Borough food market has a reputation as London’s finest. But all is not well under the arches, as Patrick McGuigan finds out
Visit Borough Market on a Saturday morning and it seems obvious why many consider it to be London’s best food market. Vast crowds surge around stalls filled with unpasteurised cheese, sourdough breads and perfectly aged beef, while takeaway stands keep visitors nourished with posh venison burgers and paella served from wide open pans.
But despite appearances, all is not well in foodie paradise. Last year, the market’s last remaining wholesalers announced they were suing the charitable trust that runs Borough in a dispute over leases that would lead to them being forced out. That case has since been dropped. Two of the complainants left the market, but traders who remain have told me they are angry about issues including rent rises, spot checks on food by management and a big increase in tourist visitors at the expense of serious food shoppers.
The market’s management style has also been criticised for heavy-handedness, with traders claiming they operate in ‘a climate of fear’. The situation has not been helped by major construction work by Network Rail, which has meant large sections of the market have been temporarily closed, with traders moved around.
Tensions boiled over spectacularly in May when the Board of Trustees evicted seven traders, mainly small cheese and charcuterie merchants. Their offence was to have traded at nearby Maltby Street and Druid Street, where food companies have started opening up their warehouses under the railway arches to sell directly to the public.
A ten-minute walk from the market, Maltby Street has been tipped as a rising star of the London food scene, but Borough is also facing stiff competition on its doorstep from the new Bermondsey Farmers’ Market and the nearby Real Food Market, which has gone from being monthly to weekly.
In a hard-hitting statement, the board accused the traders — dubbed the ‘Bermondsey Seven’ — of badmouthing the market as a tourist trap and encouraging shoppers to visit Maltby Street instead of Borough. It also criticised them for selling only hot food at Borough, while saving their fresh produce for Maltby Street.
‘The Trustees cannot condone the actions of these traders who receive subsidised pitches and service costs at Borough Market and seek to use the profits they earn… to put at risk the commercial interests of their fellow traders,’ the statement said.
The Bermondsey Seven hit back with a counter-statement claiming there was no conflict of interest in trading at both Borough and Maltby Street and that Borough was making false allegations.
‘I can’t believe the rubbish they’re coming out with,’ says Dom Coyte of the Borough Cheese Company, one of the Bermondsey Seven. He says only one of the group sold hot food at Borough and nobody had disparaged the market. He added that if they had been given an ultimatum they would have stopped trading at Maltby Street ‘in a flash’.
‘A quarter of our revenue came from Borough. We’re now scrabbling to survive,’ he said. ‘We have always been very loyal to Borough. The loyalty they’ve shown is to kick us off the market after eight years of trading with one week’s notice.’
The decision to evict the traders has sparked a furious debate on a local community website london-se1.co.uk, with vitriolic statements denouncing Borough’s actions and singling out chairman Peter Wilkinson and chief executive Glenis Reagon for criticism. One trader, Lee Mullett of Wyndham House Poultry, posted a stinging open letter describing an ‘atmosphere of fear, confusion, uncertainty and resentment’ among market traders. ‘The reputation of Borough Market has been tarnished,’ the letter concluded.
Borough’s chairman Peter Wilkinson responded with his own open letter arguing the board was simply trying to halt a decade-long decline in standards, and that if traders were selling quality food and remained loyal to their customers and the community, they had nothing to worry about.
Commenting on the Bermondsey Seven case, Borough spokesman Ceri Evans reiterated the board’s previous claims. ‘The wider issue is that they are subsidised and we feel they shouldn’t be trading on our doorstep,’ he said.
According to Evans, much of the recent controversy has been stoked by traders who are unhappy with attempts to improve the market. ‘People have quite legitimately raised issues in the past 18 months about Borough being tourist-heavy rather than food shopper-heavy. There has been without doubt a growth in traders who are less rigorous about where their food comes from,’ he said.
‘The Trustees are determined that it is traders who are keen on provenance and can swear by the quality of their food who should be returned to the ascendency. The market is being turned round, but a lot of the calamity, fuss and rows come from people who do not like that. It’s not a pretty process at the moment but it’s going to be a fantastic market when it’s finished.’
The board points to the new City & Country Farmers’ Market, which houses farmers and small food producers from the south-east, as proof of its good intentions, while in the longer term there are plans to bring local food wholesalers back to the market.
‘What we are desperately trying to do is to get local-to-London primary producers into the market, so we can start supporting any customer that comes,’ chief executive Glenis Reagon told me earlier this year. ‘We want to attract back to Borough the real food shoppers once again.’
While that certainly sounds admirable, Coyte has his doubts.
‘It’s lip service,’ he says. ‘The style of trader they’re talking about — primary producers and provenance — we tick all those boxes. They’ve thrown out seven traders who tick all their boxes.’
Patrick hasn’t skipped a meal in almost 20 years.