The grocery making healthy and sustainable food accessible
10th January 2022
We visited Debbie and Dan to find out how the food cooperative, Unicorn Grocery, is providing healthy, organic alternatives to processed food and competing with supermarkets in Chorlton, Manchester.
Debbie and Dan at Unicorn Grocery
Unicorn Grocery is a wholefood grocery store, with a focus on organic produce. It is visible from the main road of Chorlton in Manchester. Their core market is local people; within a 5-mile radius of the shop. The grocery serves a broad demographic, particularly striving to make themselves accessible to medium – low income households. They meet the needs of people who cook from scratch, providing mostly ingredients rather than packaged food, and support their customers to move towards this. “Just over a quarter [of sales] come from fruit and veg, another 20% from dried goods like pulses, grains, nuts and spices,” says Debbie, “Less than a quarter is processed food.”
Unicorn Grocery aim to provide similar - but more responsibly sourced - produce to supermarkets at a competitive price point, “In Chorlton we see our competition as Morrisons not Holland & Barrett,” says Dan, “We avoid reinforcing high-end stereotypes associated with organic food.” Debbie adds, “That doesn't mean you could walk in here and get a basket of shopping for the same price as you would in Lidl because a lot of the products you can't really compare. For example, our bread is just a completely different product to something like a happy shopper loaf. The ingredients are incomparable - one slice would fill you up. But if you compare a tin of organic tomatoes here with the supermarkets, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, then we would be able to compete on price.”
Debbie explains, “Our fruit and veg is all organic, but there's lots of other organic produce in the shop as well. And there's various ways that we make that affordable. Buying in bulk is one of them, buying direct (where we can) is another, we've got the scale to be able to negotiate on price. We certainly aren't selling things at the RRP you would see in a normal wholefood shop. We keep our operating costs as low as we can. And we're not driven by a need to make profit for shareholders or pay high salaries to CEOs. All those things add up.”
Whilst Unicorn Grocery undertakes several measures to make healthy food affordable, Debbie and Dan still acknowledge the monetary barriers citizens face. “Because of low wages and expensive rents, people are forced to buy the cheapest food they can, which is never going to be food where farmers, workers, everyone gets their fair share. I think the average person wants to help farmers and workers but it’s hard to do if you can’t afford it,” says Dan. “And how could we expect people who are struggling to put enough food on the table, to prioritise anything other than that?” adds Debbie, “Food poverty isn't really a thing. There's no one who faces food poverty that doesn’t also deal with heating poverty, or school uniform poverty, or other types of poverty.”
The fruit and vegetable aisle in Unicorn Grocery
Yet, Debbie and Dan also acknowledge that there is a limit to how cheap the healthy food that Unicorn Grocery sells can become. When food becomes too cheap, workers, producers, or the environment pays the cost in another part of the supply chain. Dan reflects, “The balance between making healthy food accessible whilst also trading responsibly, by ensuring producers are paid fairly, has been central [to Unicorn] from the beginning. It’s difficult to achieve everything.”
Fundamentally, Unicorn Grocery is a workers’ cooperative, which means the shop is predominantly owned, controlled, and run by the staff members you see on the shop floor. There are currently around 75 members, all of which are also company directors. There is a flat management structure and flat rate of pay to encourage an equal sense of worth and ownership among members.
“I think the single biggest thing that sets us apart from a supermarket is the people stacking the shelves are, for example, the same people who created the business plan for the year ahead and that means we [as members] are empowered,” says Debbie. As a cooperative, they believe financial sustainability is important, to ensure their staff are paid a fair wage for the work they do. “There’s other ways of doing this, where it’s volunteers. People putting loads of time in for free to get this responsibly sourced food and selling at a reasonable price but that’s not sustainable,” reflects Dan, “You want to pay the workers fairly.”
Cooperatives are not common business models across the UK. “Cooperative working is not the norm, people don’t understand it,” explains Debbie, “The general model for starting businesses is very much about the individual entrepreneur who will go on to make a lot of money, or maybe sell the business at the end. I don't think having one charismatic figurehead works for something like this.” Debbie feels that “people haven't grown up with a model for this kind of entrepreneurship and it's not that people would object to it, but it's just not embedded into our consciousness in the same way that normal capitalist entrepreneurship is.”
Customers outside Unicorn Grocery in Manchester
When asked what they envisage the future of Unicorn Grocery to look like, Debbie says, “Community wealth building is what coops provide. On a personal level, we're in this beautiful working environment, we're paid a decent wage, we know our business is stable and thriving, we’re looked after, we like our colleagues, it's all going fine.” Dan continues, “We’re kind of at capacity for our location. It would be nice if there were more places like Unicorn, not franchises, but friends, doing similar things.” Debbie and Dan don’t see other cooperatives as competition but instead want to help them succeed. Dan says, “We've gone out of our way to support groups quite close to us who have been wanting to do something similar.” This is evidenced by the fact that Unicorn have put together a guide based on their model, designed to assist the establishment of new wholefood cooperatives. The ‘Grow a Grocery’ guide walks potential grocers through all areas of the business, in the hope that it will make the process of starting a new shop easier and may help existing shops improve and expand.
More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.