Real Food ‘Fresh Start’

“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”

I don’t know who first made that statement – but as I reflect on the challenges and opportunities that have come in the wake of the pandemic, I have no doubt that she was right.

Exeter Local Food, the community benefit society that trades as The Real Food Store, has been around for 10 years now and so has been through phases that will be familiar to many of us – excitement, pioneering spirit, surges of energy, peaks and troughs, ennui, and diminished interest that can be charitably interpreted as confidence that we’ve got things right … and then along came a threat, the like of which none of us had experienced or foreseen.
We responded quickly to the fast changing situation, putting the health and welfare of customers and staff front and centre of our concerns. We developed simple protocols associated with keeping – and being seen to keep – a clean environment to reassure customers. Just as soon as we made these small, but significant changes in-store we communicated the detail to our members by e-mail and posted notices prominently within the store. This led to a dialogue developing both face-to-face and online around our actions, allied with expressions of solidarity and hopefulness.
Looking back, this phase didn’t last long as the seriousness of the situation visibly grew in wider public policy terms, and for our small local grocery business. On the morning preceding announcement of the ‘lockdown’ the board met by Zoom – the first of three such meetings that day, the third of which included the whole staff group. Faced with the unknown we became altogether more agile than we would ever have claimed, making the decision to close the shop, secure our team’s jobs by using the CJRS, to devise ways to collaborate closely with The Boatyard Bakery – a key supplier, owned by one of the directors – and explore options for our future, after the lockdown had been lifted.
The board ‘zoomed’ frequently, and established a regular weekly slot which brought the whole staff team together at which we shared our thinking, identified tasks and allocated responsibility for leading the various work streams. This has continued up to and beyond the limited re-opening in early June, 11 weeks after we shut up shop.

A key element of our plan involved a “Call for Ideas” – inviting members and others to contribute to a “Fresh Start”. We designed a colourful flyer outlining the approach we were adopting, encouraging people to tell us about changes they would like to see – small operational issues, and grander thinking about transforming the business. Unusually, we used surface mail as well as e-mail to communicate our plan enabling us to do a bit of ‘housekeeping’, checking that we had up to date contact details for our members – the people to whom we as a board were accountable. The ‘call’ went out beyond our c300 members to a range of other individuals, organisations and community groups with the intention of reaching a wider audience – if this approach was to work it needed to avoid talking only to those who could be relied on to tell us what we would like to hear.

The response was heartening – with a wide range of responses from lots of people. Some told us that they were disappointed that the shop was closed and that they were looking towards a time when things would return to a [new] normal… others took up the challenge of telling us what we could do to be a better business, or reminding us of the elements of our early success and hoping that could be rekindled. Some of these written submissions were long and detailed, others very concise, but what binds them together is that they all received a personal acknowledgement, generally with 48 hours of submitting their views. Unfortunately the ‘google survey’ we set up on our website, which attracted a good level of responses did not have the facility to collect contact details so such respondents did not get the personal feedback, although hopefully they will have been able to track developments by ‘following us’ virtually or coming shopping!

We sifted through the ideas, putting them into some broad categories so that we could ‘drill down’ and identify steps we could take, set timescales and feedback our thoughts and actions. That process is continuing now with regular themed posts on social media as well as clear evidence within the shop of changes that reflect the ideas we had gathered through the process.

Les Bright, director Exeter Local Food Ltd trading as The Real Food Store

The Real Food Store is a member of Exeter Social Enterprise Network ESSENCE. If you are a social enterprise based in Exeter, Somerset, Devon, Torbay or Plymouth and are interested in joining a social enterprise network visit the Enhance Social Enterprise Network Devon & Somerset website here Enhance Social Enterprise Network Devon & Somerset.

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The Heart of the South West Enhance Social Enterprise Programme is receiving funding from the England European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.