This month legendary Wellington food emporium Moore Wilson’s turned 100. Samuel Flynn Scott meets Julie Moore, the most important and influential person in Wellington food.
Sean Clouston, executive chef and co-owner of Logan Brown, was bustling through Moore Wilsons in his cheffy regalia. “Sammy! You come here on Fridays too? Best time mate. All the free tastings. I love it. Get a little pre-service meal. Any excuse for a quick trip to Moore Wilsons!”
It was a few years ago now, but this encounter with my old boss comes to mind as I mooch about eating little morsels like a lab rat in a tasty maze. MWs own funky cheddar cheese! Gobble gobble. Walk a bit. Hungarian sausage? Well if I must, gobble gobble. But my goodness, what is this, oh bliss, taramasalata! Gobble gobble, make polite banter so I can gobble more (nb: Elysian Taramasalata is the best shit).
To make matters more ridiculous, it’s the day of the royal wedding and when I get myself a coffee there is a free slice of wedding cake. How generous, how posh!
I’m here to meet Julie Moore, the fourth generation grocer in charge of Moore Wilson’s. I think it’s fair to say the game has changed since her great grandfather started the legendary supermarket 100 years ago. And the family business has changed drastically under her watch. The store began as a bulk supplier in 1908, working with the hospitality and service industries. In 1998 it launched its ‘Fresh’ concept offering, and under great-granddaughter Moore’s attention it has set the standard as a shopping destination for the food obsessed.
I’m also here because today I am a tourist, and as a former resident and utter glutton. And there is no better way to get back in the ‘Wellyzone’ than to pop on Jet Jaguar’s era defining remix of The Black Seeds’ returning-to-Wellington classic ‘Almost Home’ and get yourself to Moore Wilson’s. This is a place I frequented so often that my brother in law, on visiting Wellington for the first time, wondered who ‘Mal Wilson’ was and why I had to pop out to see him every day.
So here I am, back in Wellington, surrounded by vegetables, on the verge of tears at the thrilling combination of quality produce and high turnover pricing.
Some of you may not have experienced the dull wasteland that was food shopping in the 1980s. I remember my father wanting to eat things he’d eaten in India, but there weren’t many (if any) Indian restaurants at the time. There certainly wasn’t much in the way of spices at the local supermarket, maybe a generic curry powder and little else. So we would venture to a tiny spice store in Newtown that felt like another planet. If you wanted interesting food you had to seek out the raw ingredients and make everything yourself. We mostly just ate chops.
It feels like this all changed very quickly from the mid ’80s (was Peter Gordon’s first Sugar Club in Wellington the watershed moment?) to the early ’90s. Insanely quickly. The country was having its pre-crash neoliberal awakening. Californian cuisine, the Mediterranean diet, fusion foods (so scorned at the time, now just what 50% of food is) were suddenly things people had heard of. Praise be the melting pot of different cultures coming together to make a new world food that better fit our climate, produce and diversity. A melting pot of freshness to help the pallid Anglo-Saxon culture of post war New Zealand gain a tan.
Moore Wilson’s was there the whole way, supplying the cafes and restaurants of the Wellington region. But their big shift, the thing which made them a must-visit spot on any eating tour of Wellington, was in 1998. Julie Moore, seeing the way things were going in the US with a little chain called Whole Foods, opened the first Moore Wilson’s Fresh. Farmers markets wouldn’t appear in New Zealand for a few more years, and quite frankly eaters had all but forgotten many of the small local businesses producing incredible products.
“Going back 20 years ago we did everything but fresh and looking at America and the Whole Foods markets that was the logical next step. To be honest, we didn’t realise it would be quite as successful as it was. We did a lot of research into getting the best produce and understanding the cool chains and then it was just a matter of a selection of the best bread and the best coffee in Wellington,” she says.
The launch of Moore Wilson’s Fresh created a focal point for all the tasty shit Wellington had to offer. When I think of those early days I know I discovered Island Bay sausages through MWs. The best bakeries were all there, early on you’d see Pandoro, Aro Bake, Bordeaux…now you’ll find the hipper selections ranging from serious ‘real bread’ sourdough gurus to shimmering yuzu eclairs from pastry boffins.
“All the bakeries come in each morning and fill their shelves and we sell it on their behalf. It means they have a vested interest in how it looks,” Moore tells me as we stroll the pastry isle that looks that is like glorious mash-up of a Parisian patisserie and Berkley hippy bread shop.
It makes sense really: the perishable goods need to look and taste great in order to sell themselves. New suppliers can come in and kick the ass of the old guard and command more market space. Just look at the loaves put out by Wellington Sourdough. It’s exceptional bread and the look and design feels very now. It must give those original bakeries pause for thought.
Obviously an O.G. almond croissant is tempting at first but then next to them, holy shit, those French Cancan yuzu eclairs are almost pulsating with glorious invention. Far be it from me to judge, people can be very loyal to their faves. Me? I’m essentially the John Peel of digestion. I tend to want the new shit all the time and unfortunately for my guts there is always some fresh alchemy of sugar and cow juice to smash into my hairy gob.
The old guards of Wellington coffee are perhaps more open to change and the selection at Moore Wilson’s is insane. Currently you’ll find anywhere in the realm of 30 different beans from nine different roasters. My local bougie Grey Lynn shop maybe has five. The cliche of Wellington as a coffee mad city pre-dates Moore Wilson’s but they certainly got on board from the get go.
“A unique thing we offer the customer is their choice of roaster when ordering a coffee, I think right now we are brewing five; Supreme, L’Affare, Havana People’s and Flight,” says Moore.
More than just choice it seems to me that they are literally telling their customers to take a position on taste. Different opinions allowed, but having no opinion is not an option. That was the point: herein lies better tasting stuff, generally made by smaller businesses, generally made very close to where you live, and this is what you the customer wants.
It’s at this point that I interject and suggest that perhaps one small enhancement would be the addition of filter coffee in the fresh section, perhaps a little single origin fetko brew from Supreme or People’s Coffee. You can almost see the public research section of Julie Moore’s brain click into gear: is this walking cliché beard monster onto something, or is he a befuddled outlier sent from a Portlandia sketch to trick me into buying a new coffee machine? I imagine she’s well aware of the shifting coffee habits of Wellingtonians, and when I see her again the next day it’s the first thing she brings up. I have planted the seeds of doubt in the most important person in New Zealand grocery! Am I tragic enough that I would actually move back to Wellington if Moore Wilson’s started serving filter coffee? I think I probably am.
My personal crusades aside, the thing that really fascinates me about MW’s is the unusual pricing. I discovered many years ago that the appliance section is like some kind of anti-Briscoes. Almost nothing goes on sale. Which would be a negative except for the weirdest thing: everything costs about the same, or maybe marginally more, than a Briscoes sale. That Briscoes lady, she is lying to you. She’s been lying to all of us for many years.
“The big retailers mark up to mark down, and mostly that works for them. We just have a different philosophy; we have a diverse range of customers and it’s one price for everyone. We have a lot of bulk pricing, for people buying whole trays and pallets.”
The cost of their Italian dried pasta seems ridiculously cheap, “Well we bring Molisana in by the container, canned tomatoes, rice. Most other items we leave to specialist importers.”
Did they deliberately change to Molissina as their primary pasta because of the Barilla homophobia scandal? It all seemed to coincide conveniently for woke Wellingtonian gluten tolerators? “Ha, no that was purely coincidental, setting up an account like that can take years of planning.” Still though, it saved me from a Sophie’s Choice of guilty arrabiata or gluggy San Remo bollocks (Australian made supermarket pasta is truly shit).
We leave Julie Moore’s office for a tour of the 12 buildings that make up the MWs site. It’s a complex web of toy shop, appliances, homewares, dry goods, restaurant supplies, massive booze shop, fresh market and fish monger. There is a permanent sushi stand; two ever changing pop-up hot food caravans; and the hugely popular Chook Wagon, a classic supermarket rotisserie chicken but better. And you can order whole rotisserie Peking duck. It’s so delicious, probably inauthentic, but insanely tasty so fuck all y’all haters.
The trade section is bustling, always bustling, with the entirety of Wellington’s food industry visiting almost daily. Paul Schrader, the front of house ying to the incredible cooking yang of Kelda Hains (they have recently sold the legendary Nikau cafe to launch one of Wellington’s most exciting new restaurants, Rita) says he sees MW as “a great place to not only buy what you need but catch up with the local gossip and have a chin wag with your peers.” I’ve pestered Paul for a yarn in the vege aisle and he seems to be taking the ever increasing hustle of families and food tourists in his stride.
But it has brought about some necessary changes: “We have taken to only going there on two wheels to avoid the inevitable log jam of cars and shoppers. In and out is our catch cry.”
It can feel slightly chaotic at times, like a fancy local deli that got fed too much fish food in a Dr Seuss book and mutated into the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria with a veiled New Zealand accent. But there is energy in a touch of chaos, and when it’s really pumping it’s like a choreographed dance of SUVs and shopping trolleys.
“We’ve got some plans,” Moore says, “to change how it works between the different departments. For us we’re always striving to do things better, whether it’s what we stock or the service we provide. We might look at more food stalls, and different services in some way. We have become a hub for the area so we have to look at what we can provide to the people who live around us, car charging stations.”
They’ve become a hub for the area, but they have also created the area. That part of downtown was a drab industrial zone before Moore Wilson’s modern incarnation and L’Affare moved in. College St is now home to three design shops, Ekor bookstore, a gym/cafe, and the new Kowtow flagship store straight across the road. A new winery is being built not 30 metres from the trade entrance. Prefab has become the local mega cafe, always packed, always good. There are apartments going up everywhere. Garage Project have their new brewery within view of the MW rooftop carpark (not to mention the 39678 other breweries that have opened in the last ten minutes). Hell, even a Briscoes moved in.
None of this was here before Moore Wilson’s Fresh. There are so many small food producers in the ‘hood now too: Fix & Fogg, House Of Dumplings, Wellington Chocolate Factory, Six Barrel Soda… you have to wonder did they spring up as part of the changing face of Ghuznee St or is it just a good business to be able to walk your product over to MWs?
It seems Moore Wilson’s have no desire (but plenty of offers) to expand their brand beyond the Wellington region. And the family has resisted propositions for purchase over the years. With fresh and trade outlets in Porirua and Masterton and another trade shop near Naenae, I get the feeling that Julie Moore likes to personally watch over it all. There is an attention to detail that is so often lost in the fluorescent cathedrals of the weekly shop.
“We don’t want to be everything. We do have to stick to what know in some regards. We are still primarily a bulk food supplier. People approach us to sell all sorts of things and we probably could sell anything but we might lose focus,” she says.
As I argue with the self checkout software in a Ponsonby Countdown, even on the days when Jacinda and Clarke walk past (ok that only happened once, but it sounds cool) I long for the familiar arm wrestle of a crowded Moore Wilson’s check-out. I can but Pay-wave goodbye to actual service (and food knowledge), but know that it still exists in one rambling supermarket of perfection.
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