SUSTAINABLE LIVING

‘I was made redundant during the pandemic so I opened a sustainable grocer’

Julia Kirby-Smith was a high-flying broadcast journalist before coronavirus upended life as she knew it. She tells Helen Coffey what it’s like to make the ultimate career change in the middle of a crisis

Julia Kirby-Smith started Fridge of Plenty during the UK’s second lockdown
Julia Kirby-Smith started Fridge of Plenty during the UK’s second lockdown

It’s a strange experience, interviewing another journalist. You can’t help but feel a little more nervous than usual – as if the subject might think your questions a tad trite, or judge you for not going deeper, getting more information, squeezing every last drop out of the call.

Julia Kirby-Smith technically isn’t a journalist anymore – not since the pandemic led to her abrupt redundancy – but she still counts, as far as I’m concerned. After all, it’s only been a couple of months since the 39-year-old made the ultimate career change: switching from broadcast hack to urban farm shop proprietor.

It all started last summer when the shiny new role she’d been specifically headhunted for was suddenly axed. “I’d been at Channel 4 and was doing well, working as a broadcast news editor and chief writer,” she tells me. “Then in January 2020 I got headhunted by a tech start-up as their head of editorial for the app they were producing. I started during the second week of lockdown, working full-time in a start-up environment while trying to homeschool my two children. I put a lot into it. Then, in July, they made my whole team redundant.”

Many who’ve lost their jobs over the last year will feel a flicker of recognition at Julia’s story. “You think, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?” she says, of leaving her secure job and taking a chance on a new enterprise only to be cast aside. “It throws everything up in the air. And, at the same time, being in the midst of this enormous pandemic, alongside Trump in the US, all the environmental crisis stuff … Last summer felt a little apocalyptic.”

It would have been easy to panic; to immediately look for journalism work to tide her over and try to replicate her previous success. But, as many of us have experienced during this strange and turbulent year, stepping back and rethinking what we really want can be a far superior response to reacting impulsively in times of stress.

“I felt like I really needed to rethink what I’m doing here,” says Julia. “I love journalism, but I wasn’t sure I could stomach reporting bad news all the time anymore. That’s what happens when you’re a national news editor – you’re covering the big, awful headline news, day in, day out.”

Fridge of Plenty offers seasonal, local produce

It was nature that inspired a big, bold career change. A month-long family trip to Kent over the summer unexpectedly sparked an idea that Julia couldn’t let go of. “We were surrounded by agriculture and good local produce. We’d go down to the coast and buy fish fresh from the sea; we’d go to farm shops and think, ‘why don’t we have one of these in London?’.”

And thus, the idea for Fridge of Plenty was born. Setting up this north London sustainable grocery shop and delivery service actually required Julia’s finely honed journalistic skills. Once the premises in Crouch End was found and secured, the big job was to hunt out the right suppliers – ones that really did walk the walk in terms of sustainable produce.

“When it came to sourcing the food, I had to start from scratch,” she says. “It took a lot of research – talking to people on the phone, asking questions, visiting farmers’ markets and dairies. Getting out there and doing the research myself was key.”

People get the concept and they want to make a commitment to eating more sustainably

It’s early days – the business only started online in November, with the shop’s grand opening in December – but already a loyal clientele is building for Fridge of Plenty’s weekly grocery and veg box subscription services, alongside its recipe kits (the current offering is fava bean flatbread with mushroom lentil stew). “What’s nice is that we’ve already got a really good repeat customer base,” says Julia. “People get the concept and they want to make a commitment to eating more sustainably.”

That said, it’s an extremely challenging environment in which to start a new business. After a target-smashing December, January has been a long and difficult month – with a “triple whammy of being a quiet month anyway, a lack of footfall and terrible weather,” according to Julia. But she’s in it for the long haul: “One bad month we can deal with. We’ve already accepted we’re not going to make much money in the first year.”

Before the pandemic, the prediction was that 2020 would be the year that ethical consumerism really took off. Then along came coronavirus and knocked everything off-kilter. “People’s concerns have shifted,” agrees Julia, “But some of the issues around outbreaks of Covid in meatpacking facilities have made people question things a bit more. And with Brexit shortages too, people started to think more about where their food was coming from. I think there’s actually more awareness and questioning of whether we want to eat like that.”

It’s an assertion that seems to be backed up by statistics. In the latest YouGov poll, conducted on 31 January, more than half (57 per cent) of respondents said that environmental sustainability played a part in their decisions around food “to a large extent” or “a fair amount”. The percentage of people who responded “a fair amount” has even gone up by 4 per cent since August 2019.

Julia’s keen not to shame the individual in their choices as a consumer – “that slightly takes away responsibility from big agriculture and the sugar beet lobby and industrial meat and dairy practices and so on and so on” – but one of the ideas behind Fridge of Plenty was to allow people to shop guilt-free, knowing someone has been rigorous in the sourcing of every product. “If people buy from us, they don’t have to think about it or feel bad about any of it,” she says.

Fridge of Plenty is building a loyal clientele for its fresh fruit and veg

If things go well, who knows? There could be more Fridge of Plentys, delivering to a much wider area than the current three-mile radius; the business has already upped its game with the introduction of a UK-wide shipping option in recent days. But for now, Julia’s happy to throw herself into building a successful urban farm shop in the middle of the big city.

“There are odd days when I miss it,” she says of her old life in journalism. “But I always wanted to do something with a social mission. For me, it’s always been about more than paying the bills – you’ve got to enjoy what you do, yes, but it also has to be meaningful.”

And, with food and farming practices both fundamental elements when it comes to building a greener future, it doesn’t get much more “meaningful” than being part of the push for sustainable produce.

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