Often the first to arrive and the last to leave, unsung Christmas heroes are everywhere if you just look around.
With only a dark purple sky, a splattering of stars and the constant morning chill as his companions, Ross Malcolm arrives for work at Pak'nSave Queenstown at 4am every day.
Often the first to arrive, the Pak'nSave produce manager and volunteer fireman clicks on the lights, checks his produce, then rolls open the huge industrial doors ready. He's ready for the frenzy of work about to hit – and to undertake one of his key functions: making sure Pak'nSave customers have fresh produce for their Christmas cheer.
When dawn is only a smudge on the horizon and most of us are still tucked up in bed, the big trucks start rolling up from 5am. Ross and his staff then start the job of unloading the produce, hosing it down to keep it fresh, and stacking pallets of it inside a chiller the size of a small school hall.
The process of hosing and moving produce from the chiller to the shop floor is a regular event throughout the day as the fruit and vege constantly moves off the shelves and into customer trolleys.
"Ross is a volunteer fireman and feels very much at home getting his hose out," jokes Queenstown Pak'nSave owner, Anthony King. "Ross's passion for his job is huge and, once pallets are unloaded, he and his team are out on the floor, ensuring everything looks fresh and helping customers find what they're looking for.
"When we get sharp prices, our customers get them too. Our model is based on the fact that when we buy, we buy big, and when we buy big, our customers save big. We don't just buy a carton of produce, we can buy half a field and, because of this, our prices are much lower than anywhere else," says King.
This model also means customers are getting the freshest food available. Tonnes of produce, especially this time of year in the form of blueberries, famous Central Otago cherries and peaches, are moved through the store daily; the chiller is often empty at the end of the day because the produce has been moved out so quickly, thanks to hungry customers.
"This means our produce isn't left on the shelf for days. We don't need fancy misting machines to keep produce fresh because the produce is constantly moving out."
Up to 17,000 avocados, 5000 kg of bananas and, over summer, more than 1.5 tonnes of stone fruit alone can be sold in just one week.
King is looking forward to another bumper Christmas but admits Covid-19 has meant some families will do it tough.
He says when money is tight, look for the specials and always buy in season. He likes to keep things simple when it comes to his own family Christmas table. Strawberries and kiwifruit on top of a pavlova are his favourite. "And berries, anything with a berry in its name, I will eat. We just have them with fresh cream and yoghurt. You don't have to spend a lot to make a meal special."
Keeping it simple has also translated into how food is presented in the produce department. Apart from bulk buys, produce is now only sold loose. Gone are the days of two avocados wrapped in a wad of plastic.
"We started reducing plastic a couple of years ago and, while people can still buy in bulk, the flexibility and sustainability is now there – which is important to us, our customers and the community," says King.
"I have the most amazing team. I am so proud of them. The community here in Queenstown know we are here for them and they showed their appreciation for us after lockdown.
"Some people brought in chocolates and they were very vocal showing their gratitude for what my staff did. It makes the silly season just a bit more special knowing they are thankful for all that we do for them, their families and our community."
Visit paknsave.co.nz for Christmas produce inspiration.