Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

The People’s Supermarket: where even the smell of baking bread is genuine

In a high street rigged against independent shopkeepers, this co-operative food shop has won a battle for survival

If you’ve never been to the People’s Supermarket, I think you’d be surprised at how normal all the stuff is. There are sections of top-end delicatessen-ery, the rococo biscuits for the same price as a pair of trousers in Primark; there’s Haribo bears, for the universal price of not very much. There is no manic “buy this, get that free” promotional activity – they use the food that won’t last much longer in their own kitchen, which is, as the head cook, Paul Batho, soberly puts it, “a real profit centre in the business”.

It’s just one large-ish shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, London: there are no economies of scale, and no classic supermarket deal slicing, where you bargain with suppliers until you see the bones under their flesh, and the upshot is that you get a load of satsumas for free that nobody wants. The shopfront is quite idiosyncratic, the people working there are very open, and it smells as if there is a working kitchen producing food on the premises, rather than a packet of simulated baking-bread-smell granules, going round and round the simulated baking bread granule machine. You’d like it, in other words, but you wouldn’t think this was the start of a consumer revolution.

And nor, necessarily, is it, but it is something different. It’s run as a co-operative; members pay £25 annually, and volunteer for four hours a month. For that, they get a 20% discount; all NHS workers get 10% off anyway (it’s round the corner from Great Ormond Street hospital). Jo, who runs the accounts, says they do OK but it’s very hand-to-mouth: “It’s not quite robbing Peter to pay Paul, but with suppliers, whoever shouts the loudest gets paid first.”

Nevertheless, they were managing until a rates arrears notice arrived from Camden council. It’s quite technical, there’s no doubt that the money was owed, but nor is there any doubt that the council could have been much more supportive, rather than demanding all the money, at once, this week, with the bailiffs at the door.

Sixty-four members of the supermarket turned up at the council meeting on Monday; Paul Aiken, formerly a graphic designer, now personal assistant to Kate Bull, who runs the show, says: “In the chamber, the Labour party were sitting together, and offered no word of support until the end. The Greens and the Lib Dems had made this alliance in our favour, it had all become a political football. And that, to me, was sad. What I wanted to see was people being glad to see this happening in their borough.”

Bull, who used to be an executive at M&S, and I feel sure has been on one of those courses where you learn how to take the most mature approach to any given scenario, says: “One of the questions for us now is, how do we rebuild our bridges with Camden? Because we’re Camden residents, we’re not just going to take our bat and ball and go home.”

The financial situation came about because the high street is rigged against the independent shopkeeper: risk-averse landlords would always rather have a Sainsbury’s Local, so they ask small outfits to front a lot of rent in advance. It’s very unfair to any observer, but since the last government’s change in planning legislation, residents have almost no influence on their high streets. Highlighting yet another chancre in modern civic life, the People’s Supermarket is still owed money by A4e, “in the low thousands”, Bull puts it. I can’t really go into that because the situation is disputed, and has no paper trail. Also, because it makes me hyperventilate.

However (this will end on a happy note, I swear it), the immediate crisis was resolved by Thursday: in four days, an internet campaign aiming to raise £5,000 raised £7,000. Somebody from Korea sent them £50, they’re not sure whether that’s from the North or South. Then the Frederick Foundation came up with an unsecured loan of £20,000 so, even in the medium term, they’re basically fine.

“We’re just trying to take a standard business model and make it a good business,” Bull concludes. “That’s one of the things that winds people up. Brand extension is another.” They want more shops (another 14 sites are in discussion, across the country). They want more income streams. They’ve started doing office catering for local businesses, such as the Economist. They nominated Michael Mulcahy, who’s American, for catering manager in the meeting I was at. “I’m just an immigrant,” he said, when I asked him how he got involved. “I volunteered because, apart from my partner, I didn’t know anybody.”

This is not anarchy, in other words; it doesn’t look at all like Occupy.

It’s not all counter-culture and brown bananas. I don’t know what you’d call it – capitalism in flux? – but the bananas are fresh. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds