Sunday 1 June 2014

From Ivory Tower To Market Stall

Somehow Mark Smith (QVM Marketing Director) doesn't quite fit the "ivory tower" model and his experience working on Organics Trader and QVMAC Representative, Karen Birthisel's stall was certainly a long way from luxury. Here is his interesting story - 

"4.15 a.m. and the alarms sounds in my ear. Surely that is not possible! Didn’t I only go to bed about 10 minutes ago? The dog is excited; he must think that I am getting up to take him for an early walk….forever hopeful of either food or a walk that dog! Once he realises that is not the case he settles back comfortably on the bed, well to be precise on my pillow!
Slowly and in the dark I get dressed….hmmm what do I wear to work in Karen’s Garden Organics stall on a Saturday morning I wonder? Choosing not to go with a tie, I find some old jeans and about 4 layers of t shirts. Then on goes the beanie and with the weeks’ worth whiskers I think I can pass for a fruit and vegie trader. As it happens I have an old leather apron which I think about wearing. I look at it and it takes me back to when my Dad worked in the markets in Perth where I grew up, on Tuesday and Thursday nights unpacking the trucks. It looks smells and feels like the one he used to wear to what was his second job to help a young growing family pay the bills. In the quiet and still darkness of the morning the reflective nostalgia is not lost on me.
After a rushed breakfast, I make my way to the car to get to work on time. Living near to the market it doesn’t take me long at all, and I think to myself I could have had 4 more minutes in bed! Then of course I remember that Karen has been up since 2.30, readying herself, her stock and her business for what is the busiest day of the market week. The locked gates at the car park on Franklin Street threw me for a bit, then I think no worries I will enter from Queen St. Hmmm, they are locked too. Ok so I will have to drive up through the sheds and enter the car park from within the market itself. As my newly issued safety vest is a) in the office and, b) wouldn’t fit around my car, I determine that the hazard lights will have to suffice. I note their reflection on the 463 silver boxes I have to navigate through to get to the car park.
Once parked, I walk towards H shed. A miss spent youth tells me that the gathering of “young people” on the fringe of H shed aren’t there waiting for the freshest ingredients available at the market regardless of how wide their eyes are open. It appears to me the only ingredients they have been feasting on all night are chemically based!
Ah, and now I am underneath H shed and see that Karen has a few staff prepping the stall. She does the introductions and importantly a safety briefing and before I know it Alpesh is asking me what coffee I want. He is my new best friend!
Karen informs me I am to start on one of the corners, loading up the broccoli and carrots, and then follow my way around each of the empty shelves ensuring they are all choc-o-block full of produce. I am amazed at the care and consideration, the passion and thought in Karen’s voice and instructions. The level of detail she is talking about things like having the carrots laid out top to tail, ensuring there is a neat and straight line, so when it comes to the Zucchinis (we call them Zooks in the biz) there is enough room for them too. I will come back to those carrots later! How we have to just trim that little brown bit off the bottom of the broccoli so it is nice and white. As I am laying out all the carrots she takes time to show me which ones are rejected and why. I am reminded of the ad about the fish that John West rejects and wonder if I am hallucinating due to being up so early. She tells me about making everything really full and we share the line “stack em and watch em fly” and have a laugh, clearly the coffee is working now! We then talk about colours and textures and shapes and how we have to move something to make room for something else because there was too much the same. I note the precision in which the hessian is laid out on the boxes before the broccolini is displayed, how there is a whole box of cabbage leaves which I am reliably informed make a perfect bed for the squash and tomatoes to lay on. As my fingers start to seize up due to handling all the cool produce I start to look at them as if they are those little carrots I have been stacking up neatly. It feels like I could just snap one off and place with the carrots.
As I work my way through I am constantly amazed at the outstanding quality of everything I am laying out. It is just SO fresh. There are also lots of things I know of, but don’t see often. Purple carrots (told you I would come back to them), yellow beetroot, turnips and swedes, rainbow chard….who knew?  As a developing cook I imagine how I could use these ingredients, what and how would I cook with them. Karen has left me alone for a bit and almost as if she can read my mind she comes over and tells me how she would cook these ingredients, how to prep them, what to make, how to finish them and so on. Baking fennel with a balsamic glaze, maple roasted parsnips…it is now about 5.45 a.m. and my mind is racing on what I am making for dinner.
As we chat Karen says she has been thinking about doing QR codes that link to recipes or the origin of the grower, the region, and provenance and so on. I am not so sure about that. This to me is a business that doesn’t need a twitter handle, Facebook page or pinterest or instagram account. Just BEING here is the marketing for me. The belief and passion of Karen shines through in everything going on at this stall. I can tell from the staff, from the product, from the care that is taken and from the huge amount of stock on pallets that Karen brought down from storage while I was still sleeping!
Just after 6 am we are pretty much set up….or so I think. I grab a broom and give the stall a sweep out, and people slowly start to filter through. It is a quiet morning and yet there is always something to do. Although quiet, the shelves I filled with carrots and broccoli need replenishing. The grocery offer – which by the way is far more elaborate than I thought needs refacing and stocking up, The eggs need restacking, pumpkin needs cutting. Full celery needs to be cut into halves, dutch carrots (bloody carrots!!!) need trimming up and re positioning and guess what I turn around and the bloody carrots need restocking again!
All of Karen’s staff are really helpful and knowledgeable, if somewhat perplexed why someone from the office is in the stalls selling and helping out, especially at this time of the morning. I tell them I am learning and need to see what is happening on the floor…they kinda nod and at the same time look confused. Sharpie shares with me he didn’t even know there was a marketing department. Hmmm…note to self: need to market to the market that there is a marketing department!
I am now into a rhythm and go to the cool room to get a new box of carrots as without even looking I know now that they will need replenishing. What is everyone doing with these carrots I wonder!?
Karen says to me again that it has been a really quiet morning. I can sense that the market is a bit quiet, and yet we, well I, have been busy doing things, and with that it starts to get really busy. It is such an insight to listen and watch the customers. So many of them are regulars, so many of them ask the staff for advice and there are lots of questions about the origins of the produce, are the mandarins Victorian, to which the reply is no, we are still getting them from NSW for now. Victoria’s turn is in a couple of weeks. Lots of questions about how to cook things or what is new that I haven’t used before, or comments around the tomatoes being a bit ordinary last week, but they look great today, all of which are met with knowledgeable and helpful answers by the staff.
I am surprised to see that it is nearly 10 a.m. already and although I have been here since 5
a.m., it doesn’t feel like I have been her for 5 hours. I remind Karen that I have to leave soon to get to my daughters netball game and before I go we collect a small box of sensational organic fruit and vegetables. These form the dinner that you see in the photographs here.
I am so glad that Karen invited me to work at her stall. I am much more the wiser for doing so and along with Jenny and also Marshall, every time I work in the stalls I gain so much knowledge and information, stuff you just won’t get from a computer or email or countless meetings!
Thank you to Karen and all of her staff. It was fantastic to work with you all. If you would like me to work in your stall or business I would love to do so. You can drop me a line at
 Thanks Mark"

02/06/2014 09:54:24 Mark - Organics Stall "It is great to see that Mark has once again stepped up to work in a stall at the QVM. I am not sure if anyone else from the IVORY TOWER has done this yet.
The only thing l would like to say is this, it is all great to come and spend a few hours working in a stallholders stall, but it would be once to see the IVORY TOWER staff spend the entire day working on a stall, like the rest of do.
I know where Mark is coming from, starting at 5am in the market on a Saturday, but hey guess what, l was still working there at 5pm. I don't get to leave to go to a family event, or sporting event, unless l close for the day. Thats part of Market life for a trader. Our market works weekends, but the IVORY TOWER is a skeleton staff over the weekend.
Note about the marketing department..... perhaps people don't realise you exist, because the marketing of the market is so poor.......
I hear ads for Caribbean Gardens and South Melbourne markets all the time, but never for Vic. Your counters may say numbers are up, but hey come to the Specialty Area's and ask us, old timers as to how the aisles are now empty, and we are seeing less and less people. The morning crowds are gone, and our lunch time rush is now a just steady pace.

I am not having a go here Mark, its great you actually come out and work in the stalls, and see what its really all about, and get a feel for what we do every single day, and that its not a case of just opening some doors, and here we go, lets a mike thousands of dollars, and then close the doors and walk away each night, that it is much, much more than that, and a lot of work goes into each and every set up, no matter what the trader sells." Lance