Story and Photography by Geoff Watt
It is quite fascinating how the important things in our lives tend to return to us. What we are exposed to through parents in our formative years growing up generally stays with us at some deeper level. Then as adults we go out into the world and make our own way. But often after a period of splashing around, the ‘water’ of our life settles and finds its way along a course carved out in our youth by an earlier flow.
Paul Ahern of Aherns Fruit Market And Fine Foods grew up in the city, although boarding school in Kilmore gave him the taste of what country life holds and its benefits, over city living. Paul’s father was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Melbourne representing growers at the markets. Paul says that he was at his dad’s work “constantly” and worked there as a teenager, so he did “grow up within the industry”. But his father wasn’t one that wished for Paul to follow him in his footsteps, being as he was of that generation that wanted his children to have better opportunity. Indeed, Paul says of his dad that he “was determined that I get an education so that I didn’t have to do what he did”. What this entailed in the 1970’s was a university education – which at the time was something of a rarity for previous generations of Australians to have experienced. Consequently Paul was the first in the family to avail of this pathway into adult life.
At university, Paul commenced Electrical Engineering but after a period realised that it wasn’t interesting him enough, so he transferred to a Mechanical Engineering course. However, within a few months of doing that, a pivotal moment in his life occurred. Paul explains: “I came home one day and Mum said, “Sign this”. What is it? I asked. “An application for the Public Service. You’re not spending another year like you did last year”. Paul admits he was having an “absolute ball” but not doing too much study. He then elaborates further: “I was far too happy, because I wasn’t doing anything! (loud laughter follows). Mum said, “You are not spending the rest of your life just partying around university. Go grab yourself a job and then sort yourself out over a period of time, and work out what you want to do.
”Whether it was his time in a country boarding school or it was just something within him regardless of outside influences, Paul was never a person that enjoyed city life – “I just didn’t feel right living in the city”. He did however persevere for some time and after university he stayed in Melbourne for a further seven years working in the public service in the Telecom Warehouse Supply area. Perhaps it was working with the 600 odd people in the building that accentuated his longing for the country life.
During this period of his life, Paul and some good friends used to regularly go camping at Wilson’s Promontory and he fell in love with the area. Eventually the pull to a country life won him over. Paul says that when he moved to Foster, “it was really interesting times. There were probably 3 or 4 of us who moved down from similar areas of the city. It was during the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, when a lot of people decided they wanted to get out of Melbourne and they moved to the country. It was quite an exodus and had really strong and lasting effects for country areas – a lot of tradespeople moved down.
”Paul was attracted to Foster where “the sense of community was quite unique and had a very welcoming aspect – that was the thing that really appealed to me”. And it still does! “It’s an absolutely gorgeous place, just look at the landscape – it’s incomparable, but the people are what really make it”. Foster is also where Paul eventually met his future wife Mary-Ann, who is a local.
Initially, Paul had a concrete tank business with a partner for 4 years however, they sold the business because his partner wanted to move on – but Paul just couldn’t leave Foster. Thus, he fell back on his experience growing up with his dad, and opened a fruit shop in 1983; with humble beginnings – on the same site as today but only a small tin shed with a few trestle tables, and a car towing a trailer to the Melbourne markets. My how times have changed; now Aherns is housed in a beautifully appointed and well-apportioned space designed for ease of shopping.
Aherns is a renowned purveyor of quality fruit and vegetables and fine food throughout the area. The produce section offers a wide range of fresh, ripe fruit and vegetables, which are available for both retail and wholesale customers. The deli and gourmet food sections offer a host of artisan breads, sauces, biscuits, drinks, cheeses, antipasto products, organic and gluten-free goods and rare gourmet treats. They even have a range of health foods on offer including a variety of teas, bars and vitamins. Paul over time has established excellent relationships with suppliers who provide premium quality produce that enables Aherns to maintain its reputation for excellence. Paul believes it is absolutely essential to establish good relationships with both his suppliers and customers and that reliability and trust is paramount – indeed Aherns is certainly proof of this, approaching as it is, its 30th year of operation.
But seriously I ask, what does drive a guy to start his ‘day’ around midnight and drive from Foster to Melbourne to be at the markets at 2 am in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? Honestly, I think it must take a special type of person. Getting back to the shop at 7:30am and then dealing with the unloading – thank goodness there are others to help pack the stock on the shelves. As a business owner there is always staff and the paperwork to attend to, generally working at the shop until 1pm, home for a sleep and back briefly at the end of the day to close the shop. Quite a big day, in anyone’s language.
It seems such a taxing job that I suggest to Paul that he must really have LOVED Foster to start up a business like this from scratch and then persevere for nearly 30 years. Paul explains: “Don’t get me wrong, I love Foster and do not want to live anywhere else.” But that love of Foster is just a “part of the journey. It’s what drives you initially, but then the driving force is what a part of your make-up is – it’s a will to succeed. We got to the stage where we figured out we were reasonably competent at doing this and decided this is what we really like – being able to run a successful fruit and vegetable business in the country. Then it takes on a new direction – the industry itself, the way you do it, the way you apply yourself in it – that then becomes the driver as well.
” In his ‘spare’ time Paul is on the Retail Advisory Board, on the board of the local Hospital and has previously been on the local High School Council. A personal love of Paul’s is listening to music and no doubt this is a passion that can be satisfied in a time effective manner while working in his office or driving to and from Melbourne. Paul and Mary-Ann have three sons, with Dare (the youngest) the only one working in the business. It does give a sense of continuing tradition but whether Dare continues long into the future is obviously up to where his personal journey through life leads him. As an outsider though I must admit that the thought of the family tradition continuing does appeal to me after hearing Paul’s story – and seeing firsthand the close bond that Paul and Dare obviously share. Only time will tell.
As Paul told me with a laugh, “An overnight success in business takes about 30 years”. Well congratulations on a job well done Paul – giving the people of Foster and surrounds access to fresh fruit and vegetables of the highest quality for the past 29 years. What a great contribution to all the families that have grown up in the area over that time. And just one year to go until perhaps you will pat yourself on the back and put your feet up – ever so briefly because that alarm clock will go off at 11pm!!!