From a single fruit and veg store opened in Cape Town, Food Lover’s Market Group has thrived over the past 30 years to become the country’s largest privately-owned retailer. It now boasts an expanding footprint of modern grocery retail stores and a handful of attractive brands now part of its stable.
The family-owned group has steadily grown to include popular grocery retailer Food Lover’s Market, Food Lover’s Eatery, convenience chain FreshStop at Caltex service stations, import and export company FVC International, two liquor chains: Diamond Discount Liquor and Market Liquors, as well as the artisan coffee brand, Seattle Coffee Company.
Food Lover’s Market is in the business of fresh, and it offers fresh food, guaranteed. Unsurprisingly, this freshness guarantee is something Food Lover’s Market is exceptionally passionate about, and it is held true to its brand.
From opening a single store with a team of six colleagues, the Food Lover’s Market Group now boasts 17,000 team members across the entire business. Some early employees are still working in the business, having grown into other roles as the company expanded.
In order for us to understand how Food Lover’s Market became South Africa’s largest privately-owned retailer, let’s take it back to the year 1993, when brothers, Brian and Mike Coppin, launched a Fruit & Veg City store at Access Park in Kenilworth, Cape Town. The store was converted from an existing business called The Carrot King.
Their father Aubrey Coppin was an OK Bazaars director for 40 years and the brothers followed in his footsteps by also working at OK. They started two small stores, which failed, and then decided to try fruit and vegetable stores as they thought there was a gap in the market.
From the get-go, Fruits & Veg City has always been a family business, with emphasis placed on good old family values such as trust, integrity, and honesty. The brothers’ vision was to create a store that resembled old marketplaces, where farmers brought their fresh produce to be sold to the public.
They sourced the store’s products directly from farmers and municipal markets, and priced them aggressively in order to expand in the market while at the same time, competing with existing retail chains.
The first store was an instant success and returned the initial investment within six months of operation.
By 1995, the brothers were approached by someone wanting to operate a store in Port Elizabeth, and just like that, the first franchise store was opened. Franchise stores in Durban, East London, Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg soon followed.
By 1998, they seemed to have perfected the store’s model, and the brand as a whole was beginning to become a household name in the country.In the next 10 years, 86 stores were opened, of which two-thirds were franchised, and employee numbers exceeded 4000.
By 2004, Fruit & Veg City was moving over 2000 tons of produce to 80 000 customers everyday, which made them the biggest fresh produce retailer in SA with a turnover of more than R1.5 billion a year.
In 2006, Pick N Pay wanted to purchase the Fruits and City brand but competition commission of South Africa ruled against the proposed acquisition citing unfair advantage in the retail market for fresh food.
This was a huge to blow to both parties especially Pick N Pay. According to reports, the retail giant was very keen on the move as it wanted to buy the business as a means to be more competitive against Woolworths Food.
Food Lover’s Market
The next step in the evolution of Fruit & Veg City was to create a modern eatery where food aficionados could indulge in a range of gourmet foods. It was this vision that finally gave birth to the Food Lover’s Market, a theatre of food that was designed specifically with connoisseurs in mind.
The Fruit & Veg City team crossed the globe in search of the hottest international trends in food. They visited the United States, Europe, Australia and the East, and then brought the best elements of what they saw in there back with them. The result is the stylish and modern food emporium called the Food Lover’s Market, with the first store opening in Hillfox, Johannesburg.
The following year, the company spread its wings beyond borders and formed an international division called Fruit & Veg City International to handle exports.
FVC International fits so well within the Food Lover’s Market Group, it supplies all stores within the FLM Group and it is one of South Africa’s leading import and export company, its major export product lines including apples, pears, citrus, grapes and plums.
Exporting to the likes of North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as other African nations, FVC is a hands-on one-stop shop priding itself on quality processes, from growing and picking to packing and distribution.
In 2009, the group established its forecourt retail brand FreshStop at Caltex service stations which have since become a hit. There’s over 330 FreshStop at Caltex outlets nationwide which are open 24 hours.
Food Lover’s Eatery
The following year, the FML group launched Food Lover’s Eatery, a quick-service cafeteria with a wide range of freshly prepared food, and a small range of convenient fruits, vegetables and pantry items.
The eatery is basically a place where you buy potato salad rather than a pocket of potatoes, a burger and chips rather than burger patties, or fried fish and chips rather than a piece of raw hake, you get the drift?!
As it stands, there are 7 eateries, 3 in central Cape Town, and the remaining 4 in central Johannesburg.
In September 2012, the group acquired Daimond’s Discount Liquor from RMB Corvest. The purchase was in line with Diamonds Discount Liquors’s vision of becoming a national chain some day‚ and also its desire to align itself with a national supermarket retailer.
The acquisition also gave birth to the Market Liquors brand which came after a partnership between Diamond’s Discount Liquor and Food Lover’s Market. With 32 stores in total, Market Liquors can be found close to Food Lover’s Market stores, while Diamond Liquors are found in busy areas in the Western Cape Province.
In the same year, Food Lover’s Market expanded its offering to include non-food items and announced that it would be converting all Fruit & Veg City outlets to its Food Lover’s Market brand. And also began stocking items in a number of grocery categories from British retailer Waitrose.
Seattle Coffee Co.
FML’s biggest bet was when they partnered and subsequently acquired a 51% stake in Seattle Coffee Company from Pete Howie and Barry Parker in 2015.
Seattle Coffee Company was launched the same year as Food Lover’s Market in London, UK, by couple, Alley and Scott Svenson. Three years later, the Seattle Coffee brand was brought South Africa by Barry Parker and Peter Howie, who setup the first store in Cape Town.
Starbucks bought out Seattle UK in 1998 and converted all 65 stores into Starbucks. Starbucks acquired Seattle UK by exchange of 1.8 million Starbucks shares for 100% of Seattle in a deal worth $83 million.
When Peter Howie and Barry Parker brought Seattle Coffee Company to Cape Town in 1996, they also acquired the Southern Africa naming rights. So, when Starbucks bought out Alley and Scott Svenson, the Cape Town store owned by Peter and Barry was the only Seattle left.
The Seattle Coffee brand has gained massive popularity in South Africa over the years, operating 200 plus cafés across the country.
Actis Private Equity
The early bird catches the worm. In 2016, Actis, through its private equity arm invested R760 million for a minority stake in Food Lover’s Market. The group used the proceeds to boost its local growth potential.
Actis private equity portfolio focuses on consumer, financial services and healthcare. The firm has investments across Asia, Africa and Latin America with over $12.5 billion worth of assets under its management.
The coming years saw the group launching Earth Lovers, a division dedicated to building a company that incorporates social and environmental sustainability in everything the business does. The company is committed to creating a sustainable business model for years to come.
This includes building stores that are energy efficient with LED lighting and energy-efficient refrigeration, as well as waste minimisation processes. The retailer is also committed to reducing waste to landfill, and stores are continually looking at more efficient packaging and recycling opportunities having been the first South African retailer to ban plastic bags at till points.
The FLM group has a strong value proposition and has targeted the aspirational middle-class in South Africa through their ‘Theatre of Food’, by expanding away from being a traditional fruit and vegetable store, towards offering services such as a butchery, bakery, grocery and deli foods.
In January 2022, FLM announced plans to increase their store presence by 22 across South Africa and Namibia, by the end of 2024 through a R400 million investment.
These new flagship stores under this expansion will host a number of key elements we have come to expect from retailers looking to attract consumers to their stores. These include a sushi bar, bakery, biltong, dried fruit and nut bar, as well as a Seattle Coffee Co. within the store.
In the latter part of 2022, the brand opened its Bothasig flagship store to a positive response from the local community. This was closely followed by the refurbishments of Food Lover’s Market Weskus Mall and KZN stores in La Lucia, Ballito and Crescent.
A significant national expansion is on the cards in the next few years. These new-generation Food Lover’s Market stores have been designed to offer customers a one-stop shopping experience.
The eventual goal is to establish Food Lover’s Market as the store of choice for middle class South Africa, and compete head on with the likes of Spar, Pick n Pay and Checkers.
So far so good on the mission, the group recorded 24% year-on-year growth for the first quarter of the 2023/24 financial year.
Should Food Lover’s Market go public one day, Actis and the Coppin family will be rewarded handsomely, but then again, that’s probably never happening.
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