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If my tenure at Borough Market has taught me anything, it’s that in a time of crisis we have to hold on tight to what we stand for. While the ground seems to be constantly shifting beneath us, that’s the rock we have to cling to. Like so many institutions, the Market has faced some significant challenges over the past few months, but by reminding ourselves of why we’re here—to provide quality food from around the world and promote expertise, short supply chains and sustainable production methods—we can face down the current uncertainties with something approaching confidence.
Borough Market has been selling produce for a thousand years, initially rather chaotically at the end of London Bridge, then as a wholesale operation serving London’s greengrocers, then, after 1998, as a retail market for small producers and specialist merchants. In recent years, though, its success has seen it evolve into something else too: a destination, a place to socialise amid the sights, sounds and smells.
What the lockdown has forced us to do is sharpen our focus. Right now, we can’t be a gathering place, but with effective social distancing we can—and must—remain a source of high quality produce. The things that were important to us before Covid-19—eating healthily, respecting the environment, supporting small businesses—are no less important now. Supermarkets won’t meet those needs, but we can.
For us to fulfil that purpose, our traders need support—without them, this is just an empty shed by the side of a road. That’s why so much of our attention has been on working closely with traders to address their specific needs. That might mean paying a fisherman’s mooring fees, covering the costs of a production kitchen, or being more flexible about trading days and product ranges. In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring in this column the challenges that some of those traders have been facing, but I’ll also be sharing some of the glimmers of hope they’ve seen along the way.
Certainly, there will be some positives in all this. To maintain social distancing, we have significantly reduced the number of people entering the Market. And yet, some of our traders are reporting increased sales, particularly of essential produce. Much of that is down to these unique circumstances, with restaurants closed and more people cooking, but it still gives us plenty to ponder as we move this venerable institution forward.
An increased presence in the digital sphere will doubtless be part of the answer. The Borough Market Online delivery service has been growing in scale and reach, and it needs to grow more. We have also been using an array of digital platforms to share the technical expertise of our traders and chefs, provide a place for important conversations about food to take place (our ongoing Borough Talks programme being a case in point) and offer people the chance to remain active participants in this lively community from the sanctuary of their own homes.
Borough Market will continue to thrive as both a place of quality food and a place of human engagement—of that we’re convinced—but you no longer need to come to the physical space to be part of it.
This article first appeared on Great British Food
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