Johannesburg grocer is embracing change spurred by Covid-19

Owner of Jackson’s Real Food Market, Gary Jackson (55), unpacks new consumer trends and the way forward for consumers in light of the global covid-19 crisis

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The global Covid-19 pandemic is ushering in a wave of what has widely become known as the “conscientious consumer,” believes Johannesburg-based grocery owner, Gary Jackson (55). People are buying differently and thinking differently, with consumers globally embracing fresh perspective through a new lens. Noluthando Ngcakani picked his brain.

“The virus has reshaped the world in real-time and accelerated long-term trends in the span of what has merely been weeks,” says Jackson (55), the co-founder of Jackson’s Real Food Market and Eatery, a small, family-run supermarket that showcases local farmers and producers.

His is a business 39 years in the making which saw its beginnings in his childhood home in Cape Town where he would make homemade jams with his brother and co-founder, Neil (51).

“I worked in a restaurant from grade 10 on the weekends and then sold jam door-to-door in the evenings.”

Today the Jackson brothers are the owners of two flagship stores in the high-end Johannesburg neighborhoods of Bryanston and Kyalami.

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Noluthando Ngcakani: Gary, you run a niche supermarket, has the global pandemic had any sort of impact on your business?

Gary Jackson: I think Covid-19 was good in that the one good thing that came out of it was people’s awareness for their own health. It has birthed the conscientious consumer.

There is a sort of a fear that if you are not trying to have optimal health, you’re susceptible to a virus and your immunity is low. So now the focus is to get our immunities fixed. A lot of people are studying and researching, looking to YouTube, looking at the Internet to try and find out all the basics.

NN: Jackson’s Real Food Market is committed to showcasing the local small-scale farmer and producer. What sparked the mandate?

GJ: The significance of a small-scale farmer or a producer crafting a product from their home is that they generally are very passionate about what they do, and they spend a lot of time nurturing whatever they grow or make.

Who wins? The customer.

I have met a few small-scale farmers who have had to drive for hours on a Saturday to sit at a farmer’s market trying to sell their produce themselves. This meant that they were spending less and less time on the farm. That did not make sense to me.

I think that this nation is not creating jobs for its people. If we can stimulate the entrepreneurs, the start-ups, if we can give them a glimmer of hope by being there for them and seeing that their needs are met, that they are taken care of, more will farm.

‘Have the guts to fail and do not beat yourself up when you fail.’

NN: Where did this inspiration to source small-scale produce come from?

GJ: Until you do the hard jobs, you could never run your own business.

I did many of the lower tier jobs. I have washed dishes, peeled potatoes, worked on the grill, worked as a manager opening and closing the restaurant, which made it easier for me to understand exactly how hard it is for the people who work for me.

I always have this deep empathy for them.

That is kind of how it started. I love people. I love seeing people grow. I love developing people. I think that’s what really keeps me going every morning is that, you know, I can see that I can give people opportunities to support their families, but at the same time, I can see them going somewhere with their careers and their lives.

NN: Running a supermarket does not sound like a very simple career choice. What have been some challenges on your journey?

GJ: We have got over 500 suppliers, and not one of them has folded. We’re proud of that.

It is very competitive; we can only offer value. We are slightly pricier than some of the bigger chains like a Pick ‘n Pay and Checkers. I think our main challenge is filling a human need.

A human need for me is what we use to shop like when I was younger, we used to travel shop to shop, go to the butcher, then baker, and then the greengrocer. You shopped at like nine shops.

What we tried to do was bring back the feeling that you are in many shops, so we have got a little bakery, and then we have got a produce section with a butchery. I wanted people to have the feeling that they are buying direct from farms.

It is challenging to get the quality, right. The cold chains are hectic, getting the pricing right, looking after farmers, making sure farmers are sustainable. Making sure your producers do not go bankrupt.

‘I certainly came from a place where I had a very bad diet. I used to love fast food, and junk food. And I got very ill. When that changed, I become more creative.’

NN: You have labelled this new wave of consumers the conscientious consumer. Please unpack this concept.

GJ: Broadly these are people who want to be happy and healthy.

That is my customer base. They want the real food, that is ethically sourced and produced.

If you take your health and your happiness very seriously, you must take your food very, very seriously.

You cannot feed a racehorse a low-quality diet and expect him to perform in any way. And humans are no different, you know, garbage in, garbage out.

Without nutrient dense food and (consuming) the minimal amount of toxins we were going nowhere.

The biggest thing that we try and achieve is human vitality. That does not mean that you look slim, or that you look beautiful or your skin’s nice. For me, when I talk about vitality and longevity, I am talking about a body that does not pain or ache, a skin that is free of eczema and rashes, and reactions. It is a brain that is functioning and to a human, that is happy.

‘If you take your health and your happiness very seriously, you must take your food very, very seriously.’

If you can increase your happiness by changing what you put in your body, I think you can change your life experience on earth in a massive way.

I certainly came from a place where I had a very bad diet. I used to love fast food, and junk food. And I got very ill. When that changed, I become more creative. I became less ADHD, I became calmer, I became more peaceful, I became more loving.

It’s that old Bible saying, you got to take the log out of your own eye before you can help someone take the log out of theirs. How are you going to support a family, if you don’t have optimum health?

NN: How has your childhood impacted your business?

GJ: When I was one my parents decided to go live in Japan. My dad had a fascination for martial arts, and he wanted to learn. I spent the first four years of my life in Tokyo and they take food seriously. They eat clean and focus on taste and nutrition. Without me realising it, I caught the language of food before I could even speak, and I think that was a big effect.

While my mom was cooking, she would put me in the sink and then I’d help her chop, cut make meatballs. I spent a lot of the first ten years of my life cooking and baking and I think that obviously got my passion going.

NN: Have you ever considered being a chef?

GJ: In hindsight, I would have loved to have trained as a chef. I should have. But again, you know, I had a father who did not want me to fail, he wanted me to do well and he thought I must become a businessman and go work in this big mine enterprise.

NN: Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs looking to make it in this industry?

GJ: Have the guts to fail and do not beat yourself up when you fail. I failed many, many, many times, but you got to pick yourself up, dust yourself up. If you are on the right path, and you are doing what you love, you’ll succeed eventually.

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