Roger Garber has been in the wholesale market business since the summer of 1969, when he left school with one ‘O’ Level, aged 15, to join Louis Reece at the old Spitalfields Market. He’s been at New Covent Garden since 1987, working first for Louis Reece, which had by then been sold, and then Gilgrove, before founding Premier Fruits with Jason Tanner. We asked Roger about his time in the trade.
Roger is part of a family steeped in multi-generational fresh produce history. His father Sidney had worked at Louis Reece since 1948, having married the daughter of Louis Reece, who owned the firm. Louis had taken the Reece name from his stepfather, but was actually an Olins, with two sons and a son in law also in the fruit game. Both New Covent Garden and the industry as a whole have benefitted and still benefit from the next generations of Olins who followed them into the fold and, like Roger and Sidney, became leaders in their field.
Thirty years into his career, Roger made the move that would shape the next 24 (and counting). “Jason and I were working at Gilgrove for a number of years and decided to go out on our own,” he says. “Initially we teamed up with Premier Fruits Western International, opening up in NCGM under their banner. After a couple of years, we opened up Premier Fruits Covent Garden with two units in the Market and we have continued to grow and grow.”
At the outset, the team consisted of its two founders, Jason’s brother Justin and 2-3 porters, recalls Roger. “We’ve got at least 12 units in the market now and other depots; I can’t actually work out how many people we have now, but it’s a lot,” he laughs. “At first, we just sold fruit, then we added a salad department and a veg department, exotics and bananas and it just mushroomed.”
Roger is no longer a director of the business, but continues to play a key role, one which he is undoubtedly being modest about when describing it. “My job now is to help organise the deliveries, whether to our own depots in Bicester and Brighton or our customers around the country,” he says. “Premier is a 24/7 business now, with orders coming and first and second deliveries going out – we’ve got at least 15 artics going out every night – we collate everything here, get it made up and make sure it is delivered on time.
“I have to say the incredible growth of the business has mostly been down to Jason Tanner. He has been the prime mover in taking us way beyond the dreams we had. His drive and commitment is exceptional, he has a superb memory for everything that happens in the business, he’s very personable and gets on with suppliers and customers and he’s got a lot of very loyal staff.”
Roger remembers a salesman by the name of Jimmy Kline being the ‘God’ of Louis Reece when he joined the firm in east London, “sitting at the back of the warehouse with a megaphone shouting at everybody”. He also remembers the older guys telling him that trade in 1969 wasn’t what it used to be and everything had changed, even then. “I remember being 15 and thinking ‘I’ve got 50 years of this to come’ and now I’m 69 and I’m wondering where those 54 years have gone!” Roger adds.
“And now it’s me talking about the changes. This Market has changed dramatically since I came here, there’s no denying it. A lot of the retail business has been lost, which has undoubtedly been to our detriment in the long term, but on the plus side, we have concentrated on supplying catering customers and that part of the business has seen massive growth. The way we trade is totally different to how it was too. There was a lot more face-to-face trading in the past and fixed and seasonal pricing was never a thing, for example.
“We used to start at 5am and now I get in at 8.30-9pm and I’m usually gone by 3am. The hours were definitely nice when my kids were growing up – you could pick them up from school or go to their netball or football matches.”
He continues: “I never wanted to do anything else and I’ve had a wonderful time in the Market. But it’s not for everyone and I can understand that. My son did a week with me and said ‘no, thank you!’, but Premier is still very much a family business – we’ve got plenty of sons, daughters, brothers and cousins working here.”
It might not be the same, but Roger still thoroughly enjoys the Market life and particularly the people. “I love the banter. Yes we’re all competing to a certain extent, but over time you understand that the Market is a great leveller. People take the mickey out of me all the time, but it’s all in jest and like a family we’re all there for each other. I’ve just had a few months off work to have a triple bypass and I had endless phone calls and chats with colleagues and competitors.
“That means a lot. And whether it’s true or not, lots of people have said they are glad to see me back!”
Despite understandably being a little slower across the ground than he used to be, Roger recently completed a charity walk on behalf of The Birthday Dreams Foundation. “All the people in the Market have been so supportive of my fundraising efforts and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them on behalf of myself, my daughter and granddaughters, Louise, Ava and Lexi,” says Roger.
If any readers would like to make a donation, go to https://www.thebirthdaydreamsfoundation.co.uk/donate