Online shopping, supermarket price wars and changing customer habits: these are among the challenges to traditional town-centre shopkeepers today.
Colin Hitchcock, whose fruit and veg stall occupies the refurbished Scarborough Market’s biggest pitch, is acutely aware of these challenges.
But his confidence in quality, and a passion to champion locally grown, healthy, tasty fresh produce, has stood him in good stead to run a business that can thrive in the centre of Scarborough.
Colin’s firm, All Seasons, is one of two fruit and veg stalls in the market, a newcomer compared with G&D Metcalfe, which has been there since the current Mr Metcalfe’s uncle set up there in the 1950s (he also started Ebberston Nurseries).
Born in Filey, Colin learnt his trade at a Filey fruit and veg firm, making regular 2am trips to Hull’s daily wholesale market to hunt down the best produce at the keenest price.
After 15 years there, followed by a stint recovering from a knee-busting fall on the job, he bought out Richard Dee’s stall in Scarborough Market in 2006 when Dee, a pig farmer by trade, packed up.
“The key to success is working with quality local produce,” says Colin.
“It’s fresh, in season, comes at a fair price for both grower and customer and no air miles are involved.
“Our stuff doesn’t go off, since for instance our tomato grower picks one day and next morning it’s on our stall.
“Tomatoes from Spain may take two weeks from harvest to shelf.
“We use at least 17 producers between here and the Humber. From now until early November, pretty much all our salads, berries and root veg comes from within a 50-mile radius of Scarborough.
“We buy the cream of the stock, and and we don’t compromise quality for price.”
Market-goers can’t fail to be lifted by the colourful sight of both fruit stalls’ displays. Indeed Colin and his team delight in making the produce look beautiful.
“We’re all very proud of what we do,” he says.
“It’s lovely to put on a display of things people want to eat, which looks and tastes good.”
Behind the scenes, the largest part of All Seasons’ business is wholesale, with 50 accounts in Scarborough, including hotels, guesthouses, schools and nursing homes.
“Hotels such as Wrea Head, the Crown Spa and Palm Court, whose chefs are passionate about buying local, are among our customers,” says Colin.
“We don’t go outside town, because it means we can provide an excellent short-notice service.
“If a chef is caught short or has forgotten to order something, we’re no more than 15 minutes away. We also supply Yorkshire cheeses and milk to our wholesale customers.”
The growth of the wholesale side means All Seasons can be supplied direct and Colin’s pre-dawn trips to Hull are behind him.
The business buys in 12 to 15 tonnes of produce a week, receiving thrice-weekly deliveries from Williamson’s Wholesale, a family business at South Cave, plus drop-offs from other local suppliers.
So how does Colin reckon the refurbished market hall – completed more than a year ago – compares with its less polished predecessor?
“The market has a fantastic new look,” says Colin. “The revamp has freshened it up and opened it up.
“It’s a great place to work and to shop, and it’s clean and light. A few customers miss the old ‘warren’ of stalls, but the place was knackered – it looked like a shantytown. Stallholders weren’t putting money into their businesses because none of us was sure of the future of the market.
“Now the existing long-term businesses are the foundation for new businesses to come and feed off our footfall. The future of the market is about getting new businesses in and more choice.”
As well as fresh produce, there’s a butcher, baker, ‘weigh and pay’ dry goods stall, a cobbler, clothing, gifts, honey and photography stalls, three cafes, and antiques and collectables in the underground vaults.
Scarborough Market is open from Monday to Saturday, 8am to 5pm. There’s disabled access to the ground and first floors.
It has undergone a £2.7m refurbishment with the installation of a mezzanine floor providing additional units and was officially opened in its new guise in April 2017.
It has been first opened in August 1853 and the main hall was 150ft long by 110ft wide and 43ft high, at a cost of £7,000 with £9,000 spent on the site and surrounding roads. The basement vaults were originally used a bonded warehouse.
Look out for special events, from music to performance.
Colin Hitchcock’s own favourite vegetables are broad beans and corn on the cob. He’s dismissive of the idea that healthy eating takes time and bags of money, saying: “There are lots of healthy meals you can cook in half an hour using what we sell and what the butcher sells.”
Gradual expansion was key to success. “Early on when I went round seeing potential customers – schools, hotels, guesthouses – we built things very slowly, as wholesale is all run on credit and I didn’t want an overdraft,” says Colin.
He attributes the success of All Seasons to the hard work. Today’s team comprises Colin and Jenny Hitchcock, Suzanne Harper, Stuart Marsden and Hayley Gibb. “Where we are now, 12 years after setting out, is all down to the hard work of people past and present: everyone brings something. I’m proud of them all.”
On changing shopping habits, Colin says: “Today people come in more often and get what they need for a couple of days, rather than doing one big shop each week. Even five years ago people would buy enough fresh produce to last until the following Saturday.”
Colin is a chilli-fiend: he grows super-hot varieties at home, which aren’t available to buy.
His Plan B? There isn’t one: “It’s long hours and it’s stressful, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”