15 Jan 2010

Virtual Venison, Computerised Coffee and Pixellated Pâté

I MEET Marcus Carter, founder of the ‘first virtual farmers market’ besides a real one. His vision, excitedly explained in sight of Borough Market, is to amass some of Britain’s best-regarded food artisans, many of whom are his friends, under one colourful cyber-canopy.
Using computer game technology, ‘visitors’ navigate stalls on scorched grass within a kind of cattle-fringed paddock. By clicking on a producer, their profile, products and prices are revealed, as well as a short film. These range from an eloquent, but bland potato harvest sequence (Chase Distillery) to the amusingly stilted compilation of outtakes by Carter’s mother, Margaret. During fits of laughter, she describes the pâté from family firm, ‘Patchwork’ as ‘free from lips and arseholes...’
Carter devised the project 14-months ago whilst hand-selling cartons of pâté at King’s Road farmers market at ‘Partridge’s’ – another independent food firm. ‘As a member of the family, I often sold twice as much as a civilian employee because customers wanted me to recall our history - how mum started almost three decades before with nothing more than £9 of housekeeping. Being unable to clone myself, I believe we (and other producers) can convey such stories just as enthusiastically through the virtual market. After all, how often do you actually meet the maker at a real market?’
Although only open since 1st January, orders are coming in, ‘predominantly due to word of mouth rather than print.’ Indeed, Carter believes that too much of the food fraternity are still obsessed with paper publications. ‘Being on the front page of Times Business offered finite coverage and about 300 hits, whilst a mention in a blog brings closer to 700.’
Carter uses one as a springboard - the anonymously-written, ‘Lost in The Larder’. On it, the author forebodes that the initiative will spell ‘another nail in the coffin’ for the high street, hastening ‘the death of the grocer’. ‘Look’, he says, ‘if we don’t offer an alternative to online shoppers, supermarkets will continue to dominate the internet as well as the high street.’ He then draws my attention to market research by ‘Mintel’, conducted in September. Surely enough, it predicts that online grocery shopping, currently worth £4.4bn will grow to £7bn within five years.
‘I recently attended a meeting with one of Tesco’s five regional buyers, hearing their plans to actively seek £1bn of independent food business per year unravel.’ With a look of defiance, Carter explains ‘it’s something that could mess everything up. If you turn over £300,000 as an indie producer, you can earn yourself a reasonable living. But trying to put what transpires as a small amount of business through a major supermarket, most likely at a questionable margin, and it’s like managing a grain of salt through a factory. What I’m trying to do is offer an organic alternative and capture a share for those that deserve it.’
Carter’s interest in the food industry began at 15 when he left school in north Wales to farm an 98,000-acre ranch in New South Wales. ‘I went there a boy and eight-years later, came back a man. We had 5,500 breeding cows and 140 horses. At weekends, I used to ride rodeos!’
Returning to the UK, he studied agriculture which led to the role of ‘breeding prime bulls’ – a bestial version of Match.com, I joke. ‘I really enjoyed picking the right bull for the right cow, working closely with dairy farmers, who are lovely people.’ Another eight-years on, Carter’s mother decided to expand the family business. ‘I left livestock just as foot and mouth struck, becoming Sales Director for Patchwork. It was a great opportunity to travel whilst spreading the pâté across Europe, America and Asia.’
There are currently 45 producers trading in the virtual market, with a target of 80 by the end of the year. Dispatched from a warehouse close to Canary Wharf, the minimum order is £35 (£11.75 delivery). Whilst this may seem costly, Carter believes it realistically reflects costs. ‘Consider that you’re avoiding driving to the market and paying parking, that our boxes are highly-insulating and strong enough to survive being chucked five-feet in the air by a courier night-shifter, and that you can fill that box with the produce of many suppliers, and it becomes far more tolerable.’
In the near future, Carter envisages each stallholder will supplement their presence with a dedicated Facebook page, posting recipes and regularly answering customers’ queries. In tandem with ‘the bloke with all the technology’, Roger Saunt, of ‘Digital Presence Solutions’, Carter believes that as time moves on and people ‘upgrade to fibre optic cables or equivalent,’ the possibilities ‘will be endless...’
Visit the market at: http://www.vfmuk.com/