Looking back on 1990s supermarket chain Big Fresh, it seems scarcely believable. A food shopping Disneyland with live country music, a TV room for the kids and giant animatronic vegetables swaying in the rafters? Did that actually happen? But for 15 glorious years the Big Fresh supermarket chain really did exist. Kristin Hall met the man who created it.
When I was growing up, there were two places I considered to be the best in the world, and one even besterer than that.
The two best were the Georgie Pie playground ballpit and the Rotorua Toot and Whistle Park, which smelled like farts and coal.
The besterer place was Big Fresh.
Big Fresh combined so many of the greatest things in life it was a downright emotional experience being brought along for the weekly shop.
Free food, check.
TV room, check.
Anthropomorphic vegetables, check.
Live country music (in hindsight this doesn’t seem like that much of a check).
That swinging monkey thing, check.
I was so devastated by the closure of our local Big Fresh, and the national end of the brand in 2003, I damn near well up when I think about it.
Was I alone in my seemingly excessive fondness for what was essentially just another supermarket? I did a Facebook post about it (the scientific poll of our time), and the anecdotes flooded my feed like a whimsical tsunami high in fibre and omega oils.
One friend recalled the model of the Pink and White Terraces installed in the Rotorua store (Wellington had people leaning against the wind).
My former English teacher remembered receiving a choice tip from her students that you could quite easily hollow out the free bread rolls to create room for the not-free pick and mix. There’s a good chance the modern move to free fruit is less about health and more about the fact it’s trickier to hide Jet Planes in a banana.
And then there was this quite frankly alarming diatribe from a mate who was deeply invested in being first to the famous ‘cow button’.
“This one time at Big Fresh, I was going up to press the moo cow button and some other little c*** pressed it right before I got there. I lost the fucking plot and had a full on meltdown.”
Big Fresh was, quite clearly, a lot of things to a lot of people.
I wondered if anyone had called up former Woolworths managing director and the creator of Big Fresh, Graham Evans, to relive their glorious childhood experiences. It turns out nobody had, and he seemed a little confused about it.
Big Fresh, Graham said, was borne out of a need to better cater to the working woman.
There were more married women and mums entering the workforce than ever before but they still couldn’t shake the most tiresome of domestic duties – supermarket shopping.
It needed to be fun. The kids needed to be so distracted and so full of rainbow popcorn they couldn’t scream about not getting a Yowie on the way out. What eventuated was a “food circus, a supermarket meets Disney” a sensory atomic bomb that was either genius or sadistic depending on what women you talked to, and how scared their kids were of giant vegetables.
The stores became part of the tourist route, “I wouldn’t say people stopped by the bus load, but people did come to check it out,” Graham says.
Video credit: Mark Rusbatch and Graham Evans
It was a marvel of the supermarket world. In 1990, the American magazine Supermarket Business named it ‘the Pacific Rim’s most exciting new food shopping venture’. Graham was described by international retailing consultant Mike O’Connor as being “smart as *%*!”, whatever that means.
In an age where your purity as a human is based on how convincingly you can eat an acai bowl without crying, it’s hard to believe the idea of fresh, healthy food was ever a new and exciting development. But in the 80s and early 90s, Graham says it was revolutionary.
Eggs were never older than two days; the deli sold crocodile meat. At one point Big Fresh had the world’s largest display of oranges (220,000), watched over by ‘The Goodness Family’ who have sadly departed to the big mechanical compost heap in the sky.
Graham’s brother-in-law created them, the giant fruit and veges. All he could tell me was that they were destroyed long ago, a tragic end for relics that should arguably have been cryogenically frozen for posterity, or at least placed in a local kindergarten to teach New Zealand’s sprogs about the benefits of potassium.
The stores worked on a profit share basis. Big Fresh was the first supermarket in the country to do it and it more than made up for the fact that staff had to wear so much gingham.
“We had a budget and everything over the budget, we shared” Graham says.
“What it meant to people back then was that [the profit-share proceeds] were worth another week or two weeks’ pay, so for people on a low wage it was definitely worth having and it was definitely appreciated. They’re contributing as part of the team so why shouldn’t they be rewarded?”
So if Big Fresh was so bloody great (a well established fact), what happened?
In 2002 Progressive’s Australian parent, Foodland Associated, bought the Woolworths group for $690 million.
Progressive’s managing director Ted van Arkle said Big Fresh’s design “took up a lot of space” and was “gimmicky”.
He said most people don’t treat the supermarket as entertainment, to which thousands of Kiwi children would have responded were they not sitting in the TV room cramming their faces with Jet Plane buns, feverishly pressing the moo cow button or running from the man in the chicken suit.
Was Graham sad to see it go? In a way.
“There certainly was an emotional connection with me, because I was the founder of it, but I never looked on it as being mine. I looked on it as being ours – the managers and the teams, they were all part of the Big Fresh family”.
And so New Zealand is left with a supermarket landscape as uninspiring as that one wilted lettuce leaf that’s always left in the trolley. Pak n Save for groceries in pyjamas, New World for groceries in boat shoes, Farro for a toss up between groceries and a deposit on a house in Herne Bay.
No swinging monkey, no gingham, no live covers of ‘The Gambler’ while trying to pick the best of the 220,000 oranges.
RIP the Big F – Fresh till death.
In episode two of Get It to Te Papa, Hayden Donnell goes in search of the animatronic veges that instilled both delight and horror in 90s kids across the nation. The full series is available on Neon.