THE VEGETABLE CONNECTION
By Eva Perroni
Australia is a country unlike any other when it comes to the food retail sector. We are the only country in the world in which the grocery market is dominated by a duopoly. It has been estimated that our two major supermarket chains, Coles (Wesfarmers) and Woolworths, control between 70-85% of Australia’s grocery market, with outlets continuing to proliferate across both metropolitan and regional centres of Australia, edging out local and independent competitors. These now ubiquitous large supermarket chains have slowly subsumed the old-fashioned milk bar, delicatessen and simple fruit and veg stores that once characterized our neighbourhoods. But some small food retail outlets have managed to resist this trend and maintain a strong and sturdy presence in the grocery sector. The Vegetable Connection in Fitzroy is one of them.
The Vegetable Connection is a family owned business; the oldest business located on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, opened in 1941. Run by third generation green grocers Nick Miriklis and his wife Josephine. What began as Nick’s grandfather’s simple fruit and vegetable store has since evolved into a specialty grocery outlet driven by a distinctive and innovative style in fresh food and gourmet products. Being a wholesale supplier to a number of top restaurants in Australia and the Asia Pacific region, Nick is able to keep abreast of current food trends, granting him the ability to trade in specialty products and respond rapidly to fashions in the aesthetics of food.
“Right now there is a current trend in Peruvian foods and flavours,” says Nick, so he has carefully selected various Peruvian crop seeds suited to the Victorian climate that are grown in conjunction with the ‘conventional’ produce by the small and local farmers from which he sources. Sourcing seeds from all over the world, spanning diverse countries and regions such as Italy, Holland, the United States and South America, The Vegetable Connection maintains a strong focus on sourcing the more unusual, specialist fruit and vegetables, as well as saving heirloom varieties and reintroducing fresh products that have all but disappeared from the mainstream supermarket shelves. These may include the tomatillo, or ‘Mexican husk tomato’, the South American cassava, or Spanish padron chilli. As the Victorian distributor of Outback Pride, an Australian owned company specialising in native food products grown by traditional Aboriginal communities, The Vegetable Connection also stocks an inspiring range of dried, fresh and frozen indigenous food species, ranging from fresh quandongs and finger limes to native thyme, basil and mint.
“When it comes to fresh produce, I’ve always favoured flavour, texture and quality over appearance,” says Nick, which undoubtedly is one of the reasons why his customers consistently report that his produce stays fresher for longer than that of its supermarket counterparts. In addition to offering a large range of specialty grocery lines, The Vegetable Connection offers both conventional and organic fruits and vegetables as well as fresh breads from the Artisanal Baker d’Chirico, cheeses, organic and free range eggs, and a number of specialty dried goods.
It is through this innovative product line and consequent promotion of diversity in the domestic food system that The Vegetable Connection has gained a reputation as a market leader in providing a diverse and eclectic range of fresh culinary delights, despite aggressive tactics adopted by the larger retailers. Commercial food retailers, for example, team up with plant breeders to develop a new plant variety, and under the Plant Breeders Rights Act can actively exclude other producers and retailers from producing, selling, importing or exporting the plant material and seed, granting them a commercial monopoly on the product. The ‘Kalette’ for example, a kale-brussel sprout hybrid, is available exclusively at Coles, and protected by law from commercial sale by any other supplier and or retailer nationwide.
While there is evidence that Australians are choosing to purchase fresh food from alternative retailers, be they farmers markets or specialty grocery stores, Coles and Woolworths still control the lion’s share of Australia’s fresh food market. When large supermarket chains yield such enormous market power, product lines and choice are inevitably reduced. Australia’s food production has become so centralised and consolidated that only a small pool of large agricultural producers supplies the majority of our food; many of whom engage in monoculture production. This production model inevitably reduces biodiversity among agricultural crops, threatens food quality, and increases the vulnerability of our food system to environmental shocks. By using our food dollar to support Australian small businesses like The Vegetable Connection in Fitzroy, we actively advocate for a more equitable co-existence between small and local food suppliers and retailers and the supermarket giants, whilst encouraging greater diversity and better produce in Australia’s food system.
Eva Perroni is an activist-researcher and writer focused on creating a more just and sustainable food system.