Fruit and veg has been very good for Gregg Wallace, a former Millwall football hooligan turned high-end greengrocer. After putting his youthful boot-boy misdemeanors behind him, Wallace, now 35, is founder, managing director and controlling shareholder of George Allans. His company is a New Covent Garden-based specialist greengrocer and fruiterer that supplies produce to the choosiest of London's top restaurants, from the Conran chain to the standalone River Cafe. It employs 50 people driving lorries, sorting fruit, packing vegetables and buying and selling fresh produce from all over the world. In its most recent financial year George Allans had a turnover of pounds 7 million.
Rags-to-riches stories with their roots in Covent Garden market normally describe how the protagonists quit its early-morning bustle. The classic '80s tale was of the barrow boy who transferred his skills for keeping prices and margins in his head to the City's trading floors. Ambitious market traders swapped broccoli for bonds and chilly, cabbage-leaf strewn sheds for air-conditioned Norman Foster-designed arenas. But Wallace stayed put. And how many of those who took the City route can now boast their own BBC radio show? Wallace and co-presenter Charlie Hicks have a hugely successful Radio 4 programme called Veg Talk - a sort of cross between Gardeners' Question Time and The Morecambe and Wise Show.
That his business is doing so well is largely due to Wallace's skill in dealing with chefs, who can be highly demanding customers. His understanding of the origins and destination of the commodities he trades has been crucial to the success of George Allans. The supplier has become the connoisseur.
Wallace knows every chef in the capital, eats regularly at their establishments and shares their passion for the quality of the end product.
'The barrow-boy persona does exist and it's a nice mix of buying and selling skills,' says Wallace. 'It's the ability to sniff out a deal as well as a fear of being ripped off. You've got to keep information - prices, working margins - in your head while working on a completely different deal.'
Fluctuations in currencies, the weather, war and politics all affect the supply - and thus the price - of fresh produce. George Allans relies on the skill of buyers to make its margins. Wallace's position on the food supply-chain can move from simply being the middle-man, when buying direct from farmers, to the fourth link, when buying from wholesalers in, say, Morocco or the Bahamas.
Wallace's career began in the building trade. 'I was one of the Thatcher youth and bought a flat at an insanely young age,' he says. At 20, he took a manual job at Covent Garden wholesale market because the unsociable hours meant better pay. 'But,' he says, 'I had this incredible urge to sell.
'The hardest break for a manual worker with no skills is finding someone who will trust you to use your brain,' he continues. 'When I was 22, I begged my bosses to let me try my hand at sales. I had some cards printed - paid for by someone else - and after I'd worked all night at the market I would go home, shower and change, then walk the streets of Soho and Covent Garden and talk to chefs.'
Wallace launched George Allans - a combination of his and his original partner's middle names - in 1989, and in spite of the looming recession, it was a time of renaissance in eating out. His ability to respond to the whims of chefs wanting constant supplies of wild rocket throughout the winter months and infant vegetables out of season, set the company ahead of its Covent Garden rivals. Wallace was prepared to break through the old-time fruit-and-veg maket inflexibility. Instead of one early-morning daily delivery, vans would go out twice, sometimes three times a day to the same restaurant if the kitchen needed the service.
Chefs' tantrums are not directed just at customers with the gall to ask for salt. As clients, they are quirky in their demands. Few can articulate a complaint. 'Chefs have one word when something's wrong and that is 'shit',' says Wallace. 'That can mean something is too big, too small, too ripe, under-ripe - it covers everything.
'One chef complained that three bunches of parsley I sent him were too big - the next day he orders three more bunches, and complains again!
His exact words were: 'There's no room for it in my kitchen.''
One picky chef was invited by Wallace to visit France - 'so he could shout at the field and tell the turnips to grow properly'.
The problems are relative. 'Chefs who run big, busy kitchens and restaurants that everyone wants to eat in are normally really calm and really happy.
There's no doubt that the more professional the kitchen, the easier they are to deal with. Problem chefs are always young and aspiring - you have to humour them. 'Oh yes, chef, West Ham's much better than reading books' - that's one of my favourites,' says Wallace.
To be all things to all chefs, Wallace keeps five price lists, each one adjusted daily to suit each group of clients. 'Your knowledge of your customers helps you price instinctively,' he says. 'A chef expects things to cost a certain amount - there is no way he will buy more of something because it is cheap, but if it is too expensive he will go mad. So when things are cheap, I make a big mark-up - and the client stays happy because he's paying what he wants to pay.' What they don't like is surprise.
The heart of the company's continued confidence, says Wallace, is information.
'I demand accurate, fast information - a very expensive commodity and you pay through the nose for it. With pounds 5 million of purchasing ability, you cannot have a man with a notebook.
You have to standardise your methods; be able to say what next month's salad will cost. Unless you work ahead, hold-ups at airports and ferry strikes will sink you - you cannot get away with pricing wrong for more than a few days.'
One of the tools of his trade is a mini tape recorder that he takes everywhere.
When you lunch with Wallace he has the disconcerting habit of shouting the last thing you told him into the machine for transcription later.
That might be the name of a producer of beetroot or a restaurant where the vegetables were not up to scratch. That, as Wallace would say, is 'information'.
And the information is always acted upon, it seems. Several days after our lunch I received a call from the George Allans office asking for the phone number of an organic vegetable grower in Cornwall I had raved about over lunch. Wallace wanted to send someone down to see him - to see what he could grow for him. He is always quickly onto any opportunity, any opening.
Standardising the pricing mechanism helped the company through the events of September 2001. The restaurant trade is highly vulnerable to any dips in air travel. 'We were pounds 30,000 worse off at the end of September, but one month later we had recovered. That is the power of good information.'
Good information for Wallace means daily reports of sales, purchases and credit notes and gross profit - and all are then projected weekly and monthly. 'I receive reports on budget per day, actual per-day sales and variants per day,' he says proudly.
Wallace champions the cause of blue-collar entrepreneurs. He believes their worst problem is that there is no-one to turn to for advice. 'In the early days of the company, it was amazing that we survived at all,' he says. 'I had no knowledge of cashflow or sales and purchase ledger - all I could do was sell.
'My advice to anyone like me who wants to go into business: find yourself someone with some financial experience. The best way to do this, without being fucked over - as I was, twice - is to phone a similar-sized company and ask for their help. This may seem mad, but most businessmen's favourite subject is themselves; they'll be flattered by your attention!'
It is possible to solve business problems, Wallace says. 'Business is like a car engine. Viewed from above with no knowledge, it's very complicated. But once you realise it's all component parts, the mystery disappears. There is no problem that cannot be solved by tinkering with those component parts.'
It's also important to come clean when you make a mistake. 'When things go wrong, tell the truth,' says Wallace. 'People can smell the truth, and they like it. When you foul up, tell them how you fouled up! I look at it this way ... would I employ myself? And I think I would, based on results.'
Wallace believes his business could run indefinitely in his absence, but without him it would not move forward. His colleagues remark on his drive - based just on the hours he puts into George Allans. He is in at 4am and will work through until five or six in the evening - although some of that time will be spent eating in London's better restaurants.
GREGG WALLACE'S FIVE POINTS FOR SUCCESS
- Make friends with every one of your clients, regardless of whether you like them or not.
- Never let your ego get in the way of your wallet - you are never bigger than your customer.
- Never undersell yourself and don't be frightened to ask for your money - any man can fill a van full of fruit.
- Always try to see your company from an outsider's point of view. Ask yourself whether you would choose to employ yourself.
- Try to find the right person to suit each department - everyone can handle more than you think they can.