — brown, yellow, cherry, vine, the ordinary ones — went really well too. Our prices haven’t changed much in the last five years, we try to keep them as low as we possibly can.
“The amount of husbands here on a Saturday with a list from their wives was unbelievable. Men are cooking more than women, 50pc are men coming in on Saturdays to buy the makings of the dinner.”
Bernie says organic “is not a priority for customers”.
“We tried organic for two months but the customer would pick up three apples for €3, then see six apples for €3; they weighed organic against the value and 90pc put down the organic and went with the ordinary apples.”
Now located in Lynn Industrial Estate, employing 10 people and delivering to several businesses around town, Bernie hopes to maintain Foxes’ loyal customer base.
“All nine siblings are involved in food; fruit and vegetables is in our blood on both sides. My mother Bernadette is from Swords and our uncle Patrick Monks used to bring his cabbage to the market at 3am with a horse and cart.
“Another uncle in Clare is 80 and still growing and selling vegetables for Kinvara Market.
“The plan is to keep the head above water. Our big concern is for our growers, a lot of them are getting out, they’re slowly dwindling, I doubt there is a 20-year-old looking to produce fruit and veg in this country.
“It’s a shame because Irish vegetables are just amazing, our foreign customers can’t get enough of our potatoes and greens. When I walk into our cold-room the smell overwhelms me every time.
“It’s hard work but I love coming in every day, meeting people and just getting busy, hopefully our customers can see that too.”