The People’s Supermarket

“It feels like it’s what Cardiff wants right now,” says Rebecca Clark, green entrepreneur. “Lots of people we’ve spoken to are crying out for these different things and I think the idea of putting them all under one roof and creating this hub would be so beneficial to Cardiff.”

Clark, who runs Green City Events, is working with Gwion Thorpe and a big group of like minded people to start Siop y Bobl, a people’s supermarket where everything is run by a community of shareholders.

The idea of a co-operative is not a new one. Other examples of companies running on a model like this are the ever popular John Lewis and, strangely enough, the Co-Op. More recently, the idea’s been gaining attention from the Channel 4 series The People’s Supermarket. 

A lot of us here saw it and Dewi the Ethical Chef put the call out online to say ‘This would be cool in Cardiff: who’s interested?’ Becca and I and 50 other people turned up and said let’s do it,” explains Gwion, “So we set up a small team and here we are nine months later hoping to pitch for some cash.”

While the duo doesn’t quite know exactly how much cash they’re hoping to win after pitching their business to a room full of people at the Capital Cardiff conference on 29 February, they’re sure that they don’t want to be seen as a not-for-profit kind of business.

“How much cash though?” I asked Thorpe.

“150K-500K. We’re aiming high because we want this to be impressive,” he goes on.

Businesses like Siop y Bobl can often give off the wrong kind of feel to investors. An ethical supermarket which is run by the people doesn’t immediately scream PROFIT like, say, a high-impact social network with an integrated advertising network. On that point, Rebecca chips in,

“Something important to mention is that while we’re asking for a decent sum of money, we don’t expect to depend on grant funding,” she says. “The aim of Siop y Bobl is to be economically sustainable as well as environmentally.”

That’s one of the key differences between Siop y Bobl and similar projects. The original People’s Supermarket in London was run entirely by volunteers but Cardiff’s own will be run by shareholders of the company,

“We will be offering a public share. We’ll be setting up as an industrial provident society… a co-operative. So people will buy shares from £5 to £500 and it will be a community owned store. That’s what we mean: by the people. For the people means that it’s run as a community,” explains Gwion, “The one in London started off as totally volunteer run. We don’t necessarily think that’s a viable option so we’re looking for a balance or a mix between them. If we create a place where people really want to work and get trained, then how good is that?!”

He’s right. The days of the far off ish shareholder are coming to an end. Increasingly, we’re seeing businesses starting up that are owned by their employees. Just take Facebook as an example: in the early days of the company, many of the employees took share stock instead of salaries and when Facebook announced its public float, instantly, Silicon Valley had thousands of new millionaires. But it’s not just about the money, part of the power of a company owned by its staff is the incredible motivational factor behind the business – your share becomes more valuable the more business you get.

Another really key difference between this and other ethical supermarkets is the idea of a community space.

“We want to create a place where people can come and be really sure of what they’re buying. The majority of what we stock is local. We’re also giving them an option that is in a price range that they can afford as well,” Becca says, “We want it to be a place where people are engaging with each other – more of a community place that builds on coming together as a community and getting people excited over food.”

“Yes. We’re looking for something no smaller than 2000 square feet. You can compare that to a medium sized Waitrose or Tesco. It’s pretty big,” Gwion continues. “Also, we want different levels: shop, cafe, community with co working and meeting space, organisation space for offices for rent. You’ve got to have a lot of levels, impacts because it’s all good for the community, environment and the economy because we’re creating jobs and training. There are a lot of spin offs from this idea.”

That’s a big win for Cardiff and a sign of real innovation. A place not only where you can work but a place to meet and a place to shop. If one of the floors in the building is quiet for some reason, there’ll still be people down on the ground floor picking fresh lettuce from the veg section or other people meeting clients in the Siop y Bobl cafe.

Smart stuff. If I had 50K, I’d be investing it in this group of people… either that… or you know… Facebook.