Ben, Toby, Cheryl, Robbie and Simon Conning,
the family behind the developments at The Grape Escape.
Extraordinary things are happening at the Grape Escape. Seldom have such hoards been seen; not since the Eyebright Christmas openings. (Eyebright spent its first eighteen years at what is now ‘The Grape Escape’). Those were, however, once-per-year events. The new vege shop (‘Farm Fresh’) is pulling crowds every day.
When the vege shop opened It created quite a stir. At Eyebright people started coming in asking where it was, and continue to do so. Through the grape vine they’ve heard about the freshness and prices. As a society we have been primed to prefer perfect produce, but that means that anything that doesn’t fit the mould usually goes to waste. Farm Fresh has made it a priority to provide customers with all sorts of vegetables, seconds that may look a bit funny, but still, taste delicious.
Market Gardener, Robbie Conning is the instigator of this new enterprise. He’s now sixty-four years old and has been growing veges since he was eighteen. He and his wife Cheryl had a vege shop called ‘Brightwater Country Fresh’ at two different locations and at different times, for a total of eighteen years. But tending over 100 hectares, raising three boys, and running a shop is a bit much, so Country Fresh ceased to be about sixteen years ago. The new shop at the Grape Escape is ‘Country Fresh’ risen again.
The day he turned 15 Robbie left school to go shearing. After a few years he started growing vegetables. A few years after that he met Cheryl, and when she was 21 and he was 22 they got married. Obviously, Robbie likes work, and for over forty years, work has been pretty much it for Robbie and Cheryl. The saying goes: ‘A little bit of hard work never did anyone any harm’. If this ‘power couple’ are anything to go by, then no truer words have ever been spoken. Not only are they well, but Robbie, in particular, still loves what he does. Cheryl wouldn’t mind easing back, but an extraordinary event; in fact, three events, have kept her in the fast lane.
She and Robbie never thought or expected that any of their sons would come back to the farm. They launched all of them with instructions to get a trade.
Ben went to university and became a civil engineer, then disappeared overseas. Simon became a builder and was lost to London. Toby became a diesel mechanic.
Three years ago, Toby came back, and then a year later both Ben and Simon returned with their new partners. The return of the Conning sons is the reason why you see all the activity at the Grape Escape.
Five years ago, if you’d asked Robbie or Cheryl, what was the future for their market gardening business, their reply would be ‘winding-down’ or ‘selling-off’.
With Toby’s return, the business had a way forward. When Ben and Simon returned it became supercharged.
Ben now manages sales, freeing up Toby and Robbie to manage people and machines. The Conning son you’re most likely to see at the Grape Escape is Simon. He’s responsible for the new build, while, at the same time running the vege shop. You’re also likely to see Ben’s partner, Bayly, who is working on the fit-out of the new building. Simon’s partner, Léa, is often in the shop, though less so now that the kids are back at school. She is a relief teacher at Nelson College for Girls. Toby’s wife, Nicole, helps out with the accounts for both the shop and the market gardening businesses. Daughter, Maddie, is likely to be found roaming the berry patch, at Berrylands, in search of the best strawberries.
There’s a lot happening at the Grape Escape. The redevelopment is obvious. The land area has grown, with the amalgamation with the ‘Berrylands’ property. Soon The Grape Escape’s name will be changed to ‘Old Factory Corner’. The new building will be ‘Connings Food Market’ supplying a comprehensive range of artisan foods with emphasis on fresh and local. More development will follow, but come springtime, the front of the property, at least, will look like a job complete.