"We're a family business..."
Stephen from Market Place Fresh has built his business on providing fresh food at the best prices.
"I'm happy to be out there in the stores, being part of everything."
"We're a family business..."
It's surprisingly busy early on Monday morning at Market Place Fresh in Dandenong Plaza. Shoppers bustle about with baskets, loading them up with fresh vegetables and fruit.
Friendly staff in black MP t-shirts are stocking, loading and helping customers find things. It makes a change from those food stores where there's only one staff member in the store, standing at the register.
Everything's uber fresh - no past its prime produce here. And it's well priced - my basket of veg was cheaper than I'd expected. As well as all the expected fruit and veg, there's a range of tropical melons and fruits. Do you know what a mangosteen is? I didn't either. I can see yams, taro, sugar cane, banana leaf, drumsticks, Chinese marrow and pipengai (pipengai? I make a note to google it).
There's a meat counter with a great range (there are things like goat meat, popular in curries) and a selection of complementary groceries completes the offering.
Everything is stocked in barrels and crates, which gives the store a fresh, market vibe. The crates spill out into the plaza, putting all the colourful produce on show and ensuring it's hard to walk on past.
Start with a simple idea
There are currently nine stores in Victoria. "Market Place Fresh first opened in Parkmore, back in 1985, as a family business," owner Stephen Fanous tells me. "That's really all there was behind it, the idea of selling fresh produce that's well priced. Doing something simple really well. My business partner started that store, and sadly he is no longer with us. Over time, we built up the business."
It was a gradual process, Stephen explains. "You need to be patient, and wait until the right opportunity comes up in the right place in the right shopping centre or location. That can take years, but you don't want to open up in the wrong place, where you may not have the right shoppers or the passing trade that you need."
The next store was in Dandenong. In time, and after careful planning, other stores followed in Chirnside Park, Knox, Highpoint, Werribee, Point Cook, Casey and Fountain Gate.
"We're a family business and we consider everyone part of our family. You need to be a relationship builder in this business, so I'm happy to be out there in the stores, being part of everything. I don't want to be some distant boss no one ever sees."
A key part of their success is knowing and understanding the local demographics for each store - who the customers are, what they're looking for. "It's about what the locals in that area want, and giving them what they won't find at the big supermarkets." So that's why you have so many unusual fruits, I say. "Totally. Here in Dandenong there's a large migrant community, so we bring them the fruits they love from their home countries."
He spends a lot of time on the numbers. "The numbers have to work - for us, for our suppliers, for our customers too. Basically, your existing stores need to be sustainable so that you can finance your next store when the opportunity comes up. If the numbers aren't working, then nothing moves forward."
Building relationships is key
Stephen has also spent years building relationships with his suppliers. "I can't overestimate how important that is. We deal directly with our suppliers and we're constantly talking to them, finding out how things are growing, what they're going to have available and when it will be available. They keep us up to date with everything, so that we can plan – and that way, we can ensure everything's fresh and available at the right time. Really, our suppliers are partners in our business and part of our family. We're working together to build sales for all of us. That's the way I look at it."
Flexikitch are also a big part of the Market Place Fresh family. "They look after all our display refrigeration, freezers, everything like that. Alex’s team makes sure everything's serviced, working correctly, that we're not paying too much. It's their personalised service that makes them the best - they’ll come out, take measurements, work out what will fit and what will display the food best, what will help us sell more. With some of their competitors it's just people selling over the phone, but Flexikitch help us to strategise and really have our best interests in mind. It’s nice to do business with nice people."
"Having Flexikitch look after all the equipment takes the weight off me and my store managers. You can easily waste a lot of money on the equipment side of things, if you don't know what you're doing. We're not equipment and fit out specialists, so we trust them to look after that for us. Can’t recommend them highly enough."
What else is Stephen doing to drive sales and grow his business? "We're doing in-store demos - tastings, cooking. These educate the consumer and they're really popular. And of course we're looking at opening more stores, when the location's right."