The market is open and the produce is fresh and plentiful. The Chairman of the Covent Garden Tenants Association, Gary Marshall is exclaims.“New Covent Garden Market is open for business!”
Gary Marshall, chairman of the Covent Garden Tenants Association. Photo source: Gawain Towler
"It is full of fresh produce, beautiful produce, as are the other London markets. If you are out there use them”.
He said this as he launched an initiative which will see the general public invited to shop at the market as individuals, rather than the market remain a solely wholesale option.
In this fast moving and fluid situation the government is under a great deal of pressure but there is no doubt that to defeat this disease we will need to engage the small business sector. It is imperative that their voices are heard and heard loud. Currently the sight of panic buying and acres of empty loo roll shelves are blinding the eyes of the administration to the possibilities of the small business sector.
The danger of crises is the tendency of Governments to look at the big, bold gesture, accruing more power to the centre and corporate interests and driving out competition. What Covent Garden is doing, what its independent traders are doing should be seen as a model for handling the inevitable problems thrown up by the virus in a fleet and innovative fashion.
The Market has a long and storied history, with its initial boost coming after the plague and the great fire of London in 1665 and 1666. The markets of central London had been devastated by both. Covent Garden, between London and Westminster was perfectly placed to capitalise on the situation.
Today, with the Covid-19 pandemic, it can again come to the rescue of the city. It is a seed-bed of innovation, and has been for centuries.
But to do so, it needs to free up the entrepreneurship of the 30 odd independent fruit and vegetable suppliers based there, many of which have been around for over a century.
Chris Heaton Harris, now a Transport Minister, was a Covent Garden trader for 11 years andis strong in his praise for his former colleagues: “Historically Covent Garden Market has always fed London. The traders there are some of the most innovative and hard grafting folk in the country. It’s as if they’ve been genetically modified to find solutions to problems and have built up astonishingly good relations with suppliers both at home and abroad over decades."
Though the market is quiet, and most traders have seen a collapse in their sales due to the freefall in the hospitality trade, 80 per cent of their market is for hotels, restaurants, pubs, bars and events, all of who have closed are severely restricted with the expectation of a likely complete shut down in the next few days the mood amongst the trades is surprisingly upbeat.
The threat is that the Government is focussed solely on the supermarket chains, who by the very fact of their size and long command chains makes it very difficult for them to act fast, fill the gaps and ensure that supply is plentiful and sustainable.
All is not gloom, Edward Barrett of H.G. Walker Ltd. a company working in Covent Garden since Victoria was on the throne, said: “This week in particular, the retail market has doubled. There is a lack of produce in bigger stores, they just can’t get enough produce in, and what is coming in they are letting people just take it to rot in their kitchens and fridges at home because they cannot possibly consume what they are buying”.
“Small retail is being very good for us”, he said, “I see that going higher and higher while the catering market is in collapse”.
Mr Marshall is adamant that the Market can change as fast as the situation to ensure that London is fed.
“Shop local, shop online”. He went on.
“New Covent Garden is now open to the public, you can drive here in your car and shop here yourselves. We are open from midnight, you can come from midnight until 7 in the morning. If you can't get here at that time of day, we are instituting as from tomorrow, you can come here in the daytime, and go to our normal catering suppliers, who normally supplied the hospitality trade, they will be supplying the public with veg boxes. These will be for £20 with a set amount of seasonal, mostly British produce. You drive up, say, ‘I want that size box, and you’ll be given it’. We will be providing click and collect. We at the market are working together, we will get through it.”
There was support for the proposal from Dudley’s Conservative MP, Mike Wood was supportive of the idea, saying: “This is brilliant. It’s great to see the ingenuity being delivered. What could be better than high quality, fresh and seasonal products being made available to the public, much of it from UK producers?”
Let loose the small business sector, they could well be our real heroes of the day!
By Gawain Towler, founder of CWC Strategy
First published in the Telegraph