The merchants’ tale

Categories: Behind the stalls

Clare Finney hears from some of Borough’s specialist importers about the impact of Covid-19 on their work—and discovers an inspiring show of resilience in the face of some of the toughest circumstances many have had to contend with

“We’d been deliberating over the design of our new website for two years before Covid—then lockdown happened, and we had it up and running in a week,” says Jon Thrupp wryly. An independent business strongly dependent on hospitality sales and dealing with an imported, perishable product, Mons Cheesemongers was more vulnerable than most to the consequences of the crisis. Yet after the cold water shock of those early weeks, he has seen “a real attitude of positivity” among small food businesses: “Less um-ing and ah-ing and coming up with reasons for not doing stuff, more resourcefulness.” From online food festivals to live cooking sessions on Instagram, to simply selling through a hastily built website, lockdown has proved that “people can be very resourceful when they have nothing to lose”.

“Nothing to lose” sounds dramatic. It isn’t. In those first weeks of lockdown many traders faced a lethal volume of cancelled orders as the food service industry disappeared. Had loyal customers not rallied round, had the furlough scheme not come into force, had Borough Market Online not taken off in the way it did, a fair proportion would have folded. Indeed, few consider themselves to be completely out the woods. “We are playing it week by week,” says Philip Crouch of the Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand and The Black Pig. Though trade through his Market stall has been “extraordinary”, the loss of restaurant trade meant “cash flow is an issue. Each week we look at the bank balance and make decisions accordingly. I’ve drastically reduced my own pay roll so we can manage it as best we can but in a month’s time, I don’t know where we will be, so we’re being careful.” That said, Philip’s one of the lucky ones, with customers old and new turning out—and online—to support him and his producers. “It’s been quite emotional in Borough at times. Footfall is 85 per cent down, but everyone that comes is coming to shop, which is great for us and for our producers in Italy.”

After all, it’s not just the closure of restaurants here in Britain that has affected producers of Parma ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano and burrata, it’s restaurants all over Europe. “Italian cheese producers who supply us have been so grateful that we’ve continued their orders,” Philip points out. Jon tells a similar story of the impact that buying from Borough can have: “There has been milk pouring down the mountainsides since this all started, because the first thing to do if you’re a small maker of perishable cheeses is to diminish the coagulation of milk when demand drops, as storerooms fill up so quickly.”

Jon and his team at Mons have tried to support their (largely French) cheesemakers through promotions and urging customers to try and opt for something different to the hard, long-lasting cheeses that have proved so popular since Covid-19 hit, “but it’s pretty tough when someone comes in to order a kilo of comté or a kilo of parmesan to say, but have you thought about having a young goat’s cheese with a salad?” It’s why he’s been relieved to see some restaurants re-opening as retailers. “We have some of our restaurant customers calling us and asking for instructions on wrapping our cheese in order to sell it. They are starting to move the supply of food back through that axis and keep the link to their supply chains, producers and customers. It allows people to mix it up a bit and that can only be a good thing.”

Pride and purpose
Thankfully, the appetite for good quality produce via the Market, traders’ own websites and Borough Market Online has remained remarkably strong. “People have actively said, I don’t get to do that, but I do get to do ‘this’—this being filling their fridge with lovely things to pick at through the week and to cook with,” Jon tells me. It’s been a financial relief, but equally importantly it has given a renewed sense of pride and purpose to those traders who invested their all into their business; whose life’s work has been their work in food. 

“It really made me remember and feel that there was a sense of purpose in creating Oliveology,” says Marianna Kolokotroni, whose range of Greek pastas, pulses, honeys and oils have proved particularly popular. “Being able to supply quality, unique and nutritious produce feels so meaningful in these difficult times. Customers really appreciate that. They give a lot more importance to quality ingredients. They are excited about cooking from scratch at home and trying out new recipes.” Gone is the passing trade of people who would pick up a piece of pasteli or serrano ham to munch round the Market. In their place are local shoppers looking for whole, raw ingredients to cook with. “Footfall is down, but basket size is up,” says James Robinson of Spanish produce stall Brindisa. It’s a trend Charles Tebbutt from Food and Forest has also observed with pleasure. “There are fewer customers, but they are buying raw product, in bulk”—not the nut brittle bars popular with passing tourists and visitors. Though he makes a far lower margin on raw nuts, he finds there is “more dignity to selling them. Brittle is a nice treat, but with raw nuts I feel like I’m giving something essential. Something worthwhile.”

Nor is it just food the stallholders have been providing. Without the crowds, traders have had space to communicate with customers. No one stays long—‘come, shop, leave’ will continue to be the Market’s message for a while yet—but even in the course of a brief transaction, traders have more time to share recipes, tips and information about their produce and producers. “We have some important messages around agroforestry, nut varieties and so on,” says Charles, “and we can showcase this in a less intense atmosphere.” Across the board, traders relate that one of the most welcome upsides of social distancing at the Market has been the number of local people they’ve connected with—both old regulars with whom they’d hardly had time to touch base before, and many new faces. “Customers who would never have come previously—who had a perception of the Market as not being ‘for them’—have ventured in because they’re at home and they’re tired of long queues and it’s been a positive experience,” Jon explains. “Borough Market is, and should be, a place for the local community first and foremost.”

Mad tinkering
That said, even the most popular traders cannot live on local custom alone. Invaluable though the resurgence of local shoppers has been, few traders would have survived without the help of social media and online retail. Borough Market Online has been “a salvation,” says James of Brindisa. While he and his colleagues “did a fair bit of mad tinkering” to improve the efficiency of their own online shop, Borough Market’s online delivery platform “allowed the business to keep going and do relatively well.”

While they will continue to provide a vital lifeline for traders, online orders are not always the panacea they’re assumed to be. The processes of packing, labelling and shipping are considerably more time-consuming (and far less enjoyable) than a simple transaction at a shop or stall. “I’ve had one day off since 22nd March. We’ve gone from 50 to 200 orders, with no time to prepare,” says Magali Russie of Spice Mountain. At the moment, it’s just her and her husband. Many of her staff remain on furlough and she is working 16-hour days in the warehouse while one or two of her staff manage her Market stall. “When you have a shop, it is a quick transaction. The same order online—wrapping everything nicely, boxing it safely, printing the addresses—takes so much longer and there’s no interaction. Between 3pm and 6pm all I’m doing is printing labels. I spend five hours a week on calls to customer and couriers.”

This is not to say she’s not grateful; indeed, she’s at pains to express how much the support—on and offline—means to her. But online retail is not a cure-all, either for customers or for the stallholder who, let’s face it, didn’t go into this to spend hours in a warehouse to pack, label and track their goods. At the moment the wait time for an order from Spice Mountain is eight days. Magali wants to get it down to six, but knows that this will come at a cost to her physical and mental wellbeing. “The worst thing about this for everyone is that we don’t know when things will get better. It’s not like you can say, next week will be more normal, the week after that will be more normal. Because you just don’t know.”

Reliable supply chains
One thing that has remained constant—despite everyone’s worst fears—is the reliability of supply chains. Spain, Greece, Italy, France and even countries further afield have by and large kept up with demand. There were “some difficulties,” says Marianna. “Most of our producers are small family-owned businesses or cooperatives, who experienced their own struggles.” Some of her products remain out of stock, but in those cases “our customers were not only very patient with delays in orders and supported us, but they also shared their gratitude when receiving our produce. We all tried to help each other.” On the whole, traders have been impressed with the consistency and speed of their supplies. Indeed, in some ways, continent-wide lockdown has helped: “The roads in Spain have been quieter,” says James. It’s a relief for small, family-owned producers in rural areas “who are dependent on these sales. Supporting them is a strong motivation for everyone working here.”

“The supply chain from Italy has been remarkably robust,” says Philip. “In Milan, the wholesale market was only closed for two days at the very start of the crisis,” Charles agrees. Of course, now lockdown measures are lifting, everything is starting to feel a little more open. In terms of supply chains, at least, the worst is hopefully behind the traders and the producers whose livelihoods are as dependent on open, accessible borders as they are on sales.

By and large, the traders remain positive—or if not positive, then accepting that life will be different for some time. As we gradually emerge, blinking, from lockdown, they are at least better equipped than they were when we went in. Whether it’s regular, well-run social media accounts, a slick, functioning online shopping site, or simply a stronger, more local customer base: the changes Covid-19 has created, enabled or foisted upon them will, they hope, stand them in good stead for whatever the ‘new normal’ brings.