Local food hero: How one man turned a run-down store into an ethical foodie's paradise

Andrew Thornton was sick of supermarkets. But rather than suffer in silence, he bought one of his own and turned it into an ethical foodie's paradise. Esther Walker meets a green consumer champion
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The Independent Online

There is nothing much super about supermarkets. They gobble up energy, churn out plastic bags and choke independent retailers. We, as a nation, are really starting to hate them; Tesco – the biggest supermarket chain in the country, which controls 30 per cent of the grocery market and takes over £3.5bn in annual profits – is bearing the brunt of our ire, which has exploded, in recent years, on websites such as tescopoly.org and everylittlehurts.org.uk.

Some might argue that just as we get the tabloid press we deserve, so we also get the supermarkets we deserve. Left to our own devices would we design a clean, green supermarket that supported small suppliers? A pioneering project in North London, where a branch of Budgens has been transformed from a dreary work-a-day local supermarket into an interesting, vibrant independent retailer (mostly based on suggestions from locals) seems to say that yes, we would.

Until October last year, the Crouch End branch of Budgens at 23 The Broadway, was an averagely boring place to shop. Locals went there because, well, it was there, and some went there because it wasn't Tesco. Decisions about suppliers and the design of the store were handed down to store managers from the regional head office. If the local branch wanted to do something different – tough.

All that has changed since Andrew Thornton, a driven, cheerful Dubliner, arrived. After 18 years as a retail consultant, he decided it was time for a career swap – and for someone to shake up the way that local supermarkets do business. The Musgrave Group, the Irish food conglomerate (a former client of Thornton's consultancy) bought the Budgens chain to re-organise the company with some branches sold off to independent retailers.

Each independent branch still has access to Budgens-supplied standard goods, such as toothpaste or baked beans, which keeps the prices low. But for the first time stores now have the freedom to source their goods from wherever they would like. When Thornton knew that the Crouch End Budgens store was up for sale, he jumped at the opportunity to change the place from the inside.

"Crouch End is a fantastic location," says Thornton. "The area is home to very foodie, liberal and environmentally-aware people. Everything we do here is for the people who live here. We talk to them, listen to them, in focus groups and on the phone. They email me suggestions and requests. This is the store that they want – it's their store."

"Let's face it," says Andrew Thornton, "shopping for food isn't as exciting as shopping for clothes or jewellery or something. It's a bit of a chore. What we're trying to do is make the experience of shopping for food as interesting as we can."

The first thing that greets customers is a juice bar, called "Juice on the Loose" and a counter where you can buy a freshly-made sandwich and a salad bar, with all the salad made on-site, from recipes by Harriet Mann, the store's locum nutritional therapist. "The plastic sandwiches, as I call them, are around the side and there's a smaller selection," says Thornton. "I didn't want to get rid of them completely because, you know, some people really like them."

There is everything you'd expect in the store from a normal local grocery shop – tomato ketchup, processed cheese, nappies, cigarettes – but if you look a bit closer, you'll find chichi little brands with names such as " Naked Food", Paxton & Whitfield cheese (who supply to the Queen), bread from Dunn's bakery across the road and large glass tubs of speciality olive oil, which you can decant into re-useable bottles. All the fresh produce tells you how far it has travelled; where possible, everything comes from within a 100-mile radius. There is a large freezer filled with a super-healthy range of ready, frozen meals from Cook (who refuse to supply to chain stores), home-made fresh ravioli, which is only available at farmers' markets or at this branch of Budgens. At the back of the store is a large deli counter, which has been such a hit that it's expanding. Tesco Metro, this is not.

Ah yes, Tesco Metro – there's one next door to this Budgens. How do the two stores get on? The Tesco is noticeably less busy than Budgens when I visited on a Tuesday lunchtime. "They're a competitor and I think competition is good," says Thornton carefully. "And, yes, I think that we have taken a few customers off them. Our focus groups say they love the service here and the diversity of our suppliers."

But the biggest hit with Crouch End customers has been Thornton's environmental policies.

"Our environmental campaigns really mean a lot to our customers, I think. Our "Pennies for Plastic" campaign is the best thing we've done so far. Every time someone doesn't used a plastic bag we donate a penny to a fund to build a new stage for West Park School round the corner. Plastic bags are just so appallingly bad for the environment so we're trying to drive down the usage. We've cut it by about 25 per cent but we'd like it to be 50. I did look in to using paper or cardboard but to be honest, they're not much better."

Budgens also has its own "Bag for Life", sold in-store. The bags are from EcoBags, an American company which supplies ethically-produced canvas and string bags from workshops in India, which are shipped, rather than flown, into the country.

As well as Pennies for Plastic, Thornton is looking into composting unsold food that can't be donated to the local YMCA homeless shelter. Originally, the plan was to buy a composter and use it on the site of Budgens. But then Thornton discovered a company called Aardvark Recycling, a company based in Camberwell, which will compost Budgens' food waste for them. There are plans for the compost to be sold for £1 a bag to keen allotment users, with proceeds donated to charity. There are further plans to recycle the heat produced from running the chiller cabinets. "That's going to be expensive to sort out. But I think it will be worth it in the end." Customers are also encouraged to bring in their plastic bags, from any store, for recycling.

"My aim is to produce as little rubbish as possible and it's something that the people who live round here have really taken to."

The Crouch End experiment has worked so well that Thornton is able to expand and has bought the Budgens in Belsize Park. "It's a slightly different demographic there. People tend to migrate from Belsize Park to Crouch End when they decide to settle down and have children. So, we'll be selling to the same sort of people, just at a different stage in the life cycle.

"I'm not sure exactly what we're going to do, it all depends on the outcome of the focus groups, it's about what [customers] want. But we'll do things that we know people want, like working on the service.

"Service at the store is one of the things we get a lot of comments on. Improving the service is all about training, as it doesn't come easily to everyone. The staff here had a tendency to avoid eye contact and not talk to the customers. Now we encourage them to say hello to customers, maybe have a chat. When we started doing it we got some odd looks, now people know that's what we do here."

Thornton's changes have not gone unrecognised: he was shortlisted for Independent Retailer of the Year in the 2007 Retail Industry Awards; store manager Dave Huggett, who has been working at this branch of Budgens for 14 years, is also delighted. "We always did the best we could," he tells me, "but in the end we were always in these handcuffs, because we were at the mercy of head office. Now we've got the freedom to give the customers what they want."

Thornton is keen on responding to customers' requests for specific foods or products. It is, after all, this flexibility that is vital for making Budgens different from their rival, Tesco. "The larger stores might have more buying power, but we're lighter on our feet," says Thornton. "We'll try anything and if it doesn't sell, it's no big deal," he says. "I'm looking into a request for a special bread that Jewish people eat on a Friday night. We'll get it, and if it sells we'll get it in again. It's really as simple as that."

This Budgens already has comprehensive kosher, Polish, Irish and South African speciality sections. "These biscuits," says Thornton, picking up a red package, "are part of your childhood if you grew up in Ireland, but you can't buy them in many places and they do sell. I'm also surprised at how popular our South African section has been. I had no idea there were so many South Africans living in Crouch End."

Shop close to home – wherever you are

* Buying locally produced foods helps to support your local economy. Money spent on produce grown locally generates almost twice as much income for the local economy as the same amount spent in a typical supermarket.

* Buying local also reduces packaging and transport – food and agriculture now accounts for up to 30 per cent of goods transported by road, much of this generated by transit between supermarkets and distant suppliers.

* Locally produced food is kinder to animals, as it reduces the number of live transport miles.

* Sticking to local, seasonal produce encourages healthy eating and helps to nurture an awareness of the origins of our food.

* Subscribing to an organic box scheme is a great way to buy local produce. To find your nearest scheme, visit the Soil Association's website www.whyorganic.org, or go to www.vegboxschemes.co.uk

* Farmers' markets are springing up all across the country and are an excellent source of delicious, fresh food that comes straight from the producer. To find your nearest farmers' market, visit www.farmersmarkets.net

* Use your local specialist stores – or risk losing them. Your regular custom can make a massive difference to a small shop.