When grocery shopping, we don’t generally give much thought to how a city’s food supply chain actually works. Our author gets an exciting look behind the scenes on a tour of the Grossmarkthalle wholesale market.
Half past eight in the morning is usually spent having my first coffee of the day. Today though, it finds me already standing at the entrance to the Grossmarkthalle and – still somewhat sleepily – trying to find my group. Tours of “Munich’s stomach”, which take place twice a month, are scheduled only on certain days and late enough to avoid the busiest times; some restaurant owners and retailers get to the Grossmarkthalle as early as three o’clock in the morning to claim the choicest, freshest ingredients. Everything is available here, from exotic fruit and local vegetables to Mediterranean delicacies.
People going out in Schlachthofviertel skirt around it, while coffee drinkers on board the (landbound) Alte Utting ship sit directly opposite it, and those who live in Sendling see the hustle and bustle there in the wee hours. But access is granted to very few – so most locals don’t know what the wholesale market looks like inside, nor exactly what goes on here.
People going out in Schlachthofviertel skirt around it, while coffee drinkers on board the (landbound) Alte Utting ship sit directly opposite it, and those who live in Sendling see the hustle and bustle there in the wee hours. But access is granted to very few.
Which makes me all the more excited to be part of this tour group setting off into the unknown, led by our guide Ingrid Oxfort. We wear fluorescent orange safety vests and are given a quick instructional note before we get started: “Keep your eyes open – some of the forklift drivers drive like they’re in a Porsche!” But the Grossmarkthalle is a self-contained system that does not let itself be disturbed by a few visitors. A small city within the city, it even has its own job centre, traffic regulations and working hours.
Ingrid explains that whereas back in the seventies, migrant workers had to queue in front of the hall in pursuit of work for the day, there is now a small on-site employment office branch to provide assistance. Trucks bringing goods to market drive on the left of the access roads here, simply because it’s more practical for the site and means congestion is avoided. And by 8.30 in the morning, while most of Munich’s residents are on their way to offices and workplaces, many traders here are already dismantling their stalls again. But for a lot of them, work really starts afterwards.
“Growers get up at two in the morning to make sure they are here no later than three, and after that they head straight back to the field,” our guide tells us. “The fruit and vegetable sellers keep the same hours – only the hall for flower traders opens later, though it then stays open until the evening.” The reason the traders start so early is that their produce needs to be on-site before Munich’s fruit stalls and greengrocers open. What’s more, the goods are often subsequently transported even further – sometimes as far as the Czech Republic or Tyrol.
Munich’s Grossmarkthalle in is the third-largest of its kind in Europe. I never would have guessed that! And I can also hardly believe the figures I read on a nearby information board: when it opened in 1912, around 55,000 tonnes of food were delivered to the hall every year; by 2005, that figure had increased more than tenfold to 594,000 tonnes! It is particularly fascinating to see how impacts from political events and social trends are reflected on the board: revenue increased after the Second World War, and then declined when discount stores became popular. The Grossmarkt is now enjoying growing sales again, as more and more customers are coming to value fresh, local and high-quality produce. People want to know where their salad comes from.
I look at historic black-and-white photos which show office buildings on the site, and am surprised to notice that in these pictures it is almost exclusively women in fancy outfits who are scrutinising the foodstuffs on offer. Today the Grossmarkthalle is dominated by men in practical, warm dungarees, but we learn that it really used to be a woman’s domain. Many of them worked as “Klauberweiber” – a word derived from the German verb “klauben”, meaning “to pick” and the noun “Weib”, meaning “woman” – and were responsible for sorting the goods sold here.
Workers still strive to ensure that as little as possible is thrown away at the Grossmarkt. Food that is still fresh but not worth storing again is donated directly to the Münchner Tafel e.V. charitable organisation, which distributes food to around 20,000 people in need and is based on the premises. And if there’s some lettuce that isn’t looking too fresh, the animals at Munich Zoo are still sure to relish it.
Ingrid Oxfort used to work here herself, so she is familiar with the people as well as the halls; during our tour she repeatedly encounters old acquaintances who want to go for coffee with her. She is our conduit for connection to the Grossmarkthalle, enabling us to quickly get chatting with the traders.
Revenue increased after the Second World War, and then declined when discount stores became popular. The Grossmarkt is now enjoying growing sales again, as more and more customers are coming to value fresh, local and high-quality produce.
I have never seen fruit and vegetables piled up in such quantities, and there are also many varieties that I don’t recognise at all. Even seeing this as a visitor, it’s hard to imagine the huge volumes that are sold here daily, and which need to be stored. As we stroll through the listed fruit hall, the only part of the building that survived the Second World War, Ingrid talks about the original church-like pitched roof, explaining that it offers particularly good air circulation. This means produce stays fresher for longer, even in hot summer weather.
In any case it is cold inside the halls, which the food enjoys at least. The workers here warm themselves in their little glazed office cubicles or one of the internal snack bars. As our group gradually disperses and our guide collects the hi-vis vests, most of my tour companions walk straight towards the Gaststätte Grossmarkthalle traditional pub. Well beyond the walls of the Grossmarkt itself, the establishment is renowned for its fresh weisswurst sausage, served daily from 7 am. It is also the only place on the premises which is open to all Munich residents.