The Fruit and Veg King

There are certain things that have become part of my London history. Like the first time I went into the Harrods Foodhall and experienced the visual feast of retail theatre at its best, or the first time, in 1979 on holiday here, I had a Salt Beef sandwich at the Brass Rail in Selfridges where they have been serving them since 1966. The aroma is as tantalising today as it was then.

I grew up in a small, industrial, seaside city in South Africa called Port Elizabeth. We only had one true deli, called The Little Crystal, owned and run by husband and wife team, Mike and Rose Lang. Rose’s recipes were famous and almost all of the food was made on the premises with some delicacies being ‘imported’ from Johannesburg.

I first came across Panzer’s in St Johns Wood, when I moved here in 1983. I immediately felt at home as the owner, Peter Vogl felt really familiar. He could be seen working in the deli most days, Sunday mornings were always very busy but he was always friendly and was there to help. His father, a Czech refugee had started the deli in 1943 and sold smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels and groceries imported from all over the world. In the past few years, it had begun to look really tired and seemed to be running out of steam with aging, regular customers.

In stepped David Josephs who himself had been a loyal customer and had been taken there for a smoked salmon bagel with his dad since a young boy. Peter who was ready to retire told me that he was over the moon that Panzer’s would remain a deli and not become a supermarket and that his father Walter Vogl’s legacy would remain intact. These days, Peter can be seen on the other side of the counter with his shopping basket in tow.

I chatted to David today and asked him what made him decide to become a green grocer? He replied that his passion and love of food first became a hobby and then turned into a business. David was running a business and his office was in East London. He used to pass Newington Greens, which he describes as having been an ‘awful fruit and veg shop’. It was taken over by a Kurdish man, Bora and they got friendly where David would frequently give him advice. After 2 years, what was a hobby, became a business and they then decided to start a group of green grocers all over London – either from scratch or buying existing ones and they’ve just opened their fifth in Crouch End. The others are Clifton Greens, Parkway Greens and Eastern Greens and David says that he would like to open another half a dozen or so. He strongly believes that there is a place for shops on the high street. He says its like ‘the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker’ and his mission and dream is to help revitalise the high streets – provided, he says, landlords are not greedy and that the government gives concessions on rates to small businesses.

Their green grocer in Clifton Gardens in Maida Vale counts Yotam Ottolenghi as a customer, who then asked him to supply fruit and veg directly to Ottolenghi. Although David was advised not to build a vertically, integrated business, they now have a thriving wholesale business based out of New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms where they source and work with the very best growers around the world as well as in the UK. They are currently supplying about 200 restaurants around London, which is set to grow; in addition, they have now set up a bakery making rye bread, challah and bagels. They are working in partnership with a florist and flowers are sold out of Panzer’s, with more to come.

Panzer’s today, after its major refit, is back to being an iconic brand and now boasts chefs and a fully functioning kitchen in the basement. There are still bagels and the smoked salmon comes in three different styles: oily, medium and dry. There’s a fabulous coffee bar, a lunch counter with hot dishes and salads, sandwiches, bread from Dusty Knuckles, a sushi bar, a butcher, grocer and of course the best fruit and veg that it is possible to buy. They have an excellent delivery service, customers can buy on credit and pay on a monthly basis and the next big project for them is to take Panzer’s online. David believes that there is nothing like Panzer’s in London and when I asked him what his inspiration was, he told me: ‘the original Dean & Delucca, Russ & Daughters and Zabar’s – all out of New York City’.

Retail is having a tough time at the moment but like everything, there are those who lead from the front and challenge and disrupt. David Josephs you are a shining light to the retail community and I would like to suggest to every Trading Director in the UK, to hot foot it over to 13-19 Circus Road, NW8 for inspiration and ideas for your own stores. If you want to talk to David please don’t hesitate to email me and I’ll introduce you. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup