How to start a co-operative grocery in your town: Debbie Clarke of Unicorn Grocery, Part 2

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Posted Feb 9 2020 by Debbie Clarke of Unicorn Grocery
Debbie Clarke of Unicorn Grocery shares the Grow your own Grocery guide

This is Part 2 of an interview with Debbie Clarke of Unicorn Grocery – a co-operative grocery store in Manchester. In Part 1, I talked with Debbie about what it’s like to work in a co-operative grocery. Here we talk about the “Grow your own Grocery” guide that her co-op has produced for people who might be interested in starting a co-operative grocery in their town – as well as how to develop the co-operative economy generally.

Dave Darby: If people watching this think they might be interested in starting a co-op grocery in their town, what should they do?

Debbie Clarke: So our guide is on the website – it’s called ‘Grow your own Grocery’ so if you get onto our website and search for that, that would be a great place to start. It’s free and there’s loads of information in there; then having digested all that – which might take a while – get in touch with us if you’ve got other questions. We sometimes have people up for study visits or even to come and spend a day working with us. It depends on people’s level of interest really. If we think people are really serious about it we will usually try and put a bit of time into supporting them – within the limitations obviously of trying to run a shop ourselves.

Can we talk a bit more about the bigger picture – about spreading the idea of co-operation and building the co-operative economy – so do you know how many other groups have launched something similar or given it a go?

You mean on the basis of our of our guide? Well I know it’s been downloaded a couple of thousand times – maybe more now – but we don’t have contact with many of them, and they just sort of go off and use it to do their own thing. I think people that are already wanting to do that seek you out or hear about the guide and then use it use it to help them to do what they’d intended to do, so I wouldn’t like to put a number on it really

I think it’s a fantastic idea. Were you involved in producing the guide?

Yeah, it was a really interesting process actually, because it was useful for us to nail down what are the essential components of our model and make that really really clear for ourselves as well. I think it’s the strength of Unicorn that we’ve always been really clear about our business model – but it was good to remind ourselves. Things like buying in bulk, having a large warehouse space so that we can buy in really large quantities – because that’s one way we we get good prices. Plus buying straight from the manufacturer, so we’re not paying the costs involved with it going through a couple of different people on the way.

What would be your most important piece of advice for somebody who is thinking about setting one up?

Oh, good question. Really really think about whether you want to be a grocer, because at the end of the day that is what we are. I mean it’s it’s more than that because we’re co-operators, but essentially you have to like food and like customer service, because that’s the trade. Then the other stuff is an added bonus. We all spend many hours a week sitting on the till or serving on the deli or stocking the shelves, and we’re there because we like doing that as well as the other stuff that we get to do as part of being in a multitasking co-op.

So your ideas are around a federation of independent co-operative shops, rather than a big chain?

Yes, and you know, we have really nice relationships with a lot of the other wholefood worker co-ops in the UK, and the wholefood wholesalers as well, like Suma and Essential and Infinity.

Do you get deliveries from Suma?

We do yeah – we get a lot from Suma and a lot from Essential as well. And there’s been loads of mutual exchange between businesses, and that’s been really really valuable both ways. Other kinds of co-ops as well – like Equal Care Co-op, who are a really amazing platform co-op doing social care. You’ve probably come across them. We’ve had some great exchanges with them. They’re using sociocracy as well, and they’ve shared a lot of tools and experience with us. That’s been great and really helpful.

How could we help you spread the word?

There’s such a low level of understanding about what a worker co-op is among the world at large – it’s such an inspiring business model to me and to all of us that are so familiar with it; and I think it would be so for more people if they knew what it was. But people can come out of university with a business degree barely knowing what it is. They’re budding entrepreneurs – but co-ops can be very entrepreneurial. A co-op can be an amazing space for entrepreneurship to flourish, and we need entrepreneurs in our co-ops as long as they have a collaborative mindset. But that’s there in people – it’s just somehow not harnessed. It would be good if more people understood the potential of worker co-ops to be thriving businesses, but also to create common good and really be based around not just the generation of profit, but creating empowered work and bringing out the best in people.

I grew up in the in the Black Country in the West Midlands near a town called Cradley Heath. It was full of small shops and markets and it even had an independent cinema. It got completely bulldozed and they planted a giant Tesco and car park. My family still live there and they hate it – kills all sense of community. They could have had something like a Unicorn Grocery instead of Tesco. That would provide better jobs, and the money would stay in the community, whereas money spent in Tesco is sucked straight out.

That is something that I hope we achieve. We want to be a positive presence in our community, and we’re far from perfect but I do feel like generally we are going some way to achieve that. People come in and they feel good being here. That’s not always true for your experience of trundling around a supermarket, so yeah, it’s a valuable thing.

I’m surprised at how few people know about the existence of co-ops – especially workers’ co-ops.

Yeah, it would be amazing if kids were leaving school knowing that this opportunity was there. I think there is an innate sense of wanting to co-operate and wanting to run businesses that have more of a social purpose to them. But there is a lack of awareness and it’s sad.

We met at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester – that’s an annual co-operative conference. How long have you been going to that and why do you go?

It was probably the third one I’d been to. The program just looked really interesting, and it’s local to us but I guess it’s interesting in the sense that it is aiming to sort of connect the union movement with co-ops, and that’s something that is interesting to me personally.

Do co-op workers need to be in a union if they own the company?

That’s a really interesting question. I think some of our members are but probably most aren’t, and I think that has to be up to the individual.

I’m just wondering, because a co-op takes away one of the main reasons for being in a union – to increase your collective bargaining power. Because you’re owners as well as workers. I’ll look into it some more. But how are we going to build the co-operative economy?

That’s a good question. Co-operatives UK actually are running a campaign at the moment, along with the Employee Ownership Association. It’s called ‘One Million Owners’. They’re asking for significant government spending and a commitment to grow the worker co-op and the worker-owned economy, and they’ve got a number of specific campaign asks that they feel could get us to 1 million worker owners in the UK by, I think, 2030 – which is an amazing thought. So I would direct people to have a look at that and support that campaign, because it isn’t just gonna happen by accident. As amazing as worker coops are, it’s about shouting about what they do. At the end of the day we are trying to get our heads down and provide goods and services. We need investment on a national scale, at government level.

Do you think there’s any chance to get the state to do something with a Tory government? I don’t see why they shouldn’t, because you’re talking about a free market.

It’s interesting. Co-ops are loved by the left, but they can also be cherished by the right in a sense because they’re about people doing it for themselves and I think there have been moves from the government to be more flexible about the way co-ops and mutuals might be able to get involved in the provision of public services. So there has been some softening I think of their approach. So it’s not out of the question.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to building the co-operative movement?

I think a lack of understanding of it. Business advisors, local chambers of commerce, lenders and all the sort of infrastructure that’s there to support people setting up businesses – it doesn’t tend to encourage people to go down the co-op route because there’s not enough expertise or enough understanding of how to do it. I think that’s partly what the One Million Owners campaign is seeking to address – to make it a real visible option for people who are a setting up new businesses as well people who are looking to sell their businesses. People who are retiring – small and medium business owners who are retiring or want to move on. Make it really easy for them to to sell it to their employees so yeah – education.

How might corporations fight back do you think, if it starts to grow and they see it as some sort of challenge?

Once big business sees the public mood shifting in a positive direction they can be very good at confusing things by talking up the way their employees are looked after or consulted or engaged with, if they started to realise that this was something that people cared about. But it’s quite easy to do that without creating any meaningful change. So I imagine that would be one of the first ways that they would respond. They’re certainly not about to sell the business to their employees.

Their business model is all about sucking profit out of every community that they’re in.

Yeah, and if you’re shareholder owned your shareholders come first and they’re the ones who get to make the decision. But there have been some really high-profile large-scale conversions recently. Richer Sounds, the electronics firm, plus Riverford, the veg box company – both of them are now either wholly or largely owned by their employees. In fact Guy Watson Singh who was the owner and founder of Riverford – he came up and spent a couple of days at Unicorn earlier this year with the intention of learning about our culture of ownership and employee control, and that was a really great experience for both sides.

So you’ve been influential there.

It’d be nice to think we had some influence, yeah.

But I also noticed that McDonald’s and Tesco have been adding lots of wood panelling.

Yes, it’s all this very intangible stuff that they do, because a lot of what we believe about a company isn’t necessarily because of information we have about it – it’s because of these little things that we absorb almost unconsciously. So yeah, things like wood panelling and paper that looks like it might be recycled. It doesn’t actually matter if it is or not, but they’re all contributing to our sense of what that company is like; and as a consumer I know how easy it is to be influenced by that. We’re all very susceptible to it.

Did you hear that recently Co-op Energy has been bought out by Octopus?

No, I didn’t know that.

I think it’s still going to get most of its energy from community energy schemes and from renewables, and I think it was a consumer co-op rather than a worker co-op, so I think the members are still going to be part of Midcounties Co-op, so I don’t know exactly how it works. We’ll have to see what happens. But that’s what happened with the Co-op Bank. You get these huge monolithic co-ops and then if they stumble, like the Co-op Bank did, they end up getting swallowed by a hedge fund or swallowed by a for-profit company. I think your ideas about budding and federating rather than growing huge – that’s the right way to go. So say there’s a hundred cooperative grocers in the country and one of them stumbles and falls over, you’ve still got 99, but if one giant one falls over, you haven’t got any at all.

Yeah, whenever I think about opening a second branch of Unicorn – I just don’t want to do anything that ever jeopardises the thing we have now. It’s too valuable to mess with. So the success or failure of the next one needs to not be able to hurt the original.

It’s it’s the same mentality with any business really. Some people have a restaurant or a bar, and they don’t want another one. They love their restaurant, they love cooking and they have no ambition to have a chain because as soon as they have that second branch, they can’t be in both places at the same time so they get staff to run the other one, and it just wouldn’t be the same.

Yeah – we’ve always found it really hard to imagine how we would even just grow the membership on the one site. It gets pretty creaky past a certain number to keep everybody engaged; and we’re all directors of the business.

So here’s a – well it’s not a trick question, but it’s possibly a difficult one. So people who would like to see a new kind of economy – do you you have any ideas about how they might come together to try to achieve that?

Hmmm – obviously supporting the alternatives, like social enterprises, co-ops, going straight to farmers through CSA schemes – things like that. But really we need investment in in the co-op sector. I think the One Million Owners campaign is asking for some really sensible things. I wish I had more details that would just trip off my tongue, but making sure business advisors are giving people information about co-ops. So people who already want to set up businesses. They’re entrepreneurs. They need to know about co-ops – that it is an option.

Do you know anybody I could talk to at Co-ops UK about the Million Owners Campaign?

Yes, I’ve got a couple of people’s emails I could pass your way.

There’s also Noncorporate.org, which is a website to help people withdraw their money from the corporate sector and into the new economy.

Brilliant.

I’ll definitely put you on that site. We’re talking to people in the States about launching it there. It’s just a way to show people different new economy sectors – food, energy etc.

Great – send me the links for that because we could publicise that to customers as well.

Fantastic. Will do. Are you optimistic about things?

Hmmm. No. We’re living in a real crazy time. I mean the climate crisis is pretty terrifying. It’s hard to feel optimistic, although seeing what young people are doing – that’s cause for hope. But the fact that the financial sector is still in pretty much the same state it was before the crash. It doesn’t seem to have learned anything. On a local level I see lots of cause for optimism. There’s loads of great stuff going on in Manchester. But globally, well we’ve just got to keep on keepin’ on and doing what we’re doing and building something different.

How can people keep up to speed with what you’re up to?

Well, our website has got an incredible depth of information on there in terms of where we come from – our value – but social media is what we use to keep people updated. So Facebook and Instagram mostly.

And there are links to those from your website?

Yes – or if you just search for Unicorn Grocery on Facebook you’ll find us.

Debbie, it’s been fantastic talking with you.

Yeah, thanks. I was looking at the other interviews on your channel and there’s some really fascinating looking ones. I’m really looking forward to giving them a listen. I see a couple of familiar faces on there.


Highlights

  1. Our guide to starting a co-op grocery is on the website – it’s called ‘Grow your own Grocery’ so if you get onto our website and and search for that, that would be a great place to start. It’s free and there’s loads of information in there; then, having digested all that, get in touch with us if you’ve got other questions.
  2. Our advice would be to really think about whether you want to be a grocer, because at the end of the day that is what we are. It’s more than that because we’re co-operators, but essentially you have to like food and like customer service, because that’s the trade.
  3. We have really nice relationships with a lot of the other wholefood worker coops in the UK, and the wholefood wholesalers as well, like Suma and Essential and Infinity.
  4. Co-ops are loved by the left, but they can also be cherished by the right in a sense because they’re about people doing it for themselves and I think there have been moves from the government to be more flexible about the way co-ops and mutuals might be able to get involved in the provision of public services.