Monday, 14 June 2010

The People’s Supermarket: a new approach to food shopping

Do you dream of an antidote to Tescos? Don't we all?! Well, a group of gourmets have done more than just dream, they've set up the ultimate food coop in Holborn.

A new era in food shopping could have dawned a few weeks ago as The People’s Supermarket in Holborn opened its doors for the very first time.

It’s ultimate aim? To bring an end to the big supermarket chains one potato at a time of course! At least that’s what team ‘People’s Supermarket’ believe; chef, Arthur Potts Dawson — already known for his Acorn House restaurant in King’s Cross and London’s first eco-restaurant, the Waterhouse Restaurant in Hackney; retail consultant, Kate Wickes-Bull; and self proclaimed social entrepreneur, David Barrie.

So what’s so special about The People’s Supermarket (TPS)? Well, modeled largely on the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, established in 1974, it will work as a totally nonprofit venture. Run fully by teams of volunteers, all profits will be invested back into stocking the shop with great food at minimal prices and TPS hopes to help families and low income groups in the community along the way by providing work experience, training, and low cost shopping. A sign outside listed the number of members as 124 on my trip but I can imagine this will soon start to rise, and anyway Potts Dawson reckons they need at least 300 members for the shop to actually become a sustainable business. Anyone can shop at TPS but the team hopes that as customers visit this unique project and see the quality of produce and with the added incentive of getting great discounts they might become a member — pledging to work at the shop for a few hours every month and paying a £25 annual membership fee. The website promises, in Marxist-like terms, a supermarket that is “run by the people for the people, selling the best food at the lowest possible prices.”

Located on Lambs Conduit Street near Russell Square tube, TPS doesn’t stand out as exactly being a glamorous shop, nor has it in anyway been made to look trendy as I was half-expecting — seeing that this is the natural habitat of posh delis, coffee shops and boutiques. Instead TPS doesn’t appear to look much different to the private local supermarket that went before it, and originally belonged to the enemy — Tesco. Now the place has been spruced up by an army of helpers — all volunteers of course, but the main decoration is the addition of posters to the walls – which, although sadly lacking images of Lord Kitchener, famous for appearing in YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU posters – appeal to customer’s philanthropic side, stating in block capitals, “The people’s supermarket needs you, join today”. All this does go to show, however, that TPS is serious about saving money. Instead of investing in funky counters and arty light fittings, TPS has clearly poured all available funds back into stocking the shop with the best produce.

The fruit and vegetables, which are laid out on old second-hand tables like in a market or old-fashioned green grocers, are sourced from some of the best farmer’s markets around. There are also selections of handmade breads and cakes as well as most of the usual foodstuffs you would expect to find in a small local supermarket. But if it turns out that there is something that isn’t available customers can simply scribble a note of it up on the blackboard for the managers to see — grapefruit juice, curry powder, lentils and ghee were among the omissions when I visited on Saturday 5 June.

Todd was store manager when I made a trip to TPS on Saturday. Delighted at how quickly word of the store was spreading Todd said they had been really busy since the shop opened on Tuesday 1 June, so he was quick to make an appeal for more staff — then he could have a decent lunch break, he told me jokingly. Todd was also happy about TPS’s reception in the local area too, saying that he really felt the whole community was getting behind the project.

Which is good because the setup will make the greatest difference to those who live or work near the shop who will be able to use it fairly often and make the most of the discounts, after paying the £25 membership fee of course. There might be another reason why people will volunteer to work for free at TPS though — an added bonus for some maybe? The running of the shop is to become the subject of a new prime time Channel 4 documentary, which I’m sure will put a shine on the prospect of volunteering for any self-promoting types out there. There are also plans for a cookbook, packed full of recipes for dishes made with ingredients from the shop. I guess lentil curry is out for the time being then!

Perhaps the best thing about TPS though, is the whole ‘niceness’ of it all. There has been a wealth of comments on the twittersphere about the enthusiastic staff, the smiling customers, and the general buzz in the air that something new and exciting is happening. Certainly while at university I used to pop along to a small fruit and veg cooperative each week and I remember the more grass roots approach to buying and selling food being an enjoyable experience. And it seems the tweeters were right — the same pleasant atmosphere is already in full swing in Holborn. Katie, a student from the nearby University College London, spotted me taking some pictures outside, “It’s great isn’t it?” she said, “I think it’s the atmosphere which is nicest, I came in on opening day and people were chatting to each other. Chatting to complete strangers — I mean that doesn’t happen in London very often does it?”

Chatting to strangers, volunteering in a supermarket and reaping the benefits and all while being filmed for Channel 4 — I don’t think that happens anywhere very often.

Published over at the divine Amelia's Magazine, here.

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