People's Supermarket revolution spreads

What started as a small volunteer-run co-op in central London has attracted worldwide interest

Sarah Morrison
Sunday 25 September 2011 00:00
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It was hailed as David Cameron's flagship Big Society project when it launched last year and, thanks to a prime-time documentary, millions of viewers were able to watch it open its doors. Now the People's Supermarket is bracing itself for its next move: to take its challenge to the "big four" food stores nationwide.

When Arthur Potts Dawson, founder of Acorn House, the capital's first environmentally sustainable eatery, and former executive head chef at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, decided to set up a supermarket in the middle of London, his aim was clear: the shop would be a co-operative, "owned by the people, for the people", be run by volunteers and would provide local produce at a fair and affordable price.

Fifteen months and almost 1,200 members later, the supermarket in Lamb's Conduit Street, Holborn, has generated around £1.5m and is standing strong, albeit in a slightly altered form. It now stocks brands such as Heinz and Coca-Cola among ethically sourced Pot Noodle and Fair Trade dog food, and is run by a former Marks & Spencer commercial executive who is set on creating a People's Supermarket franchise, with the first additional store planned to open in Hackney, east London, by Easter next year.

The idea is that people pay £25 a year for one share in the supermarket and commit to work four hours in the shop each month for a 10 per cent discount on produce. It has aroused interest from communities in Bristol, Cardiff, Brighton and Glasgow, as well as from Europe, Argentina, Japan and Thailand. The success of the social enterprise, its founder believes, proves that people want an "alternative answer" to the supermarket giants.

"It's about being a bit more revolutionary," said Mr Potts Dawson, 40, a cook for more than 20 years who can boast Mick Jagger as his step-uncle and fan. "The food industry is being bought out by the supermarkets. We are trying to show people what's happening and give them more control. The People's Supermarket set out to be a conduit for food, rather than a middleman."

It seems Hackney, with its 12 Tesco stores, three branches of Sainsbury's, one Morrisons and one Asda, would be the perfect location for the "revolution". The council has offered the co-operative £20,000 to set up in Homerton, and 250 people have already signed up to become members of the second shop.

But just as Mr Potts Dawson learned that he would have to stock fizzy drinks in Holborn if he wanted people to use his shop, the People's Supermarket knows that blind idealism is not enough to turn a one-off shop into a national success. Needing to raise an estimated £1m to open its first additional outlet, the chief executive said corporate lenders do not always understand the ultimate goal.

"The Big Society is trumpeted by the Government, but large businesses with financial clout are still not buying into it and continue to seek unrealistic returns," said Kate Bull, who is leading the expansion project. "This is something bold and ambitious, which could change a significant number of people's lives, but it is a risky process. We have come to realise the Tesco pound is a lot stronger than ours."

With a growing emphasis on the need to reduce food waste, Ms Bull said she is planning a mini kitchen, or a "People's Canteen" in the Hackney shop, where leftovers can be turned into "ready meals", ranging from lasagne to soup made from vegetables that are soon to be out of date.

Hoping to implement this idea on a larger scale, Mr Potts Dawson has left the supermarket's board and moved to Dorset to focus on his new project, the "People's Kitchen". He is planning industrial-sized kitchens to be set up around the country, with the intention of creating food and profit from produce that would otherwise go in the bin.

"We have got to stop waste in the industry," he insisted. "If you want to take on supermarkets, you have to get ready to be kneecapped; they are just so strong. We know we are never going to be a rival to Tesco, but we are a different answer that more and more people have told us they need."

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