“I judge success by being happy, not by wealth,” Sanjay says. With his cheery disposition and cheeky smile, its hard to judge Sanjay, by this measure, as a very wealthy man.
Since 2003 he’s run Cuba Fruit Mart with his older sister Joshana. Appearance wise, Sanjay's dreadlocks and shorts makes for a familiar figure on the street. He runs the iconic Cuba Fruit Mart which operates opposite Slow Boat records. Every day, his shop brings the freshest fruit and vegetables in Wellington in store, which they sell both retail and wholesale. Cuba Fruit Mart is a family business personally for Sanjay but also feels like a personal business for many Wellingtonians. Sanjay and his team greet customers by name and let them know when certain seasonal fruit and veggies have come into the store. In our modern times of ever bigger supermarkets, this approachable manner is now unusual - however, once you know the story of this business’s operator is not surprising. For Sanjay, Cuba Street is home - and by welcoming you into his store is literally welcoming you into his home.
Who is Sanjay?
Sanjay is the part owner of the Cuba Fruit Mart, a family run business that has been thriving in the capital for many years and was previously run by his Grandfather, Dad, and two uncles.
How did he get here?
Sanjay was born in Newtown, Wellington. “I’d say I’m like I’m a second generation New Zealander” Sanjay says over a flat white at neighbouring cafe, Olive, in Wellington. “My parents came out to New Zealand from India when they were seven and four. My mum was fully educated here and my Dad was pulled out of school to work in the family shop by his dad. Our family is originally from a state called Gujarat 250 km north of Mumbai. It’s an alcohol-free state, coastal, so there’s lots of seafood. My Granddad and his three sons moved here and started a family business selling fruit. For the first year, they never made any money. They then got it going!”
Early on, Sanjay remembers coming into Wellington from Seatoun with his family on Friday nights and getting fish and chips on Vivian Street. He also remembers walking through
Sanjay's family have always lived in Seatoun and he was educated at Seatoun School as a kid. “The people out there are a bit different now. It used to be more friendly but it’s gentrified. It's sad when your neighbours don’t say hi anymore. It’s a beautiful area though. We live two blocks down the road from my old school!” Sanjay did a few years at Scots College, where he focused on his studies a bit more after focusing only on
Sanjay studied information systems and marketing at Victoria University, worked in Palmerston North for a while and then moved to London with his future wife (they met in a local Wellington nightclub). He worked in filler jobs, being unable to find appropriate work in IT, but travelled and enjoyed life in the UK. After a friend got married, he returned to New Zealand. “I saw my dad, who I hadn’t seen for about two and a half years, and he looked tired and old. I asked if he wanted a break but he wouldn’t do it unless his brothers had a break. So each brother ended up having a month off while I worked there for three months".
Sanjay went back to the UK, did some more travel, before returning to New Zealand. He decided to help the family business, going forward from 2003. “I convinced myself to give it ago after meeting various people like Roger and Potti Fidels and liking them and their passion and belief in Cuba Street. It was my way to do my bit for the family” says Sanjay. And how is it doing? “What we did then, compared to what we do now? Maybe four to five times bigger. We work with restaurants and cafes around town and have a good reputation. We are comfortable and running at near capacity, so we don’t actively look for new clients unless we lose one” says Sanjay. “Its grown significantly. It’s now been going for over 60 years. We had a party to celebrate not long ago but no one knows THE exact date. My Dad and his uncles are humble people so it was a really good day. They started with nothing and they’ve achieved so much.”
How do they buy their produce?
“We purchase from registered growers six days a week in Tawa in Grenada North,” says Sanjay. “I go out there and negotiate prices, then bring it back on my truck and try to sell it. More and more we go directly to individual growers, who are more bespoke in their produce. The supermarkets go to the same place, as do the Sunday market guys, who buy up last weeks stock"
Sanjay has to buy his fruit and veggies according to the GAP and registered growers standards, common across the industry. “If you’re not registered or GAP approved you can still sell anything, which is what the Sunday flea market guys are. They don’t have the same compliance standards as we do, for hygiene and other things. We have to protect customers against pesticides and other stuff but they don’t. Councils like them because they add ambience to the city, but because they have a hawkers licence they can get away with selling stuff that may or may not comply with growing standards. Competition is good, but when it is unfair, we don’t like it”
How has the grocery industry changed over time in Wellington?
Supermarkets have taken over, more and more as the years have come and gone. Sanjay is also the President of the Local Retailers Association of Independent Greengrocers. “Twenty years ago we had 200 members,” says Sanjay "Now we have 8 shops left in the group. We’re not a strong force anymore but the reason we’ve diminished is because Supermarkets have gone from strength to strength. They’ve got everything, and car parking and stuff.”
Is there anything about work he doesn’t love?
Work/life balance can be hard for this King of Cuba Street. Sanjay has four children and his wife looks after them full time, which means he is the one financially supporting the family. “It’s old school but we had the same with our mum. It means I don’t get to see family as much as I would like because I’m working. The kids get their mum all the time. Not too many families are able to survive on one income in this day and age. You don’t get much of a life though. You gotta wonder when enough is enough. It can be tough when you don’t have family holidays and things.”
Any favourite businesses?
Sanjay says there are lots. “My favourite businesses are the ones who pay on time! We offer credit as a wholesaler to Wellington cafes. After that, those who want to work with us - you know, not like your Gordon Ramsay types, but good people who are passionate about what they do. Sanjay says. “We have had Fidels, Midnight Espresso, Logan Brown, Maranui and many more, with us for life. We used to see their kids when they were babies and now they are teenagers. One example is Midnight’s owner Hamish's daughter, Zara. She saw me the other day and asked whether I remembered when I used to give her a ride on my wheelbarrow up and down the street. Now she’s 23! It makes me feel old. But it's amazing to see what they get up to - those are good stories when you see people do well.”
What produce does Sanjay love looking forward to?
“Mango,” he says. “Asparagus, white peach and a crisp rose apple. Strawberries to - anything with a lot of flavour."
“I love driving or flying into the city, over the hills and the harbour. It feels like a welcome home” Sanjay explains. “My wife would like to return to Auckland, but my opportunities have been here. Cuba Street is the place where everyone knows your name. It's not Courtney Place, it's not Lambton Quay. It has its own character.”