Two thirty in the morning and Des is up and out, heading for the market in Birmingham. Once he ran a business with a massive turnover and forty-five employees, but now he’s on his own, nosing into the darkness to bring back the best produce to Pomona, Shrewsbury’s greengrocer’s shop in Castle Gates.
Pomona, goddess of apples, celebrated in poetry by William Morris, and in tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones - in her latest incarnation she’s a veritable jewel in Castle Gate’s crown, lit up like a stage-set by night, tumbling out onto the pavement in full harvest-festival mode by day.
'We always reckoned we had a good shop in us,' Des announces, the 'we' in question being himself and partner Debra, who's to be found most days behind the till in Pomona, and has the equally important [and not always enviable, I guess] role of hauling Des back when his enthusiasm runs ahead of him.
Des certainly doesn't come across as a man who lets the grass grow under his feet. I'm sitting opposite him in the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, and his drink's already downed whilst mine still sits in the cup. He describes himself as gung-ho and instinctive, and in his cloth cap, tweed jacket and shopkeeper's apron, that's exactly how he looks - in a greengrocery sort of way.
An unnamed source once described Des to me as like an onion – ‘you just keep peeling back the layers’. So here I am, attempting to do that. What brought him and Debra into fruit and veg, I ask. And more specifically, what brought them here to Castle Gates? Des puts it all down to an appreciation of good food, both as consumers and members of the eating public. ‘I’ve always loved to grow,’ he says. ‘I loved cooking and I loved gardening.’
In 2001, when he and Debra moved up from London, along with partner Mike Hamilton they started Boxfresh, the organic boxed vegetable company that they turned into a multi-million pound business. At its height, Boxfresh supplied customers all the way from Bristol to Manchester. It was a massive success. At the same time, Des and Debra bought an apple farm in Herefordshire and during Pomono’s first year, they sold their own apples in the shop, in the farm’s original 1950s wooden boxes.
It must have been a wrench, I say, to give up Boxfresh. ‘It grew too fast,’ Des replies. ‘I ended up spending all my times in meetings. It became an office job, and that wasn’t what I wanted. I’d lost the hands-on say about quality. I’d lost the direct contact.’
A deal was struck to sell Boxfresh, though sadly partner Mike Hamilton never lived to see it through. He died on May 11th 2011, around the time Des and Debra took the keys to Pomona. At around the same time, they sold the farm, enabling them to concentrate their efforts on the good shop they’d always reckoned they had in them. ‘We should have done it before,’ Des says – and that’s despite the 2.30am starts to his day.
They first heard about the shop in early 2011. ‘The Communards’ as Des calls the Crabapple Community who own the building, were looking for a new tenant after the closure of the health food shop, Wild Thyme. Des and Debra only took one look for the potential to be obvious. ‘Did you know the shop is listed?’ Des asks me. ‘You can see why, too. We looked at its lovely mirrored wall and two bay windows and saw immediately how our shop could be. We learned a lot from the Boxfresh years. And I’ve always had a bit of an eye.’
On the subject of Des’s eye, I ask what he’s looking for when he’s rifling around Birmingham at four in the morning, poking at parsnips and rummaging through the radishes. He’s looking for quality, he says. He’s looking for taste, and products that might be interesting and a bit different – salsify, for example, or fresh figs in season. And, as much as anything, he’s looking for price.
Pomona’s not some high-class wrap-your-potatoes-in-gold-foil type of shop. That’s something Des really wants people to know. It’s a regular greengrocer’s, he says, and its prices must reflect it. In addition, when he’s at market he’s buying for a variety of Shrewsbury hotels, pubs and restaurants and he needs to bring home a good deal for everyone.
And organic, I ask, thinking back to Boxfresh. Des shakes his head. Not unless specifically stated, he says. There’s an assumption otherwise because of the history of the shop, and Des and Debra’s history too, but Pomona’s prices are high street, not high end. To attract the sort of customers it wants, the shop can’t afford to be 100% organic.
I ask what happens when Des isn’t working – in the few short hours, that is, between closing the shop and the alarm at half past two. Des and Debra have three daughters. They live quiet lives. They’re not the life-and-soul-of-the-party types. That’s what Des says, but I’m not letting him get away with that. This is a small town. I know for a fact that he plays in a band.
‘Ah, that,’ Des says. He sings as well as playing mandolin and bass. Irish music. The band is called Star of the Sea. They play around town – the Wheatsheaf and the Anchor are two pubs Des mentions - and regularly at the Irish Centre in Birmingham. In fact they’ll be there this coming St Patrick’s Day and there’s a charity ‘do’ coming up as well in the Lion Hotel Ballroom, Saturday 23rd March, tickets for sale in Pomona, proceeds to Shrewsbury-based charity, Village Water. ‘This is a great town for charities,’ Des says.
We move onto the future, which isn’t hard when you’re talking to a man whose mind is plainly always running ahead. Des talks about growing sales and bringing in new products – not just fruit and veg, but certain groceries and locally-made bags, cups and mugs. He’s also interested in finding uses for the floors above the shop. ‘The higher you go,’ he says, ‘the more old newspapers and other artifacts you find. With that space up there as well, we might have the makings of a good tea shop.’
‘Anything else?’ I ask. ‘Nothing concrete,’ Des replies. ‘Lots of ideas. Still things to do.’
It’s time to go. On the way home I call into Pomona. Debra confirms everything Des has said. I take her photo and browse around the shop. This is high street as it ought to be, not what it often is. Behind the till is pinned a postcard of the Burne-Jones tapestry. In the window, the William Morris poem catches my eye:
I am the ancient apple-queen.
As once I was so am I now.
For evermore a hope unseen,
Betwixt the blossom and the bough.
Ay, where’s the river’s hidden gold!
And where the windy grave of Troy?
Yet come I as I came of old,
From out of the heart of summer’s joy.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones -1833-1898] & John Henry Dearle [1860-1932]
Made by Morris & Co
Tapestry-woven wool & silk on cotton warp
Victoria & Albert Museum