4Food caught up with Arthur Potts Dawson to find out how he took on the big supermarket chains and why they should be worried
What motivated you to set up The People’s Supermarket?
I used to do my food shopping online, like a lot of people I thought it was the future of shopping. But then you’d read about dairy farmers being forced out of business at the same time as supermarkets announcing bumper profits, and I thought that there had to be a better way.
The idea comes from Park Slope Food Co-operative in Brooklyn, New York. Is The People’s Supermarket the British version?
Park Slope is indeed the mothership. It’s been running since 1973 and has over 20,000 members. The big difference between Park Slope and The People’s Supermarket is that Park Slope is members-only whereas we let anyone shop with us, although being a member will get you a 10 per cent discount.
Why did you choose the mean streets of London for The People’s Supermarket?
What you don’t see in the programme is that I looked all over Britain for a site and it was a real struggle to find a landlord willing to take a chance on the idea. Then this opportunity came up in Lamb’s Conduit Street, so in a way it chose me.
Have you achieved community spirit?
Definitely. There are now 410 members, and as everyone’s a part owner we’re all working towards the same goal - to provide healthy local food at reasonable prices.
In the first two episodes there’s some divide over what should and shouldn’t be sold in the supermarket. How has that been resolved?
I suppose it will never fully work itself out as people have different ideals, but every member has the chance to vote on these sorts of decisions. In most cases the vote is unanimous, so for example everyone voted against selling air-freighted fruit and veg, but it gets trickier for things like olive oil and wine.
Do you have plans for another branch?
The People’s Supermarket isn’t franchise-able, but it is replicable. I’d love to help set up another branch. I hope the programme inspires people to do it. If I could pass on some practical advice it would be –
How have you gone about sourcing food as cheap as the supermarkets?
It goes back to the supply chain. You’ve got to go directly to producers and cut out the middle man wherever you can. Once you’ve built a relationship with that producer and you’ve got the community behind them then you can’t lose. For things we can’t get directly from the producers we source the highest quality, traceable products from wholesalers.
Do you have any advice for those of us who can’t shop at independent shops?
Eat seasonally as the food will be fresher and cheaper. But in all cases ask questions; ask supermarkets where food comes from, whether it’s been responsibly sourced, and whether the producers are being treated fairly. Ask them what they do with the food that’s past the sell-by date. They’re big companies so they should be able to answer these sorts of questions, and if they can’t then you can’t put your trust in them.
What’s next for you?
Everyone owns The People’s Supermarket, but I’d like to carry on being the front face of it. I love food and this is food in another guise. For me it’s onwards and upwards and I hope that means The People’s Supermarket across the UK.
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