THE seemingly unstoppable rise of the supermarkets is a phenomenon which has pervaded every corner of British life over the last decade. From large out-of-town stores to new local supermarkets, the expansion of these giants has brushed all opposition aside.
That rise may have been slowed by the recession, but the recent controversial opening of Sainsbury’s in Bruntsfield showed it is far from over. There are more than 20 Tesco stores in Edinburgh, and last year saw 24 new supermarkets open in the Capital at the same time as 28 other retailers closed.
So it might seem a little surprising that a small independent store would look to set up its newest shop in the shadow of one of the city’s largest Tescos.
While admitting the move is “a risk”, Earthy director Pete Jackson is full of confidence, encouraged not just by the popularity of his latest venture in Canonmills, and the crowd of people coming in and out to pick up fresh organic produce, but by the astonishing growth of the company since it started five years ago with an aim to bridge the gap between a weekly farmers’ market and the weekly shop so many people carry out in regimented aisles of their local superstore.
“There is definitely a niche there that we are looking to exploit, I think people are looking for that alternative now,” he says.
The whole shop embraces an ethos of sustainability and local produce. The produce is fresh, with bread provided by a local baker every day, while the deli counter serves up recipes using ingredients available at the store.
Building up a network of more than 100 Scottish providers over the last five years is something which Pete and his team have found to be far less difficult than might be imagined, and again there is a sense that the backlash against the bulk-buying demands of the supermarkets have played into their hands.
“A lot of the people we spoke to simply don’t produce in the kinds of quantities that a big supermarket demands, so we are a welcome outlet for their goods,” he says.
“Quite a few of our suppliers have been approached by the big four, but actually said they don’t want to deal with that kind of business model.
“I want people to love food, and the staff we employ all have a love of food which they can pass on to the customer.
“I want this to be a community shop, where people will come in not just to pick up some food but to meet and have a chat. We want to get people enthusiastic about good food again.”
This was the idea when the company was started in 2008 by Pete, left, along with partners Patricia Stephen, owner of Phantassie Foods, an organic farm in East Lothian, and Dirk Douglas, who after a 20-year career in marketing decided to make his living by doing something he believed in.
The first Earthy Food store was opened in 2008 in Ratcliffe Terrace and then in 2011 the business started looking to expand. In Portobello the trio found a perfect fit for their plans, with the community protesting against the expansion plans of the big supermarkets.
Now, with their latest venture they are building on the same principles. With his own background in horticulture it’s understandable that Pete’s approach has been one of putting down roots and using that to build steady growth.
The fact that Tesco this week announced its first drop in UK profits in 20 years suggests his timing couldn’t be better.
“There were the large out-of-town stores, then online shopping and now the increasing number of ‘local’ supermarkets, and I think people now realise they want something different, something local in their community.”