A week before he was to sit School Certificate, Pul Hing was rung up by his father who had left their Ohakune home and gone to prepare a business in Auckland. All the workers had left, he told his young son, so Pul was needed in the new shop.
“I couldn’t do anything about it,” Pul laughs. “I was very disappointed not to get School Certificate, but then a school certificate doesn’t mean anything in the fruit trade.”
That was 1948, and it wasn’t long before the entire family – eight daughters, three sons – were working in the small green-grocery on Mt Eden Road and living in a three bedroom house on Dominion Road.
“The sitting room was like a dormitory,” Pul remembers. “There was a row of beds on one side of it, and all the girls slept there. Coming up from Ohakune, we started from nothing.”
His father had seen there was no future for the family in Ohakune. They had been vegetable growers, but the prices they used to get for carrots – two or three shillings a bag – didn’t even cover production costs, Pul says.
“We made a bit of money in the war years when we had a contract with the Waiouru camp. We were growing carrots and they were telling us what to do with them. They had no idea. They used to put them down with straw over them, and they told us to keep them like that, and of course they all went rotten. But they paid us for them anyway.
“We used to plant cabbage by hand – we’d get down on our hands and knees and plant them, and water them by using the old Chinese way with buckets off a ‘bar carried on your shoulders. It was hard work.”
In those days, running a fruit shop was hard work, too.
“I was only a little boy, less than 10 stone” Pul says. “We had to carry the produce by hand, so they’d put a 140kg sack of spuds on my back, say: ‘Are you ready?’ and when I said yes’ they’d give me a little push and i would go running through the shop carrying the spuds.”
The Hings remained in that first shop until 1957. It was very small, only 10 feet wide and about 80 feet long, including the storeroom and yard. The floor was very uneven, being just old wooden boards with no covering.
“We made only pennies,” says Pul, who these days helps preside over an ‘amazing’ turnover at the Mt Albert Pak ‘n’ Save.
“If you are selling cabbages, two for 3d, how much money can you make? We used to sell 50 or 60 of those 140lb sacks of potatoes a week. We only succeeded because my sisters and brothers were working together as a family.”
In 1954, his father rented the back yard from a coal merchant four doors up the road and turned it into the family’s first coolstore. It cost about 5 pounds a week to rent, and the boys would wheel their produce up and down the footpath between shop and cooler, in the summer doing it every night to protect the fruit from Auckland’s humidity.
Then in 1957 Pul’s father got the opportunity he’d been waiting for and the family moved their shop into the old coal merchant’s premisess, with the ready made coolstore out the back. It was a much bigger shop – 20 feet wide and 180 feet deep – and was one of the biggest fruit shops in Auckland.
“In the small shop we used to turn over between 400 and 500 pounds a week,” Pul says, “and we thought that was big money. But in September when we moved into the big shop that turned into 1000 pounds a week. Dad was as happy as anything! On that Friday night we bought 100 crates of strawberries and sold the lot – and that was big money, big money.
“We were selling 100 cases of cabbages and cauliflowers a week, and three tons of potatoes. We used to bag them ourselves into plastic bags: it would take four of us nearly all Tuesday just to bag the potatoes.
Everything in the shop used to be hand-stacked. We’d start with a three foot wide base, and work towards one tree tomato at the top -that sort of thing.
“All fruit was changed every second day. We’d bring the new stuff in from the market, pull all the old ones out, put the new ones in and put the old ones on top. You had to be so careful in your buying If you bought too many and they went bad, you just threw them out.”
And rubbish disposal, Pul remembers, was a hard and gruesome task. Putting it all into huge potato sacks, they would take it on a Wednesday and Saturday nights to a tip on Nelson Street which in those days was virtually “out in the countryside”.
“But the place was covered in rats!” Pul says, half laughing, half reliving the horror. Placing his hands about two feet apart, he says, “They were this big. Ooh, it was horrible! It was so dirty. It was closed in the late 1950s because it was so unhygenic. All they used to do was get a bulldozer and cover over it at night, but sometimes they wouldn’t cover it properly and the front of the tip would be open. They’d just let it rot.”
Those were the boom years for the Hings, although the first supermarket opened in 1958 and, although they didn’t know it, they were in a changing world.
“We didn’t see the threat,” Pul says. ‘It was only 10 years later that we started to feel the effects. All areas are different. In Mt Eden we got a lot of high-class customers from Epsom, so we could sell celery at $3.99 a stalk, or tomatoes for up to $4.00 a kilo, whereas people in Dominion Road and Sandringham Road couldn’t. It was because of the class of people and the kind of service we were able to give them.
“I had six sisters in there, and that really made our shop go. They were so good at it, in terms of being able to talk to customers, call them by name as they came in. Real good retailing!
“Nowadays, you don’t know your customers because they drift around all over the place.”
That shop is a Four Square now, further testament to the Hing’s forward thinking.
For 25 years now the Hings have been franchise-holders with Foodstaffs, the company that controls Four Square, New World and Pak ‘n’ Save. They began with Pak ‘n’ Save in Birkenhead, then opened the Four Square in Mt Eden Road, and, most recently were asked to open the Pak ‘n’ Save in Mt Albert.
The small retailer’s struggle all the way, Pul says, “because they just can’t compete with the big ones. But then, how many people have got the money to put up in a big building? And every year each new building costs more.”
For a brief period in his life, in the early 1960s, Pul opened a menswear shop in the small Mt Eden Road shop his family had vacated. He did well, selling three months’ worth of Jockey underpants in just eight days. That was a foreshadow of his later success, and is a story which illustrates what most in the fruit retailing industries know to be true: running a fruit and vegetable retail outlet is the best general retail training person can get.
Certainly in Pul and his family’s case, it was fruit retailing which provided the perfect vehicle off the cold earth at Ohakune and into a bright future in Auckland.
Turners and Growers delivery vans distributed eggs,
butter and cheese daily throughout Auckland City and suburbs.