Leeds Kirkgate Market is 190 years old this year and still one of the most lively and vibrant places in the city. The original founding place of M&S, todays market has over 1000 traders open 6 days a week.
Without doubt, our favourite stalls in the market are the colourful and produce-packed greengrocers. Neil Gough (above centre) is the friendly family man behind 2 of the markets most prominent greengrocers as well as a frozen food counter – complete with hilarious sign saying shops in the South Pole and Leeds! Stepping inside the Neils store is like seeing the cogs in a well-oiled machine turn and so its no surprise that they are trusted by large businesses across Leeds and Bradford to deliver the goods. We can certainly vouch for them, as the Leeds Love Affair weekly shop at their stalls costs only 3.
Surprisingly, chatting with Neil about earning a living off fruit and veg turns out to be a heartwarming lesson in social commentary as well as feeling like part of the extended Gough family. Still yawning at 8.30am (practically midday to Neil), we donned a green pinny and spent a couple of hours seeing what hes all about…
Who are you and how did you get here?
I am Neil Gough and I am the owner of Neils and Olivers greengrocers and Eskimo Joes. All of my stalls are in Leeds Kirkgate Market. Our first stall was called M&G Fruits and that was set up by my Dad, Laurence Gough, 35 years ago. I came in 1989 and have been here ever since. We got Eskimo Joes in 2005 and Olivers in 2010.
Today we sell on the stall and deliver to over 60 restaurants, bars, clubs, schools and the University 6 days a week.
What do you think is unique about Neils and Olivers?
Put simply, I think we offer great tasting, seasonal, fresh produce at great prices. Were also a really friendly bunch. We like to make our customers happy and we like to pass on value and quality in what we sell.
This business has been in my family for 35 years and its really important to us. My Dad is 60 this year and he still works here every day and so does my Mum. My sister works here 2 days a week so its a real family affair. I think possibly thats what makes the difference.
Talk us through a typical day at Neils.
I get to market at 3.30am to go to the wholesale market on Pontefract Lane. It takes me 2 hours to get our stock each day. I usually get to Kirkgate at about 5.30am and we get going setting everything up. I have the lads out front setting up the stalls and then there are 3 of us making up all our daily orders for our delivery customers.
Lots of people choose to buy their fruit and vegetables at supermarkets these days – why do you think that is?
I think its convenience more than anything else. We do understand if youre a family and youve got kids, its easier to park up at a massive supermarket and get everything in one place rather than come in to the city centre with a buggy!
We are better value though. I think it is really hard for greengrocers now. You used to have one on every high street but thats just not the case now. We will struggle this year as well due to the rainy weather. Potatoes, for example, have gone up 25% in price because the weather has ruined the crop. We have to pass these prices on but thats difficult for us, we dont want to. At the moment we sell a lot of stuff as a loss leader because we want to keep our customers happy.
What is your favourite item?
My favourites are English beans and broccoli. For dessert I love nectarines and bananas (which are often only 1 a bag!)
What is your bestseller?
In summer its always the English produce like cherries (from 1 per 1lb), strawberries (usually 2 punnets for 1) and peas in their pods.
In autumn and winter the favourites are always potatoes, onions, carrots and broccoli.
Why do you keep doing this? Isnt it hard to go to work at 3.30am every day?
I do it because its the only thing I know! You are tied to it in a way because you have no option but to get to the market at that time so you can get the best produce, but then after Ive done all my orders and the stalls are set up I can go and play golf for a bit and chill out!
I think as well its so fascinating when you see the changes in Leeds through your own business. Ten years ago I would never have sold things like celeriac and flat leaf parsley on my stall but now theyre all the rage. Customers keep coming to us asking for more and more diverse and different produce and I think thats what keeps it interesting.
What do you think makes Leeds so awesome?
The people. I hope that people dont get scared coming to the market and hearing us shouting prices and offers! My staff are a lively bunch but theyre so helpful. I think the people of Leeds are really funny and friendly. I think businesses like us do what other massive companies cant and can look after the individual.
Where do you like to hang out in Leeds?
Having to get up so early every day doesnt make me a terribly exciting man, Im sure you can imagine! But after work I like to go for a pint on Call Lane at Vodka Revolution, Normans or maybe Jakes.
Finally, describe Neils in 3 words…
Fresh, bargain and friendly.
Neil’s, Oliver’s & Eskimo Joe’s are open every day except Sundays. Find them near the market main entrance.