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Connings Food Market

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Simon Conning

Never have I seen success like it.  Connings Food Market has been astonishing.

It’s hard to believe that seven years ago the site was languishing.

In late 2017 it was business as usual on McShane Road with thousands flocking to the Eyebright Christmas shop and the PYO berries across the road.  But just a few hundred meters south, at the intersection with the Appleby Straight, there weren’t any takers for the 3.1 hectare site of the old cheese factory.

About that time, Cheryl Conning told me that she and Robbie would probably start down-sizing their market gardening business.  That was, however, before their son, Toby, came home, ready for work. 

Toby has an older and younger brother  Simon (32 at the time) and Ben (28 at the time).

Simon was a project manager in Wellington, and he had ideas which were music to his father’s ears:  Marketing direct, rather than through wholesalers or supermarkets. 

He followed Toby back into the business in 2017.

In 2018, Ben arrived from London, and the Conning family was ready to make things happen. 

All three sons came with partners, but no kids.  Though this was soon to change with the arrival of Toby and Nicol’s first child.

In two years, Conning’s Market Garden had gone from foot-off-the-accelerator to turbocharged.

Throughout Robbie’s forty-three years of growing vegetables, he was irked by the wastage caused by exacting supermarket specifications.  Items that were too big, too small or too blemished became compost or stock food.  No matter how skilled a grower may be, there will always out-of-spec product, and at the scale that Robbie was operating, that added up to tens of tonnes annually.

Robbie’s desire to market direct was the major driver in Conning’s decision to buy the Grape Escape site.

The property came with three tenants: June’s Room (textiles), Crafty or Wot and She Shed, and the Connings signed up three new ones: Enhance with Plants, Good For, and The Junction.

Conning’s Food Market started at the back of the old cheese factory.   Along with three staff, Simon made do in the cold and drafty premises.  Simon kept warm by lugging produce, running to get more, and generally being frazzled.

The shop was stampeded with customers, and it was quickly obvious that the rudimentary facilities were inadequate.  Coping with the onslaught, had Simon fully occupied, but the creative part of his brain was visualising a totally new facility. He had everything he needed:  sufficient land, proven demand, and scope for ramping up production.

The return of the three sons and their partners, plus the continued involvement of Robbie and Cheryl, delivered all the skills and commitment needed to build a much larger business.

 

Creating the shop that you see today while, in the old facility, keeping their ever-expanding customer-base satisfied, provided endless challenge.  Simon shouldered most of this burden.  He was operating in over-load.  Soon after opening the new store, he and Léa escaped for three weeks in Léa’s native France. 

 

I suggested that he pre-empted a melt-down.  He understatedly said that he needed it.

Toby’s wife, Nicol, performs some of the admin tasks.  Ben’s wife, Bailey, has creative input into marketing.   Léa, is a teacher, and a new mum.  She leaves the business to the rest of the family.

Team Conning continues to grow.  Toby and Nicol’s, daughter is now seven years old.  Ben and Bailey are expecting their first-born shortly.

During the last seven years, Connings Food Market has gone to the next-level again and again. Trading refuses to level off.

 

A business growing so fast, runs the risk of spinning out and crashing. Doing one thing, like, growing vegetables can be managed by one person with staff, but if new aspects are added, the demands soon overwhelm one person. 

At Connings, responsibilities are demarked by stages from planting seeds, through to growing, to marketing.

Toby manages production. 

Ben is in charge of harvesting. 

Simon is responsible for merchandising.

At a time when most would expect Robbie and Cheryl to be retiring, they have pressed on, doing farmers hours (Weekends.  What are they?).  Robbie (69) works with Toby and Ben. Cheryl (68) does administrative work.

They do, however, get more mini holidays than was possible when the farm required their constant presence.

These days, the shop has ninety staff.  There’s a further forty on the land, making for one hundred and thirty permanent employees.  In high summer, that number increases by about twenty, lifting the total employee count to one hundred and fifty.

What you have heard, about Connings opening in Nelson is true.  They are finalising the purchase, from the Nelson City Council, of 2,800m2 in Whakatu Square This site includes what was the Hunting and Fishing building.  At the same time ‘Good For’ will also be expanding to Nelson, occupying the Remax building on Rutherford Street. This is contiguous with the new Conning site.  Both businesses are expecting to be opening in Nelson in early October.

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