While the rest of the world is still asleep, down at the market things are already tense and bustling. The pitch dark of a cold winter morning is broken by the lit-up building and the beams of many headlights turning into the vast car parks at Auckland City Markets new Mt Wellington premises.
Incorporating Turners & Growers, Radley & Co. and the Fruit Case Co., the market sits on 6ha of land, in buildings which total 14,000 square metres – which means that the days of fighting for space, as happened at the old markets in the central city, are well and truly over.
Auctions start at 6.45am on the two busiest days -Monday and Thursday – but buyers arrive well before that. Some are there as early as 5am to check out the produce, decide what they want and to buy the non-auctioned goods.
And, of course, the market itself comes alive even earlier. On the nights before the big auctions, market staff work through the night, receiving produce, stacking it and preparing for the hubbub of selling it. Auctioneers arrive between 4am and 5am.
Early morning hunger pangs are satisfied at the Market Cafe – bacon, eggs and chips, buttery toast or wonton soup and sticky rice, depending on your preference – which serves as a kind of unofficial business shop: some retailers comment that as many deals are struck over cups of coffee as are settled on the auction floor.
Then its into the auction rooms; a huge warehouse area, separated by mesh “walls”, with the auction bays alphabetically labelled. On Monday and Thursday it’s hard to see from one side to the other; crates of vegetables are piled high, sorted by line and variety, and it’s impossible to imagine that one city could eat s~ many vegetables.
Buyers examine the wares, some standing in small groups comparing opinions, some on their own, some rushing from stand to stand, others taking it more quietly. Regular buyers know the growers, know who’s reliable – but still the produce must be checked for weather damage. Turners staff insist, however, that whatever the buyers see in the the same as what lies, unseen, below.
Outside the sky is streaking with pink as the start of selling is announced, and larger groups coalesce around the auction stands. “We’re selling!” calls the auctioneer, his voice ringing in a familiar monotone, his clerk beside him hunching over the computer ready to record the sales.
There are about 14 auctioneers employed by Turners, and such is the pace of the market that eight or nine are busy selling at any one time. All are men (although some salespeople are women) and all except one of the clerks are women.
So efficient is the system used today that records of each auction are transferred on line to the office within a matter of minutes, and a buyer can have his purchases off the floor and into his truck just minutes after that.
And out they all go: carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, cauliflowers, potatoes – followed as the morning wears on by avocadoes, tamarillos and stacks and stacks of in season fruit.
Fruit is the last to go, and by 9.30 am most of it is sold and the floor starts to clear of buyers and produce. The forkhoists have been steadily doing their job, the loading bays have been busy all morning.
Soon most of the buyers have gone – some just back to the city, others as far as Russell, Huntly and Hamilton. One or two linger on till after lunch before heading home for the next phase of the day – back to the shop to unload, restack, mark prices and, of course, sell to the public.
Meanwhile, back at the market the staff who are the backbone of the system are already unloading the next day’s produce, and getting ready to do it all again.