Much of London may be experiencing a difficult time financially, but the customer base at Le Marché puts quality ahead of price, every time. We talk to Managing Director Marcus Rowlerson about his creation of an exclusive group of catering customers
Le Marché supplies 80% of the Michelin Star restaurants in London. The company’s entire, select customer network is either Michelin Star adorned, a 5-star hotel or a high-end restaurant.
“Nobody supplies fruit and vegetables to more Michelin Star restaurants than us,” says Managing Director Marcus Rowlerson. His business is as selective with its customer base as the products it sources from around the world. “We supply what we believe are the hundred finest dining establishments in London. We call this The 100 Club and we believe we should have no more than 100 customers, in order to maintain our ability to deliver the level of personal service those customers deserve on a daily basis.
“Every week, I turn away at least two to three potential new customers. That may sound crazy, but for us, it’s about finding individuals who we want to work with and really understanding what they are all about, so we can provide them with exactly what their business needs to succeed.
“We think of this club as the catering world’s answer to the FTSE 100.”
Naturally in the current marketplace, there is a bigger focus on price in large parts of the restaurant trade in London, adds Marcus, but that’s not the environment in which Le Marché operates. “Price is always important, but our customers all want the same thing – quality is non-negotiable.
“We are not expensive; we’re working to roughly the same margins that other businesses in the Market work to, but we do specialise in premium, niche product and you have to pay for quality. As an example, we found a grower of Tahiti limes in Marrakech and they pick and transport the product to us, via Paris, in five days. The other limes on the market at the same time have been on the sea for three to four weeks and while they may be similar products, if you had the choice you’d rather serve a lime that was picked five days ago than one that’s a month old. That inevitably costs a bit more, but it represents value.”
Well defined business
Although it sounds French, Le Marché is a very British business and although its branch in Paris is important to what Le Marché does, it is not what defines the firm, adds Marcus. “Our relationships at Rungis are very important – it’s the largest market by far in Europe but it’s not all about French product, it covers the whole of the world. We have three buyers in Paris and three in London. I’d be startled if any other company of our size has that many. They are all dedicated to specialist areas and charged with one thing only – finding the best. They buy in the markets in London and Paris and they also deal direct with growers in the UK, France and Holland.
“We’re based here at NCGM and a lot of our business is still done here. The important thing though, is that we’re not loyal to one market or another, we’re loyal to quality,” he explains.
“The key for us is that we interact with as many people as we can. Six buyers can obviously talk to and meet a lot of people and that opens plenty of doors. In the end, it is the knowledge our buyers gain that determines what we are going to buy, then allows us to educate our customers. If we have a new Charentais melon, why is this the one they should be buying, how can they tell the difference and what’s its value to their customers?
“We are totally customer-led, but we are also in the fortunate position that we are trusted by our customers and can to an extent spend our time looking for the stuff we like. It might not always work for everyone and it isn’t all done for profit by any means, but we believe in providing our customers with something different, the best that’s out there.”
Le Marché follows the seasons like many fresh produce suppliers – with asparagus, it will take French right up to the English season, then bring in what it believes is the finest English asparagus from the Isle of Wight. Marcus adds: “We’ll always buy English strawberries when they are in season and again, we go where the quality is – we bring in strawberries from Yorkshire when we believe that’s the best eating English strawberry available. They are blast chilled within 30 minutes of picking, then transported to us that night, so it’s very possible that diners are eating them in a London restaurant less than 24 hours after they were picked. You can’t really beat that.”
When all’s said and done though, Marcus believes there is more to business than product and price. “At the heart of what we have created with The 100 Club is a community,” says Marcus. “The top end of the catering trade is a pretty small group of people, but while people often know each other, they rarely get the chance to be out of their kitchens or cellars and spend time with each other. We will bring together customers from different parts of the trade and take them to Rungis Market, in Paris, for example. When they meet up, they don’t know each other, but by the time we drop them off at the end of the trip, they are exchanging cards and inviting each other to their establishments.
“We have taken chefs to visit growers in the UK, we’ve taken them around the London markets, we’ve taken them into schools to cook with kids and every time, it’s about the interaction and education. I’m lucky that I’ve done my years in the Market and I am often able to take that time out with them. It’s brilliant fun and of course, we feed off that as a business, it gives us drive and ideas.”
Another source of energy is the prospect of a redeveloped New Covent Garden, he says. I’m very excited about the new Market and what it’s going to do for the trade. I believe it’s going to be a catalyst for change and that it will re-energise and refocus people. We’re really looking forward to moving into our new units, hopefully next year and bringing more chefs down here to cook into the Market and see the facilities.”
The roots of Le Marché
Marcus has been working at NCGM since the early 1980s, when he came to work for his neighbour’s business during the school holidays. “I never went back to school!” he says. “That business was John Connell, which had been in existence since 1770, in Covent Garden since 1826, and the new Market since 1974. I took it over in the mid 90s.
“Around 10 years ago, we decided to create a catering company in the Market that was second to none. From the outset, we wanted someone to walk into NCGM, ask ‘who’s got the very best product’ and be directed to us. With our French connection, we knew we could take it to the next level.”
John Connell merged with two more companies, Prestige Primeurs and Le Marché, taking the latter as its trading name in 2017. “France is an integral part of what we do, so it made sense, but essentially the name doesn’t really matter. It’s what we do that’s important.”