Borough Market

Anthropology: Take a Stroll Through Borough Market, the Oldest Food Market in London

The oldest market in London, Borough Market has existed as far back as the 11th century selling grains, fish and produce close to the London Bridge. In the 13th century, the market moved to Borough High Street and closed for a brief time in 1755, but then re-started with the help of Southwark residents who raised money to open it up again (“The History of the Borough Market” 1) The market has over 100 vendors that sell on different days throughout the week, and some of these vendors also sell their food at delis, restaurants, grocery stores and other markets too. As in the past, this market in the middle of London is energetic and inviting to people from all over the world.

In ““Exploring the City,” by Ulf Hannerz explains how cities can be broken up into five domains that define different kinds of relationships among people. The Borough Market resembles traffic relationships, which are “pure forms of meetings among strangers, a result of the crowding of large numbers of people in a limited space” (Hannerz 1980:106). The market brings the majority of vendors and customers together into a situational community, “a collectivity of people” that are “bound together by impersonal ties or a sense of belonging together” (Finnegan 1989:300).

I focus on the Green Market and Three-Crowne Square area, where I observed The Flour Station and La Tua Pasta vendors. The Flour Station is an artisanal bread and pastry station that grew from Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen.  La Tua Pasta is an Italian, family-run pasta station with many different kinds of pastas and fillings. From the extensive amount of food and the wide diversity at the market, the exchanges and communications between consumer and producer are mostly casual and similar to Hannerz’s definition of traffic relationships. The methods that I used to write this blog included conducting two interviews, and going to the market one to two times a week to conduct participant observation. My interviews were with Lola from La Tua Vendor and Marcus from The Flour Station. . I also asked brief questions of different vendors, such as the Bread Ahead Bakery, the Tomato Stall and Olivier’s Bakery. Unlike many London markets, vendors at the Borough Market make strong and positive connections with customers through creative marketing, offering samples, cooking in front of people, and are outgoing and friendly because they want to make a profit and share their love of food with others.

The Flour Station at the Borough Market
Source: Photograph from Author, 2015

Marketing: Signs, Displays, and Outfits

The way vendors such as the Flour Station and La Tua Pasta market themselves each day, with creative signs, displays and outfits, allows customers to learn about their foods and helps workers to express their love for food. At the Flour Station, workers arrive early and set up their station before the market begins. They carefully arrange their signs, crates and other material items in a presentable way. Stalls that have clear signs spark up more conversation between customers and owners and encourage the formation of new relationships. Signs that read “organic” and “no preservatives,” reveal that the stall owners cook with high-quality ingredients, and appeal to customers who want to know where the food comes from and how many chemicals are used. Marcus at the Flour Station told me, “The ingredients and flour that we use are organic and we always aim to use the highest and best ingredients. All of our food does not have any preservatives or additives. We want to make sure that everyone knows about this so we use signs” (Marcus Interview, 04/26/15).

La Tua Pasta has signs that say, “try me,” and “taste me,” to draw customers in and encourage them to sample free items. At Bread Ahead Bakery and Olivier’s Bakery, two of the vendors who regularly give out samples, I saw more communication and interaction because of the signs that indicate that free-food is available. I heard customers say things such as, “look, there are samples” or “let’s go check that food out.” Therefore, signs that emphasize samples encourage customers to come to a stall and engage with the vendors.

Many other vendors have signs that serve as price indicators to let customers decide whether they want to make a purchase. On the contrary, the Flour Station does not display price signs because it might push customers away. Marcus from the Flour Station told me that people can get thrown off by prices, and spend more time focusing on the cost and less on the quality of the food. Overall, the colored signs that vendors display act as visual markers and a form of communication, to attract and draw attention to their stalls.

The design of each stall plays an important role in successfully attracting and getting repeating customers. The Flour Station specifically uses many brown baskets for displaying their bread and also hangs their circular Italian breads from the tent’s awning, giving a homey, imaginative look to the stall and providing a rustic, artisanal feel to the stall. On the other hand, La Tua Pasta does not use crates or baskets, but lays out their pasta in different areas of the market. The fresh pasta is placed in orderly rows by type and color. The gnocchi is placed on the counter in a tower-like arrangement and the cut noodles such as pappardelle and fettuccine are wrapped in tight circular formations almost like nests. The creative layouts that vendors use to market their station provide insights to who they are as well as reveal their enthusiasm for food.

Employees at each stall wear similar outfits and uniforms in order to establish a lasting impression on customers. Marcus told me that it’s important that the Flour Station workers dress appropriately with clean uniforms (Marcus interview, 04/21/15). Many of the vendors at the market wear colored aprons and similarly colored shirts. Vendors wear colors that seem to reflect the food they are selling and also can contribute to the identity of a vendor and help people to find their stall again. For example, the La Tua Pasta workers wear brown or yellow aprons similar to the colors of the pasta they sell. The Flour Station’s workers wear green and brown aprons and dark shirts, and the women tie their hair back. Dressing in uniforms communicates professionalism and consistency, and also proclaims that a specific person has adequate knowledge about the food and is personally willing to interact with customers and answer any questions.

Offering Samples at the Market

Offering Samples 

Offering samples is a popular form of marketing and also an opportunity to know what the food tastes like before buying it. Samples are displayed on wooden boards, platters and stone slabs so customers can easily reach for a taste while they walk around the market. The vendors that I interviewed said that sampling is the best way to get customers. When I go to the La Tua Pasta stall, the workers immediately hand out a ravioli or gnocchi sample as one enters the stall. Lola at La Tua Pasta told me that, “We give out samples. The samples attract people. Everyone wants the samples. We also try to be as friendly and outgoing as possible to the customers too. We don’t want to scare them away, so we say, would you like a sample?” (Lola interview, 04/21/2015). At this vendor stall, workers give out a lot of cooked pasta samples, because they feel confident about their food, and love it, and want to spread the word. The samples tempt people to purchase products and also show owners’ generosity where strangers get to taste the food without any further interaction.

On the other hand, the Flour Station does not offer samples to customers because they do not see that it has a desirable outcome. Marcus told me that some customers who take samples have no desire to buy any bread and just want to eat food (Marcus interview, 04/25/2015). They do not want to lose profit by handing out free bread.  Overall, samples at a market serve as a main attraction and keep people interested in the food, and customers feel more comfortable interacting with the stall owners and new relationships form.

La Tua Pasta Cooking

Cooking and Food Preparation

Although the majority of the food is made before it even gets to the market, customers enjoy being able to see food being assembled and prepared right in front of them, and this adds to the exciting flare of the Borough Market. Before the food gets to the market, non-market employees will undergo long hours of food preparation. At the Flour Station, workers will make the dough, weigh it and then shape it by hand. Marcus told me that it rests for more than 24 hours and then is shaped by hand again and baked in a special stone oven that gives the bread its full flavor and texture (Marcus interview, 04/25/15). The breads and other pastries are brought to the market after they are ready. For La Tua Pasta, the fillings and dough are pre-made at a factory through a long process. The kitchen selects the ingredients around 5:00 pm and then the workers make the fillings. From 9 pm to 4 am, they make the pasta filling and fold the pasta. By 4 am it is on its way to the market (Lola interview, 04/21/15).

 All of the vendors have an intense interest in cooking and prepping for others, and they demonstrate their love by smiling as they cook and laughing in their interactions. Various aromas fill the market space and the smells encourage people to purchase food. La Tua Pasta prepares fresh pasta and cooks it in boiling water right at the back of the stall, and customers are able to see this process. Both Marcus and Lola told me that the cooking process allows everyone to connect with the culture of London. Lola said, “there are so many people and people coming from all over the world to sell and purchase food. As stall owners, we never want to give up. We have to come to work and make money or make some form of income” (Lola interview, 4/21/15). Vendors at the Borough Market in London share a common love for food, as they prepare before the market, cook in front of people and make new connections with other people who love food as much as they do.

Borough Market Cheese
Source: Photo from

Customer Service

At the Borough Market, stall owners express their excitement and enthusiasm for their food, and appear both friendly and well informed. I observed many customer and vendor interactions and heard no difference in tone and behavior towards various ethnicities or genders. It is not just a collective of people working together, but a diversity of people in different spaces and places fused with interactions and impersonal and warm relationships. Marcus told me, “we want to appear friendly and be well informed about the items. It is so important to have good knowledge about our breads and pastries, so we can explain this to people” (Marcus interview, 4/26/15). He also told me that they aim to have the best service, and “the Borough Market in general has the best service of any market” (Marcus interview, 4/26/15). While word flies quickly about different vendors, Marcus told me that being friendly and maintaining eye contact helps to make a stall more popular.

When stall owners speak with upbeat tones, customers are more inclined to purchase a product. Vendors begin their service with a friendly, “can I help you?” or “are you alright?” and then proceed to answer any questions or serve a customer. Most vendors will also say, “I hope you enjoy your stay at the Borough Market,” or “thank you very much” after a customer makes a purchase. These polite gestures make shopping at the Borough Market a positive experience and encourage customers to come back and feel satisfied with how they are served.

There are also stall owners and customers who cannot speak English very well, and this is dealt with in a confident and affirmative way. However, differences in language do not stop customers from making purchases and engaging with the owners, because the customer service is of such high quality. Using upbeat tones, maintaining eye contact and being enthusiastic and outgoing, stall owners interact positively with customers and demonstrate their desire to connect with them.


La Tua Pasta
Source: Photo from Author, 2017

Shared Love of Food 

Stall owners are at the market to make money, but they also have a strong passion for expressing their knowledge and love for food with other people who they do not know as well. I learned from Lola and Marcus that customers typically visit the Borough Market for artisanal and specialized foods, knowing that the prices will be more expensive than a normal farmers’ market. Every time I have talked to owners, such as the Flour Station, La Tua Pasta, the Tomato Stall and Olivier’s Bakery, the vendors get very excited about their foods and communicate their passion for the foods through their knowledge, energy and presentation. Lola at La Tua Pasta told me that they love food so much that they pass their knowledge of how to make proper pasta to the next family member (Lola interview, 04/21/15). Many of the other vendors that I spoke with also showed extreme enthusiasm for the food and the products that they were serving. When I walked to the produce side of the market, I had a word with one of the workers from Ted’s Veg I asked what was her favorite aspect of the Borough Market, and she said she loved being near so many special kinds of foods (Ted’s Veg, 05/15/2015).

Having a love for food holds the workers together so that they feel like a community at the market. I asked a worker at the Flour Station whether or not there was competition among the stalls. She told me, “no, everyone is very much like a community at the Borough Market. We all help each other out and we all love food. The other day someone from Olivier’s Bakery recommended our breads to a customer. This is what makes the Borough Market so special” (Worker interview, 05/21/2015). Another worker at Bread Ahead Bakery told me they love getting to the market early to set up because a fish vendor plays music. In the morning, the music brings them closer together. Customers become excited about the food because of the vendors’ hard work and the effort vendors make to create a colorful and energetic atmosphere where new relationships can be formed.


Borough Market (2018)
Source: Photo from author, 2018

Significance in Anthropology

Overall, the different foods and cultural aspects at the market, along with different marketing techniques, bring a unique and exciting feel to the city, attracting those who want to become immersed and experience a new culture as well as purchase new products.

Marcus told me that the fact that the market “attracts so many people from all over” and that the vendors” specialize in something makes this a unique and memorable place in London (Marcus interview, 4/26/15). At the Borough Market, so many people with different incomes, heritage and race become linked and are able to form ties through interacting with one another, and offers an accessible experience for people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds who can leisurely walk around and sample different kinds of foods. At the center of London, vendors at the market make strong and positive connections as they try to narrow the boundary between consumer and producer relationships by expressing their love for food and using their marketing techniques. The Borough Market is an exceptional urban attraction in the heart of London, where informal boundaries are crossed and new friendships are made. 

Works Consulted

Bridget conversation. May 25, 2015. Borough High St, London. 

Finnegan, Ruth. 1989. “The hidden musicians: music-making in an English town.”

New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Hannerz, Ulf. 1980. “Exploring the City.” The Search for the City. New York: 

Columbia University Press. pp.102-12. 

Lola. In-person interview. April 21, 2015. Borough High St, London. 

Marcus. In-person interview. April 26, 2015. Borough High St, London.  

“The History of Borough Market – Borough Market.” Borough Market. The 

Borough Market, 2009. Web. 24 May 2015. 

Ted’s veg conversation. May 15, 2015. Borough High St, London. 

Worker interview. In-person interview. May 21, 2015. Borough High St, London. 



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