Having started out in the trade aged 22, Darren ‘Coxy’ Cox has long been known as Coxy the Vegman in Suffolk, where he’s not just the fruit and vegetable guru for the local population, but also a sometime radio and TV personality. He’s been buying the majority of his fresh produce from New Covent Garden for nearly a quarter of a century and we caught up with him one night in the Market to find out more
“My brother ran fruit stalls in Ipswich, that’s how I got into it,” says Darren. “I was helping him out and planned to do a YTS course, but he said you can go and earn £25 a week on your YTS or I’ll pay you £150 a week. It wasn’t the toughest decision I ever made!”
Over the next decade or so, Darren learnt his trade working for various fruit and vegetable businesses in Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, but he has since built his own empire around his first market stall, which was set up just over 20 years ago, in Sudbury, virtually on the county line separating Suffolk and Essex.
Appropriately enough for a business that sells plenty of apples, there is now a bunch of Coxes working at Cox’s Fruit and Vegetables, as Darren’s four sons, Charlie (26), Fred (25), George (23) and Henry (19) all work with him in various guises, something he loves – most of the time!
There is plenty for them all to do. In the last few years, the company has added a Chelmsford stall and a second Sudbury stall to its armoury, as well as Cox Bros, which delivers Covid-inspired Cox’s Boxes direct to local consumers from a Sudbury warehouse, and most recently Coxy’s at Spencers, which runs out of Spencers Farm Shop in Halstead, Essex.
“The family’s been based in Sudbury for nearly 30 years and we’d predominantly still call ourselves street market traders,” Darren says. “We run two stalls in Sudbury every Thursday and Saturday and one in Chelmsford, on Fridays and Saturdays. Since I set up that first stall I’ve been coming to New Covent Garden several times a week and now Charlie shares the nights with me – he generally comes Monday nights and Wednesday nights and I do Tuesdays and Fridays, although we do come in five nights a week fairly often. We have two 18-tonne lorries and a fleet of vans.”
Darren and Charlie purchase in what could be termed the traditional fashion. “We’re foot soldiers,” Darren says. “We walk up and down, up and down. I used to be an early buyer, but as my business has got bigger, I’ve gone later – we can’t be in at midnight and then run the stalls all day. Until recently, we’d get in as late as 4-5am, but now if we’re not there by 3am, we’re late.”
They know exactly what they are looking for and, says Darren, this has changed significantly since he first paced Buyers Walk. “Twenty years ago, someone would come to their local street market to look for something cheap and cheerful, now they come to me for product that is top quality and not something they can really get in a supermarket. Our approach is to go in with at least the quality of Tesco Finest or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference and offer a little more value than the supermarkets do. We tend to go for a fair amount of the WOW! stuff, the great big pomegranates or oranges for instance that are unusual and catch people’s eye.
“Obviously, pricing can be a challenge at times – it certainly has been lately, but that’s where our expertise as buyers comes into play. Our customers understandably don’t necessarily understand why fruit and vegetables cost what they do, or that I am buying from a ‘live’ market.
“Of course I’m always looking for the best quality and the best price,” he adds, “but it’s really important to recognise that price is not always the be-all and end-all and to think about the varying requirements of your own customers too. I could have paid £2 for cherry tomatoes recently, but I ended up paying £9 because that product met my spec. You can’t explain that to people who don’t know why or how it works.
“Because a lot of the product sold by the wholesale markets these days is programmed, there are definitely less of buyers like us around. Both when I’m buying and selling, I work around five Ps – and not necessarily in any order. They are Price, Presentation, Product, Person Selling and Position. To explain that, you can have the best product in the world, but if you’re in the wrong place to sell it and it’s not the right price, you haven’t got a chance.”
Talking about positioning, Cox’s Boxes sprang into action when the local population needed regular, nutritious food boxes at the height of the pandemic and the business continued to thrive even when restrictions were lifted. And as well as fruit, vegetables and a full range of food and drink at Spencers Farm Shop, which the family purchased towards the end of 2020, there is a gift shop and a 50-seat café, which is a new string to the Coxes’ bow. Until the family got involved, they were suppliers to the farm and now, as well as managing a successful retail outlet, Fred runs a multi-faceted business.
George, who works with Charlie and Darren on the wholesale and retail market side of the business, has also established a popular Christmas tree business over the last four years, which trades successfully from the farm and proudly provided the town council with its 33-ft tree in 2021. Henry is training to be an electrician, but he’s also working with his dad and brothers during the weekends and Darren hopes he will one day come into the fold.
“You’ve got to love what you do. It’s an extremely challenging profession and we often talk about the DODs – our dilemmas of the day. Whatever they are though, you just have to get on and deal with them,” he says.
Relationships and care
As the Cox stable has grown in size, the family has become a far bigger customer at the market and the traders at New Covent Garden are often there to help solve those DODs. That’s appreciated by Darren. “I like New Covent Garden because of the fantastic relationships I have built up there and the fact that I get well looked after,” he says. “I buy from everyone on Buyers Walk and because I’ve been coming a long time and I’m a good customer, certain firms will accommodate me and go that extra mile to ensure that I get what I need, whether that’s the use of their canopy to load up when it’s raining or a particular product that they know I’d want. It makes a massive difference.
“I love the banter too – I think the only other place you’ll get that sort of thing is on a building site. Most of the governors of the firms and the salesmen I trade with every week are undoubtedly hard-nosed businessmen who won’t give an inch, but deep down, every one of them genuinely has a heart of gold.”
Although as a business, he knows he gets looks after by certain firms because he’s a longstanding customer, Darren also believes that he’s not given preferential treatment as a buyer. He says: “I don’t think they deal with me any differently to how they’d deal with a newcomer. Of course they respect me as I respect them, but it’s a fiercely competitive time and everyone is fighting for every pound. That’s exactly how it should be.”