07 September 2020, 10:03 AM
  • In his first of a series of exclusive columns for Speciality Food, Darren Henaghan, managing director of Borough Market, explores how food businesses can be sustained during the current crisis
“Remaining agile is key to overcoming business challenges” says Borough Market MD

It’s in the teeth of a crisis that the biggest lessons are learnt. This may be a bit of a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In common with just about every institution, business and household in every corner of the world, Borough Market has been through many months of significant challenges, and it’s fair to say that a lot of learning has been done along the way.

Before Covid-19 closed the country down, we already knew our traders to be a committed, adaptable and mutually supportive bunch, but the crisis demonstrated just how deep those qualities run. It also brought into stark relief how vulnerable such small, specialised businesses can be in a food system weighted so heavily in favour of corporate giants, and how varied and specific those vulnerabilities are. Throughout the year, we have worked closely with our traders to address their most urgent needs in any way we can, whether that be paying a fisherman’s mooring fees, covering the costs of a production kitchen, or being more flexible about trading days and product ranges. The good news is that, as London slowly opens up, the vast majority of them are still here, still doing what they love.

Although the Market remained open throughout lockdown, the crisis did force us to sharpen our focus—an experience that gave us considerable food for thought. In recent years, Borough’s popularity has seen it evolve into a destination, a space in which to socialise. When the travel restrictions and social distancing rules kicked in, we reverted to being a venue for local shoppers seeking fresh produce and other essential ingredients. The reduction in visitor numbers was hard on some of our traders, but others benefitted from the change in emphasis and the chance it offered for more meaningful engagement with customers. Clearly, there is a lesson for us here. As central London slowly reawakens, we want people to come back, we want them to enjoy the atmosphere and take in a meal at a restaurant or a Borough Market Kitchen stand, but we also need to ensure that shopping for the rich array of high-quality produce available on our stalls remains the principle draw.

Our regular shoppers have played a massive part in sustaining the Market (many of them have provided further support by signing up to our new Friends of Borough Market scheme), but we have also seen a broadening of our customer base thanks to a surge in online shopping. While personal interaction is one of the key attractions of any market, lots of people are crying out for high-quality, sustainably produced food and drink but can’t easily get to SE1. We have responded by widening the scope and catchment area of Borough Market Online, and our traders have been quick to adapt—and in some cases build from scratch—their own online offerings. This is an area whose potential we must continue to explore: making good food accessible to as many people as possible can never be a bad thing. That is also true of how we engage with the public in our conversations about food, which have increasingly moved to the digital sphere, with notable success.

As the pandemic plays out, it will doubtless present us with fresh challenges. We’ve learnt a lot in a very short period about the logistics of keeping people safe in a public space, and those new skills will continue to be called upon in the months to come. But Covid-19 isn’t the only cloud hanging over the Market—there remains considerable concern here about the upcoming trade deal with the EU (or lack thereof), the potential scope of a US trade deal, and the significant changes that will be brought by the Agriculture Bill. If crises create opportunities for learning, I suspect there’s plenty of schooling yet to be done.