On December 6th, 1892, Kate Leonard stood at her brand-new stall in the red-bricked wholesale fruit and vegetable market on Mary’s Lane in Dublin. Beside her was a cart full of product — leeks, carrots, cabbage and cauliflower — stacked high into a pyramid. It was hand packed and there was no plastic or boxes.
The first auction then began. People shouted bids and hands waved frantically in the air as the crowd swelled around the sellers, vying for the produce on sale.
That day 130 years ago was the first for the Leonard and Sons fresh produce business, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The family continues to sell fruit and vegetables from almost the exact same location.
Justin Leonard, the current owner of the company, renamed Jackie Leonard and sons in 1983, said the business has undergone drastic changes since his great-grandmother started out. It largely sold vegetables and fish in the early days.
“At that time, we would have been mainly known as potato merchants. We would have wholesaled potato, sold in bulk to other wholesalers around the country who would in turn then distribute the product on to their customers,” he said.
His father, Jackie, joined the business in the 1940s and decided to start importing fruit such as oranges. Things diversified again when Justin and his two brothers came on board in the 1980s. They bought the business next to the stall, which sold what was then deemed “exotic” products such as sweet potatoes, aubergines and kiwis. It also supplied produce to restaurants and hotels.
By the 1990s, Justin said he noticed the business was changing, and that the wholesale trade was “dying a death”.
“Customers weren’t prepared to come into the city centre anymore, there was a lot of congestion and traffic, it was very hard to get parking,” he said. “A lot of the primary wholesalers we would have supplied down the country, they in turn started to bring in their own product from abroad. It was becoming much more competitive.”
Justin’s father had not long purchased the school in which he was educated, located right beside the market, and turned it into the warehouse. Justin, in turn, developed it into a fruit preparation area, which is where the company operates from today.
“Now, we wash and cut and slice and dice and prepare the vegetables. Supplying restaurants, hotels, nursing homes, hospitals with their fruit and vegetables,” he said. “From primarily being a wholesaler, we’re now a food service business. Every generation we’ve had to diversify. You couldn’t just stand still and keep doing the same thing, you’ve got to constantly be thinking on your toes.”
The 55-year-old has been working in the warehouse in some capacity for 42 years. His two sons, aged 20 and 21, are also beginning to learn the ropes of the family business, making them the fifth generation to get involved.
While some things have changed since Kate Leonard got started, others have remained the same.
“The market life has always provided. Not just for our family, but for all the generations. It’s always provided for us. It’s more of a vocation really, than a job. People say it’s in your blood, but it’s really in our blood,” Justin added.
There have always been challenges, such as the changing nature of the retail sector, as well as “astronomical” increases in the cost of electricity, freight and diesel, but Justin is determined to ensure a long-term future for the business.
“The way I look at it is I am the current custodian. I would like to hand it on to whoever the next person might be, whether it be family or someone else, I’d like to hand it on in the same state it was handed on to me which was successful and profitable.”
And how does a business stay in operation for so long? Justin said a family motto of sorts has provided a guide.
“My father always had a great saying. He said, ‘a small fire keeps you warm and a big fire burns you out’. We’re content to be a small fire, because this business keeps us warm. We don’t have plans to take on the world and never did,” he added.