A chocolate-covered controversy: London Borough Market dealer Turnips gets sales boost from unlikely source

Turnips is a longtime greengrocer, or produce shop, at the Borough Market in London. (Michael Lindemann/MEDILL)

By Michael Lindemann
Medill Reports

LONDON – The main attraction at London’s Borough Market is a chocolate-smothering strawberry operation. Tabletops replete with plastic cups, each overflowing with about 12 to 15 ripe ones, are flanked by chocolate fountains, resembling sinks with ever-running faucets, as employees grab, douse and repeat. Visiting foodies gawk at the spectacle, then succumb to temptation depleting them of one type of pound and augmenting them with another. “That’ll be 8.50, please … enjoy, mate.”

The product owes its immense popularity to its taste, social media virality and an attempted Borough Market ban last September that suggested the treat sold by Turnips, a longtime greengrocer there, is “neither fruit, veg or related produce.” An employee, later identified as manager Konan Hanbury, announced the news on site to would-be customers, and an unaffiliated fan uploaded footage to TikTok. “If you’re outraged that we’re closed today, and you can’t get your beautiful chocolate-covered strawberries, make a complaint to the Borough Market administration,” he said.

Complaints flooded in, prompting officials to lift the ban after five days. The original video, which amassed more than 1 million views, is no longer accessible to the public on the platform, but it survives on X, formerly Twitter, in a Sept. 16 post by @ExploringAlway.

Borough Market and Turnips officials refuse to comment on the incident, but more people than ever are buying the dessert. “Since that story hit the headlines,” explained Logan Morris, a Turnips supervisor, “the strawberries blew up even more.”

Credit the Streisand effect, the increase in popularity or awareness of something from attempts to suppress it, coined when actress Barbra Streisand sued a Hollywood photographer for publishing a photograph of her house, which famously led to less privacy than if she had done nothing. In the case of Turnips’ dessert, the response has resembled Beatlemania, only with food.

The indignation campaign worked largely because the product had already developed a cultlike following on TikTok in the months leading up to the ban. A search of the Borough Market name, “Turnips London” or even simply “London strawberries” reveals hundreds of videos from travelers who have indulged in the tasty treat.

Last May, a post from @Macyhyman, which garnered 3.5 million views, described the concoction as “ooey-gooey delicious warm chocolate over cold strawberries” and “the freshest you’ll ever try.” Most reviews are similarly positive, though a few critical ones gripe about the price. Still, as the adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad press.

Turnips’ succès de scandale is even making its way into videos where users share their highlights of an entire trip — Westminster Abbey, Kew Gardens, The British Museum … a cup of chocolate-covered strawberries? For some, they’re that good.

“It’s embarrassing to admit, but they were one of my favorite things on my entire trip,” said Kayla Myers, a 24-year-old New Yorker whose February vacation spanned much of Western Europe. “The Eiffel Tower was cool, too.”

An expanding coterie of young travelers, mostly Gen Z, rely on social media to plan their vacations. “I use TikTok to plan my stops when I’m going somewhere I’ve never been,” Myers said. “The Turnips strawberries were included in literally every single person’s itinerary.”

Naturally – upon visiting Borough Market, one of her first few stops – Myers documented her Turnips experience for her own social media, which caught the attention of an employee who was all too familiar with the fruit paparazzi. “He figured I’d seen them before,” she recalled. “I told him, ‘Yes, TikTok brought me here. This is what I’ve been looking forward to for my entire trip.’”

The strawberries, which are notoriously scarlet and sweet, do not all come from the same secret field. Instead, they come from one of several destinations, whichever can provide the best-quality fruit for a particular time of year, Morris said. In the spring, that’s Spain; during summer, it’s Great Britain. As for the chocolate, Turnips outsources it as well, but always from Sephra, a Belgian company that provides it for fountains all over the world. No trade secrets there.

Turnips strawberries before chocolate application. (Michael Lindemann/MEDILL)

Turnips embraces the lovefest for its chocolate-covered fruit, but it rejects the notion that the dessert is its sole claim to fame. “We just had a great year with strawberries, but equally, our risotto – it’s sort of got its own little corner of TikTok,” Hanbury said.

“And then we’ve got a whole different kind of customer, normally chefs or people who work in restaurants, coming and completely loving our retail bit.” In the early years of the business, Hanbury says, Turnips focused heavily on the retail and wholesale sides of commerce, “providing local restaurants with the best quality ingredients they could find.” In recent years, however, the business replaced the wholesale element with street offerings, such as the mushroom risotto and famed strawberries.

The cause for the ban heard ’round the TikTok video remains in large part a mystery. Some customers point to the dictionary, surmising the chocolate component is anathema to a strict definition of produce, given the strawberries are no longer purely a fruit to be consumed raw or used as an ingredient but rather a dessert item.

Others suspect sour grapes – er, strawberries – from rival sellers. In any case, the product’s resurgence is good for Turnips and the Borough Market, as locals and tourists flock to the Southwark food hub by the thousands on a daily basis. The vendor where all the phones are out? That’s Turnips, with strawberry cups forever.

Michael Lindemann is a sports media graduate student at Medill. 

Editor’s note, July 3, 2024, 5 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the status of the original TikTok video. It is no longer accessible to the public.