Bonners Oxford: rallying a community

When Covid-19 struck and threatened to upset the apple cart completely, family-run greengrocer Bonners and its Mercedes-Benz vans led fellow traders in an inspirational fightback.

A family with a passion for produce

Visitors to Oxford’s historic Covered Market can’t miss the colourful stall at one of the entrances, displaying a huge variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as herbs and nuts. Bonners has been trading from this iconic location since 1952, and for the last four years has been owned by Gordon Piggott, who had worked for Bonners previously, and his wife Verity. The couple are passionate in their determination to support local farmers and minimise the carbon footprint of their business. So while more exotic produce arrives daily from the London markets, much of the rest is seasonal and grown locally in Oxfordshire and the Vale of Evesham, with deliveries to wholesale customers in the centre of the city made on foot by sack trolley.

Coping at crunch time – with help from the experts

As for so many businesses, the pandemic lockdown meant Bonners had to turn over a new leaf… and quickly. “The closure of bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants, as well as Oxford University colleges meant that our wholesale arm shut down overnight,” recalled Verity. “At the same time, though, demand for delivered orders shot up to around 300 per day. People were calling and emailing us to say they had nothing, and were on their own. We really wanted to help.” 

Having acquired a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 18 months earlier from local Dealer Rygor Commercials, Bonners quickly took on a second, this time on a rental basis. Neither was refrigerated, though. Given the increased demand Gordon and Verity realised that temperature control was going to be more important, particularly with summer on the way.  They contacted Rygor again, this time via the online chat function on its website, and were bowled over with the response. “I took a call from a member of its sales team within minutes, and a couple of hours later he sent us a quote for a new, refrigerated Sprinter,” said Verity. “We placed our order and the van was delivered the following day, which meant we were able to dispense with the rented vehicle. The 24-hour turnaround was unbelievable, and helped us to keep the business moving and continue to serve customers, especially the elderly and vulnerable, who really needed us.” 

Getting ahead by working together

Gordon and Verity have six children. All help out on the Bonners stall from time to time and all – with the exception of the eldest, 23-year-old Aidan, who now teaches English in China – pitched-in when things threatened to go pear-shaped.

The other market traders also pulled together to keep things moving. “We’re a close-knit community at the Covered Market, and many of us have known each other for years,” explained Verity. “I realised that while people wanted our fresh fruit and vegetables to keep them going through the health pandemic, they also needed lots of other things as well. By inviting fellow traders to take advantage of our extended delivery service, everyone stood to benefit. Not only would we be helping customers by offering them a much wider range of products, but we’d also be doing our bit to ensure the long-term future of the market.”

As well as its own fresh produce, Bonners has also made deliveries for butchers and bakers, cheese suppliers and drinks companies. While most, such as florist The Garden Oxford, trade alongside the greengrocer in the Covered Market, others are located elsewhere in the city. The Cocktail Service, for example, is a customer that uses fruits, herbs and edible flowers supplied by Bonners in its delicious drinks. It, too, has had to adopt a radically reshaped business model, after Covid 19 stopped the events industry dead in its tracks.

“It’s all about supporting each other in these challenging times,” said Verity. “So many companies have been hit hard by this awful virus, and are having to look at new ways of doing things just to survive.”  

So it was for Bonners. The evident demand for home deliveries prompted Gordon and Verity to turn over a new leaf by launching their company’s first website. Mindful, however, of the fact that many of their customers struggle with technology, or may not have access to the internet, they continue to take orders over the phone, as well as online.

Sprinter vans were the recipe for success

Those orders are now being delivered in Bonners’ two new refrigerated Sprinter vans. Why two? Because so successful has their home delivery operation proved that the couple have since returned to Rygor Commercials for a second temperature-controlled Sprinter, to replace the non-refrigerated van they bought in 2018. Again, the new van had been converted in advance so was available from stock, and delivered in double-quick time. 

“Our new vans are fantastic,” enthused Verity. “We work them hard and they offer all the reliability, comfort and safety we need, while the fact that they’re refrigerated means the produce remains as fresh as the moment it was picked. The Dealer’s been brilliant too… they certainly ‘know their onions’ at Rygor when it comes to serving businesses like ours.” 

With two vans now hard at work, and wholesale business starting to return as the economy opens up, it may not be too long before Bonners finds it needs a third.  

As well as delivering to customers, Bonners’ Mercedes-Benz vans are used to collect fruit and vegetables from suppliers such as Laggotts Farm, which is located at Hinton Waldrist, just nine miles from the city, and from Rectory Farm, which is even closer, at Stanton St John. A family run business, Rectory Farm grows a variety of crops, but is renowned for its mouth-watering strawberries.

“We’re committed to supporting local farmers by stocking their high-quality, seasonal fruit and vegetables at every opportunity,” said Verity. “This approach reflects our sustainability ethos by keeping the number of miles covered by the produce as low as possible.”

  

Adapting, overcoming and looking ahead

If Verity and Gordon have learned one thing from the unprecedented events of 2020, it’s about the importance of maintaining a positive outlook in the face of adversity. 

“Let’s face it,” observed Verity, “a lot of people have had a pretty rotten time of it this year, particularly during the lockdown. It sounds daft, but we found that a smile went a long way in helping to lift people’s spirits. The way we all pulled together in the Covered Market was also something I’ll never forget, and has certainly strengthened relationships among the traders. All we need now, is for footfall to return to pre-pandemic levels. We’re certainly seeing the first shoots of a recovery, so fingers crossed that trend continues.” 

The other ‘takeaway’, for Bonners, is about being able to adapt in response to changing circumstances. “You have to be ‘light on your feet’, and prepared to change the way you do business,” added Verity. “In our case, we’re emerging from a very difficult period when we could easily have gone under, in a much stronger position than we went into it. We’ve a new website, two super refrigerated Mercedes-Benz vans, and a home delivery operation that continues to grow. This is the ‘new normal’ for us, and we’ve no intention of going back!”      

Fruits of their labour

The Bonners team and their trusty refrigerated Sprinter on the road

The perfect pick

Bonners and Rectory Farm getting hands-on with the produce

A hardy van for hardy work

From rural roads to towns and cities – this Sprinter keeps Bonners moving

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