I think you would need to be walking around asleep if you aren’t familiar with the Benge & Co name in Nelson, it is synonymous with fantastic fresh fruit and vegetables and friendly service.
It is a business I have been watching grow and I am impressed with how they draw customers to their stores when it is so easy to buy fruit and vegetables when we do our supermarket shopping, so why do we love Benge & Co so much?
Last week I had a coffee with the brother and sister duo who own the business, Colin Benge and Sarah Benge. The reason for their success soon became apparent – hard work, passion and being uncompromising on the quality of the product they sell.
The business has evolved since the purchase of Stoke Fruit & Vege and the Nelson store in 2009. As well as selling fruit and vegetables they also stock a range of associated, quality grocery items and further expanded to include shops in Richmond and Blenheim.
Sarah told me they think the thing that really sets them apart is how they buy produce, “we buy fresh every day for all stores, the systems are set up to be able to bring in fresh produce every day – just enough for that day, we don’t buy lots in advance and we try and sell most of the produce the day we have it delivered, we are continually restocking shelves with food that was fresh in store the same day.”
Colin works tirelessly with growers and suppliers, he talks to growers as often as he can, sometimes several times during the day, to see what they are harvesting so when he gets to the fruit and vegetable markets at 3am each day he knows what is going to be there and makes sure he selects the very best product he can.
“I am their first customer every day to select the best and freshest produce and taste it, tasting what we buy is really important to us, we want to make sure the product we are going to be selling is top quality people can rely on every day.
“I take a knife with me and cut oranges in half to make sure they are juicy, basically if we are going to sell it I want to taste it first, if I can, and I want to know who grew it and where it came from.
“Our customers can expect produce that is fresh so it will last when they take it home, everything is super fresh when we buy it, the product hasn’t been sent to a centralised distribution store and then delivered around the country.”
So where did this passion for selling fruit and vegetables come from?
They told me they were looking for a business, they wanted to stay in Nelson and with a connection to the land, they identified a gap and saw an opportunity to improve the procurement from growers, and to provide an opportunity for people to have a great experience buying their fresh produce.
“Dad and granddad were both orchardists in the Nelson region so as youngsters we had access to fresh fruit straight from the trees and did a lot of hard graft on those orchards, we learnt what goes in to growing great food.’
“That has helped us develop a great relationship with growers and suppliers, we respect the effort they put into growing something and we make sure we handle it properly at our end so the customers get the best product in the best condition possible.”
Over the years they had both been involved in their own businesses and had worked for other people so they knew how influencing the customer experience could be their real point of difference, “we both had hospo experience and Colin was the manager of Guytons while I was a training specialist when I was working in Wellington.”
As part of developing the business model, Colin spent time working for Wellington’s fresh food market Moore Wilson and they spent time visiting markets in Melbourne and Sydney.
Buying the Stoke and Nelson stores enabled them to learn about the fresh fruit & vege trade while establishing a brand and culture at the same time.
Colin told me the biggest investment they make is in time, both in training staff and sourcing product, “we deal direct with growers where possible and they love our attitude around quality. As an example, Windsong Orchard who featured on a recent Country Calendar episode pick their plums for us when they are ready to eat – delivered directly into store at their best, not picked under ripe and ripened artificially.”
“Another example of the quest for absolute quality is the relationship we’ve formed with Avogrey Orchards in Gisborne. We believe they are New Zealand’s best avocados and we’re privileged to have them.”
“The way we buy and what happens in the stores is vital, we have to maintain very good stock control, the stores are continuously monitoring stock levels throughout the day and with constant communication with Colin, he will make sure they have just enough for that day’s demand.
“We are lucky to have such fantastic committed staff who have the same passion we have, they look after the produce from the early morning arrival, hustling through the day, looking after customers.”
Sarah says “We have created a high standard and have to work hard to maintain these, customers expect a lot more from us and the produce we sell than they do from supermarkets.
We are a local, family business and through our systems, attention to detail and close relationships with growers we have the ability to provide exceptional value as well as the best quality.”
Benge & Co is a business owned by people with an obvious passion for what they do, they train their people so they have great skills, and you and I get to buy fantastic, fresh fruit and vegetables in perfect condition from them.
The business is based on great value, great quality produce, and a great customer experience, something that is always obvious whenever I go into one of their stores.