C-Store gets up early to accompany Vic Grewal on his weekly trip to London’s Western International produce market for a lesson in how to get the pick of fresh produce
It’s 3.30am. Dawn is nothing but a pale suggestion on the inky sky above, yet down below, independent retailer Vic Grewal is already up and gunning his way through the deserted streets.
He’s on a mission, and it’s one of a fruitful kind. Along with his trusty assistant Andy, Vic is heading to London’s Western International market to top up on the freshest fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs for his stores.
And when we say fresh, we mean it. Many of the products on display have been unloaded from aeroplane holds not two hours earlier, having been picked and packed in their countries of origin just ahead of take-off. The smell on the early morning air is thick and heady. There are glistening honey mangoes from Pakistan, plump papaya from West Africa, and shining starfruits from Colombia, along with countless other types of berries, fruits, shoots and roots, including the more everyday apples and pears.
Vic makes his pilgrimage once a week to supplement the range at his Simply Fresh store in Thames Ditton, Surrey, and large Budgens in Chorleywood.
Doing so, he says, helps to create a distinct point of difference between his stores and those of his competitors, as well as saving him a substantial sum of money.
On arrival at the market Vic and Andy do an initial tour, walking the length of the vast market to assess the range and quality of all the goods on offer. Notepad and pen in hand, they also compare the prices between the different stalls, and against the Musgrave and P&H price lists, before returning to the start and commencing the buying process.
For Vic, quality is of the utmost importance and he and Andy are now well versed in what to look and feel for to get the pick of the bunch. “Sometimes it’s better to pay slightly more at one stall than another to get better quality produce,” explains Vic.
“Shoppers are so savvy these days, they won’t buy rubbish, and if you want to build a reputation as a destination shop for fruit vegetables and flowers, quality has to be top of the list,” he says.
The general rule of thumb, Vic says, is to look for products that have a good solid weight as this indicates high moisture levels, and smooth wrinkle- and blemish-free skins.
An assessment also has to be made on ripeness. The fact that Vic and Andy visit the market once a week allows them to buy smaller quantities of ripe and ready fruit and vegetables which they know will sell fast.
However, retailers who could visit just once a fortnight, for example, would be wise to buy a mixture of ripe and ripening produce in order to extend shelf life and keep wastage in check, Vic says.
While the market is home to hundreds of different fruit, vegetable, herb and flower wholesalers, Vic and Andy tend to end up buying from the same six or seven each week, including the family-run JTS Hill.
On the day of C-Store’s visit the father- and-son team’s stand was laden with crisp English lettuces picked just the night before, violet-tinged French artichokes and a towering display of plump large vine tomatoes - of which Vic ended up buying 16 5kg boxes.
Vic and Andy tend to buy about 60 different products from a core group of wholesalers, splitting the stock between the two stores.
The shorter route to market means that products sourced directly from the wholesale market tend to have a longer shelf life than those sourced through a supplier, which Vic says helps to reduce wastage and preserve precious margins.
It’s particularly noticeable on categories such as flowers, where buying direct can boost shelf life by more than three days. “The flowers that I buy today were picked in Holland yesterday afternoon. They are so vibrant to look at and customers snap them up,” he says. “We buy them in bulk along with some ribbon and decorative leaves and the girls at the shop make them up into bespoke bouquets, which we sell for £4 each.”
And with creating a point of difference front of mind, Vic also uses the market to source non-traditional products that his core suppliers can’t or don’t carry, such as okra and chicory.
Avocados are another good example. While both Budgens and Costcutter sell avocados, they tend to be of the well-known Hass variety with their dark, almost black, pitted skins. At the market, however, Vic can get his hands on boxes of Fuerte avocados. These larger fruits boast a super-smooth green skin, which Vic says shoppers can’t resist. In fact, when he gets them in stock, they sell twice as fast as the Hass.
“Aesthetically, shoppers just seem to find the shiny green Fuerte ones more pleasing and they snap them up on impulse,” Vic says, as he helps Andy load 15 4kg boxes of them into the back of the van.
The market is also an excellent source of seasonal produce. When C-Store accompanied Vic on his tour of the market, mangoes from Pakistan were at their seasonal best; sweeter and juicier than at any other time of the year. “The mangos are green when they are unloaded from the aeroplanes, but in a matter of days they start to go yellow and ripen in store,” he adds.
Price is another key driver for Vic’s market trips. “There are quite a few varieties of fruit and vegetables where it’s considerably cheaper to buy direct from the wholesale market than through our symbol group suppliers,” Vic explains. Some items, such as tomatoes, for example, are up to half the price. A 5kg box of quality large vine tomatoes in the market sets Vic back £3.10, but at the time of going to press buying the same weight through Budgens costs £12.43.
Juicing oranges are another example, costing half the price if bought direct. In fact, Vic estimates that he’s saving upwards of £300 a week, and almost £2,000 some months, simply by buying certain products direct.
Generally, he sells market-bought products for the same rrps as goods bought through Musgrave or P&H, something which helps him to make juicy margins of more than 100% to make up for all the early starts and long shifts.
“It’s quite labour intensive doing this once a week, not to mention tiring,” adds Vic, “but if you have the chance to make savings like these you have to try.”
Select the best
Apples: Firm to the touch with a clear, unmarked appearance. Apples damage easily, so look out for any bruising
Cucumbers: Well-shaped, firm to the touch and a deep green colour. They should also be firm at both ends
Avocados: There are more than six different varieties of avocados, but Hass with their shiny knobbly skin that changes from green to black during ripening is the best known. Avoid over-soft fruit with dark blemishes. Green-skinned Fuerte avocados should be heavy, firm to the touch and shiny with no pits or dents.
Lettuce: Look for crisp bright leaves with a clear colour
Melons: Fruit should feel heavy and feature a firm smooth skin with no pitted or sunken areas. Ripe melons have a strong fragrance and the rind around to the stalk will yield to the touch, so avoid these if you need a longer shelf life
Mushrooms: When buying button, cup or flats, look for dry, firm, wrinkle-free skin. Healthy mushrooms should not have any wet, slimy spots. Fresh mushrooms should feel heavy for their size
Peppers: Sweet peppers should feel firm and have a smooth, shiny skin. A wrinkled skin is an indication of age
Tomatoes: Tomatoes should be smooth, firm and unblemished. Paler coloured fruit will give you longer shelf life. The cap should also be a fresh green colour.