Thursday, 19 August 2010

What's happened to the FoodLovers Market Soho?

This was the question being bandied about last week at the sight of an apparently dwindling number of stalls at the FoodLovers Market Soho.

The market has been running on Rupert and Winnett Streets every Saturday since the 10th of July. Henrietta Green and Shane Holland, bringing their collective experience with involvement in Borough Market, FoodLovers Britain and the Slow Food markets on South Bank, were approached by the Westminster City Council to run a market which might strengthen the area as a destination for food lovers. More cheese, less sleaze... or something like that.

Set in the heart of Soho's red light district, the scene is gritty, but has character - often the site of urban fashion photography shoots, with the bulging g-strings of Prowler on one corner, the grand old Gielgud Theatre on the other, and an assortment of peep shows and "model" signs in between. You don't see many prams on Rupert Street. During the week, the Brewed Boy coffee van adds to the charm, and lunchtime stalls on the cobbled street sell Thai and Lebanese food to hungry office workers. Gelupo, Bocca Di Lupo, Polpo and now Polpetto are just around the corner.

The future looked bright during the first week of the FoodLovers market. There were farmers - selling meat, fruit and veg - who don't have stalls anywhere else in London. Bea's of Bloomsbury had a brightly coloured cake stall, there was a hog roast, bakery, cheeses (including Neal's Yard Dairy), apple cider, unpasteurised milk, butter and cream from Hook & Son, huge pots of confit beef and pot roasted chickens (from Madame Gautier), terrines, gorgeous summer berries and a steak and burger grill (from Happy Herefords & Tipsy Tamworths).

But last week, you could almost see the tumble weed blow by. Where has everyone gone? Cooeeee....

Last weekend, there were no butchers, no fruit and veg, no Bea's, no milk, no bakery, no cider, no cheese, no burgers - there was a cake stand (Outsider Tart selling American style cakes), a churros stand, the hog roast, an ice-cream stall and 1 or 2 others which barely registered.

Sources tell me prices to rent a space are high (or at least they were initially) - you'd have to sell a lot of panatas to make it worth your while. However, rates are apparently adjusted as the lie of the land becomes clear over time. And the organisers inform me that a few of the stallholders have dropped out for August only - they'll be back in September (including meat, fruit, veg stalls) along with a new fishmonger starting at the end of this month (hurray!).

There are also a whole range of special days planned for the market over the year, including "oysters and late summer fruits, berries and nuts" for 4 September, game on 2 October and Christmas markets over the December period.

Henrietta Green is quick to point out that no market is an overnight success, no matter how much time and money is spent on PR. The ability of the market to flourish will depend on word of mouth, and the support of customers and stall holders alike - both of which are still testing each other out at the moment.

I love food markets, and the thrill of jostling and foraging for new finds. And, of course, seeing how many times it's possible to get away with doing laps past the free cheese samples before the hair up/hair down/Groucho Marx disguises wear thin. I would love to see this market thrive right in the middle of Soho, an area which is fast becoming a better and better food destination. And I'm delighted to hear there are more and more stalls coming back on board over the next few weeks.

So what do we want to see at our central London markets?

I want good quality, British game and meats that inspire me to cook something new. I want a great cheese stall (preferably with lots of free tasters a la Borough). Some good Banh Mi and sweet Vietnamese coffee like you might find at Broadway Market would be a great addition to the Soho food scene. I want locally grown fruit and vegetables, still smudged with dirt, sold by people eager to tell you all about where it's come from. Someone should be filling the air with the smell of good quality steaks and burgers sizzling on a grill.

I want rolls bursting with roast pork and apple sauce. I want roast chickens. There's a real lack of quality fishmongers around Rupert St, so I'm glad someone is coming on board to plug that gap. And, while we're at it, a few nice oysters with a glass of sparkling wouldn't go astray. I want hot jam doughnuts like I can get at the Queen Vic Market in Melbourne and (since it's my wishlist) I'll take some South Melbourne Market dimmies too. I want interesting salads, maybe some Lebanese food, maybe some jerk - all to wrap up and scoff in the park around the corner. A great coffee stand is essential.

What do you want to see at your local food market? Will you be coming along for the ride at Rupert Street?


  1. I sure hope they come back stronger too. I also heard the prices were high for the stall owners, and that the organisers were not even providing stall material (eg canopies etc)... but anyway, whatever the case, for the sake of consumers I hope they come back!

  2. I've not yet made it to the new incarnation (maybe I should be quick!) but used to shop round there 20 years ago when there was great fruit and veg stalls and a number of quality butchers dotted amongst the sex shops as well as the Italian delis. Be good to see that revived - and I second your call for jerk and Viet stalls.

  3. I've not been back since opening day but had heard rumblings that it's not been faring well (apparently the veg stand dropped out after just one day due to high overheads). It seems at the moment only the food stalls remain - understandable I guess as they would be more popular (for Soho visitors) and have higher margins. Shame though, and hopefully as word spreads the market will start to flourish.

  4. I second all your great gourmet ideas for food stalls, but on a more practical level I would like stall holders to make sure they have enough change on their stalls. Twice recently I have had to not buy items at the local farmers' market because they couldn't give me change from a fiver...and other times where people are counting it out in five pence pieces 20 minutes after the stall opened!

  5. Great post, Carly! I've heard that costs are prohibitive and as an ex-marketeer myself, know how difficult is to make ends meet and maintain quality as a small independent (and I am not just talking height here ;)

    Hopefully they will be able to maintain the market and keep it thriving. It would be interesting to interview the absent stalls.

  6. Beas of Bloomsbury (a former stall holder at the market) has contacted me with the following comment and has given me permission to publish it here:

    "It's really unfortunate that the Soho Market failed to take hold. I think the high costs of the stall and relative lack of support from the organizers make it really expensive for small market holders. Hopefully Westminster Council will still see an interest in food markets, and perhaps in the future we'll be back, in a different way".

  7. If my internet worked I would check but isn't there already a food market (well fruit n veg) in Soho. Brewer Street right? But this was on a different street?

    Seems strange they didn't combine it and shame it didn't work. Whitecross St Market has revolutionised that bit of the City/ Old Street. Though I am not sure Soho needs any more blinging up :)

  8. Catty - Me too!

    Bron - I love the local Italian delis too! I stock up at I Camisa every weekend. But the market certainly adds something extra.

    Gourmet Traveller - I've heard the same about overheads although I believe there may be discounts around now. Here's hoping it flourishes.

    Niamh - Thanks! And, yes, it would be great to hear from the absent stalls. I have contacted them, and have posted some words from Bea's of Bloomsbury above (thanks Bea!).

    Tom - Yes, there's a small market on Brewer St during the week (not weekends) which is just the other side of "sex alley" as I call it. However, I've been duped with crappy fruit and veg too many times from there. There's a great bakery/bagel stand there however. The thing I like about the Rupert St market is that it's quite the opposite of the "bling" side of Soho - lots of farmers in wellies etc!

  9. Tom - Of course the Brewer St market IS on Saturdays too - not sure why I was thinking it was only during the week in my comment above!

  10. Miss South - Sorry, I somehow missed replying to you and I loved your comment because it's one of my pet peeves too. In the UK, I so often end up walking out of shops because they won't break a note! Grrr...

  11. What does it say that costs were so high at start-up? Market organisers need to make it their first aim that small traders should be supported and alloed to flourish. The organisers of this will have to reappraise their motives....

  12. Brumont - Thanks for your comments.

  13. I keep meaning to go but was put off by tales from stall-holders (Hook&Son) and Neals Yard that it wasn't worth going and everyone was threatening to leave. Not the right kind of word of mouth. I hope it does continue, London needs as many markets as it can get - I know La Fromagerie were planning to set up there in September, maybe it will pick up - I'll pay it a visit for support!

  14. Karen - Hmm, some positive word of mouth in the first few weeks are crucial. It's tough if some of the big name stall holders are not sold. It would be fab if La Fromagerie set up there!


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