The Survival of Berwick Street Market | My Soho Times

Another lockdown. And once again the only visible evidence that a market exists on Berwick Street is the Soho Dairy stall standing alone without its peers. Before lockdown 2.0 Robin Smith gave us a glimpse of what’s happening to the West End’s oldest market…

It’s 6:36pm. Boris Johnson has made his statement. We’re shell-shocked but not surprised. I’m heading home to prep for a stock collection in North London, a 9pm rendezvous with a truck and 450 litres of high nutrition, low emission dairy to be stored in Soho overnight and distributed tomorrow. We’ll finish around midnight and start again at 5am tomorrow, as we have done since March 23rd and had planned to do through Christmas and into 2021.

At lockdown Berwick Street Market crashed utterly and devastatingly as traders are self-employed and unsupported. Soho Dairy, Jimmy’s Quality Fruit (& Veg) and Lance’s Exotica lost 95% of revenues with all hotel, restaurant and bar customers being shut down and offices deserted. Street food traders lost 100% of their business having seen Chinatown fall quiet after Chinese New Year and the office dwellers’ exodus from the West End through February and March. Soho Dairy sales dropped from 3000 litres to less than 100 litres overnight; Soho Streets became instantly deserted and silence fell, punctuated only by church bells, bird song and, of course, jack-hammers. It may have seemed insane to think we should continue, but with suppliers’ bills rolling in, stock piling up and residents popping out every now and then to find out what just happened, we did. It was adapt or die – which made sense given the effort that has gone into Berwick Street over the last 5 years.

Since lockdown, we’ve shed the cost of overnight deliveries and cold storage, furloughed our office staff and applied for every loan, grant and deferral going. We borrowed, bought fridges and an espresso machine to help manage our stock; we’ve sourced our own organic and fairl trade beans from the Oromia Coffee Co-operative. It worked well and we zeroed our wastage once again despite market volatility.

Apart from having no money and carrying a shed load of debt, our big issue is no-one knows what will happen next. In our game you have to plan for the best and be prepared to deal with the worst daily – it’s ongoing and sustained crisis management.

We’ve had some beautiful moments, and met some wonderful people along the way but also had more than our fair share of horrors. Near the top of the list, along with the agitated seagulls killing pigeons, is Westminster Council’s decision to backdate and increase pitch fees, which has no logic other than to destroy Berwick Street Traders economically having failed with the planned privatisation and 10 years of temporary licences.

Soho Dairy was created to prove Berwick Street Market is alive and could support start ups, fresh produce and community-serving businesses we need in Soho. We do not operate out of self interest. We are a market stall which is reliant on the existence of a market and a community that supports it. During lockdown that community was thin on the ground, but while office workers vanished into thin air, residents, key workers and the emergency services appeared to keep us company and we them.

It is shameful that Westminster City Council should choose this moment to put traders out of business – there is no other rationale for increasing and backdating pitch fees at a time of zero income for most and serious borrowing for others. Fewer traders paying ever increasing bills means no market, only retail units, originally due to open around about now but no doubt delayed for a more convenient time once Covid-19 and the locals are brought under control and are paying Westminster’s ever increasing bills.

Thanks to residents for sticking with us, to Laura at Flat White for loaning us her coffee machine, to Carol at Pitstop for feeding us, to Clare Lynch for keeping this story alive and kicking on Soho Radio and Jimmer, Gary and Jimmy, Lance and Poet Paulo for keeping us company through lockdown – sharing the heaven of birds and church bells and the hell of perishable fresh produce.

It’s 7.36 and now I’m out of time – and given the Prime Minister’s most recent announcement, so are we all. Westminster City Council – you need to reverse the decision on pitch fees or there’ll be nothing of value left on which to build the new Soho.

Words by Robin Smith. Photography: Ari Gurdon Lindey

We’ve compiled a list a Soho businesses open during lockdown CLICK HERE to read.

This article was originally published in My Soho Times autumn issue. Pick up a copy from My Place Soho, B Bagel Bakery or Tesco Dean Street, or subscribe to have the latest issue delivered straight to your doorstep! CLICK HERE.

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