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    Blog: Unicorn Grocery

    Vocal for Local week 2022

    Vocal for Local: Unicorn Grocery
    20/06/2022 Yali Banton Heath

    For our 2022 Vocal for Local week, we spoke to Dan from Unicorn Grocery in Manchester to learn more about how they’re providing sustainable and local food at affordable prices to their community. 

    Hi Dan. So, tell us a bit about Unicorn… when was it was set up, why, and with what mission?

    Dan: Unicorn Grocery was established in 1996 by a small group of people committed to social change. The founding owner-members had a vision for the kind of shop that they wanted to shop in themselves: wholesome, tasty, food, sourced with care and sold at affordable prices. A shop owned and run by its workers, following a shared social and environmental agenda.

    Unicorn was founded on 5 principles of purpose which continue to guide our mission to this day: 

    • Secure employment 
    • Equal opportunity 
    • Wholesome healthy consumption
    • Fair and sustainable trade 
    • Solidarity in cooperation 

    What an inspiring vision! To dive straight into the nitty gritty, can you tell us about where Unicorn sources produce from (especially fresh fruit and veg), and who your customer base is?

    Dan: Buying direct from growers and primary producers is fundamental to how we source at Unicorn. With fruit and veg in particular, we privilege any supply we can find direct from the farmgate and always try to source from producers closest to the shop first. 

    We see manifold benefits to this approach: a fresher supply of produce that hasn’t had to sit in a warehouse (it is not unusual for our local growers to pick veg in the morning to be on the shelves that same afternoon); better prices – for the farmer themselves and for us too (which in turn we can pass on to our customers); fewer food miles: by applying a “radial” rationale to our sourcing we ensure nothing has to travel further than it needs to. Buying direct, rather than from wholesalers, also removes an extra journey from the roads. Perhaps most importantly of all however, we appreciate the direct relationships we have with the people growing our food – we are able to speak to our suppliers on a weekly basis, appreciating the challenges they face first-hand and gaining an invaluable education in the practicalities of organic growing. 

    Unicorn’s customer base is a broad church. Many of our customers are extremely loyal and have been shopping with us for several decades. They value our transparency, our commitment to environmental causes, our approach to pricing and – perhaps above all else – the unquestionable quality of the food we sell. It has been gratifying in recent years to welcome a younger demographic into the shop, a greater awareness of the impact of our diets on the planet and an increase in the popularity of plant-based eating has opened our customer base up to the next generation.

    Having a direct relationship with suppliers is so important, and it sounds like you have a really great relationship with your customers, too! How central is it to Unicorn’s values that you sell food at an affordable price?

    Dan: Affordability is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve at Unicorn, we see ourselves primarily as an ingredients shop (rather than a specialist health food retailer) and are constantly battling against the idea that organic equates with luxury and a high price. 

    We want to debunk the myth that organic food is less affordable than its conventional equivalent. This is a difficult balance to achieve, as we also want to pay our producers a fair price for their tremendous hard work and commitment. Luckily, our model is based on low operational costs, bulk buying and minimal handling. These factors allow us to be agile in our pricing and remain highly competitive with the multiple supermarkets. 

    We are also fastidious about waste and are careful to buy in quantities that we know we can sell. Ends of batches are used in our commercial kitchen and turned into soups, salads, stews and curries that we sell in our deli section. Any unusable fruit and veg is composted and collected by Glebelends, our nearest grower. They produce over 10 tonnes of organic compost each year which is used to fertilise the season ahead. Minimising waste saves pennies as well as the planet! 

    Supplying fresh, sustainable and affordable food for your community is a winner, but how do you balance affordable produce with paying your employees a living wage?

    Dan: Secure employment is very important to us and we are proud to pay ourselves £12.75 an hour while providing myriad additional benefits including a 25% discount in the shop, childcare, healthcare and a month-long sabbatical leave for every 5 years service.

    Our unique worker coop structure means there are no shareholders or board, so all of our profits go back into the business. We set ourselves a quarterly sales target which, if achieved, results in a quarterly bonus too. No individual (or small group of people) can ever become rich off the back of Unicorn’s success – while our income may be deemed modest by some, the living wage it provides supports a comfortable way of life. 

    That’s impressive! Can you tell us a bit about how you run as a cooperative?

    Dan: Unicorn is a Workers’ Cooperative, which means each employee is an equal director of the business. We have a non-hierarchical structure and we are all paid the same hourly wage. We see ourselves as ‘stewards’ of the business; appreciating the decades of hard graft, skill and accumulated knowledge that have come before us, and making decisions that we believe are best for the co-op as a whole, now and in the future.

    Co-ops are democratic; we all have a voice in how the business is run. That’s not to say we all discuss everything. Day-to-day operational decisions are devolved to teams, much like in a traditional business. The difference is that each team makes its decisions by consensus, within a flat management structure. The absence of a formal hierarchy in our structure requires a high degree of self-management from members, as well as the ability to “manage” each other. This isn’t always easy! It also often involves knowing what we don’t know…decisions should only be taken with a real understanding of their commercial or ethical impact, so it’s vital to be able to step back or ask for help.

    Our cooperative structure is inseparable from our ethos. We participate actively in the wider coop movement and support projects and organisations that share our values. Since the beginning we have paid 5% of our wage bill into a fund we call the 1 and 4%. 1% of our wages are distributed to local and regional projects in the UK, while the remaining 4% goes to projects further afield. That the fund is tied to wages not profits is of vital importance: equitable redistribution is built into the model. We also have a Growers Fund which is based on veg sales. 1% of our veg sales are ring fenced to offer support to our growers. The fund has financed the building of glasshouses, polytunnels, squash storage and training as well as extreme weather relief when our growers have been affected by unpredictable weather events.  

    We draw a clear distinction between solidarity and charity in the way we offer financial support. Solidarity in cooperation is a brilliant solution to helping like-minded organisations and means many groups benefit from Unicorn’s commercial success. 

    Unicorn is such an inspirational example, thanks for sharing it with us Dan! But finally…we believe that the future lies short supply chains and local food systems, but we know that the government needs to do more to support them. From your perspective, what should the government or your local authority do to better support local food systems and small retailers like Unicorn?

    Dan: We believe wholeheartedly in the potential of local food systems. Keeping money in the local economy (the local accumulator) makes sense to us, it is less polluting and supports the community we serve. We’re also careful not to externalise costs for society to pay for – we are accredited with the Fair Tax Mark and see our model of minimal waste and decent, secure wages as bolstering the local economy. 

    In the current climate our mission of good food for all is more important than ever. We want the government to recognise the value we add to our local area and to acknowledge that we are often disproportionately affected by costs and fees due to the scale at which we operate. We want to set an example for others to follow and encourage any grant schemes or support local authorities can offer so there can be a Unicorn-style shop in every town across the UK. 

    If you’d like to learn more about Unicorn Grocery you can head over to their website, or give them a follow on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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