The Ethical Supermarket Building Back Better

We caught up with Ruth Anslow from HISBE about the challenges of being an ethical small business during the coronavirus pandemic, and their ‘Back to Better’ campaign.

What challenges have you faced as an ethical business over the past few months?

HISBE is a rebel supermarket that exists to challenge the unsustainable and exploitative food industry. So, our whole ethos is about getting good food that’s sustainably sourced and responsibly traded into people’s shopping baskets and onto their dinner plates. And arguably, during a pandemic, the availability and accessibility of good food is even more important than ever!

So honestly, our biggest challenge was simply to stay open. We had a responsibility to keep good food flowing, keep our customers served and our staff in their jobs and protect our suppliers’ livelihoods. Our supermarket relies on hundreds of hardworking people - and I don’t just mean our own store team, I mean the people who make the food and the people who shift it, from the farmers, producers and suppliers, to the warehouse and distribution guys and the truck drivers. Suddenly, like us, these people were “key workers”. They were all under a lot of pressure and all our livelihoods were at stake.

How have you adapted your store to keep your customers and workers safe?

As for many food shops, for us March was bonkers: so many customers needing to stock up at the same time, new information and guidelines coming out every day, staff having to self-isolate if they live with someone who may possibly have symptoms... It was a worrying and uncertain time.

In the months before the Covid-19 outbreak, the leadership team had been working on expansion and we had just taken a lease on a new shop in Worthing. But we had to put that aside and focus on the safety of our Brighton store and the survival of our social enterprise.

The first thing we did was implement new risk assessments, and social distancing and cleaning protocols. Then we put a break-even model in place and reduced the trading day accordingly. We ran one shift and, at first, we were only open from midday to 6pm, which made the extra protocols manageable and the store job as straightforward as possible. We furloughed six of our staff and, for a time, our leadership team, so that we could afford to safeguard everybody’s jobs.

We’re very proud of our store team. They really pulled together and did a great job of managing the social distancing, extra cleaning and customer queues at the door. Not only did we achieve a safe environment, but they were able to maintain a friendly and relaxed vibe, which is so important to people. The world may have been going nuts, but we wanted our shop to be a little oasis of calm in the craziness!

We are very grateful to have made it through this difficult time, returned to normal trading hours and successfully brought all of the staff out of furlough. And we’re grateful to every single customer for supporting our shop.

Has the pandemic affected any of the products you sell?

For the most part, no it hasn’t. During a few shaky weeks in March and April, many of our suppliers faced huge challenges with staffing, production and distribution. Our smallest suppliers are kitchen table businesses run by one or two people. But we have been absolutely blown away by the resilience of people and how well our hundreds of suppliers kept going, even under these strenuous conditions.

It makes you appreciate more than ever that the people who make and move our food. It’s their passion, commitment and resilience that makes the British “good food” supply chain work, and we depend on them more than ever, in the face of Covid, future pandemics and, of course, Brexit.

It sounds like things are on the up for HISBE, with some recent good news. What are your plans for the next few months?

HISBE is delighted to announce that we will open our second store, on Portland Road in Worthing, in January 2021. We are so excited to go back to our plans for launching our second store and it’s something positive to work on and look forward to!

Worthing is a great town, with both a wonderful old history and a buzzing new vibe. There’s a thriving local food scene there, a dynamic council committed to economic stimulation and a lot of great work going on in sustainability - and we’re really looking forward to being part of it all.

Can you tell us a bit about your ‘Back to Better’ campaign?

Everyone finds themselves emerging from these life-changing months into a time of transition - and we can choose to go back to normal, or we can choose to go back to better. Our “Back To Better” campaign is a call for change. A sustainable future for British food and farming is possible - we just have to choose it.

So let’s choose real food, real farms, values-led brands, local suppliers, British-grown, seasonal produce, high animal welfare, sustainable fish, plastic-free shopping, pesticide-free, organic standards, working with nature not against her, zero to landfill, ditching packaging, no food waste, proper employment contracts, fair pay for staff and suppliers, ethical trading, keeping money in the local economy, social enterprise - and good people in our city doing good stuff!

Why is better food and farming important now?

Because the food industry is in trouble and the way big supermarkets do business is problematic. Bad quality food, industrialised factory farming and enormous waste have become the norm and it’s hurting people’s health, our planet and our society. But everyone can help shape the future of food. It’s not about doing everything perfectly, it’s about taking small actions, every time you go shopping, for a better future.

Since lockdown, we were happy to find new appreciation for good food and independent food businesses. It brings renewed hope. Covid got people thinking about their food, what they’re eating, where it’s come from and how it’s produced. So, in September when people were going back to work, school and Uni, we launched Our “Back To Better” campaign. It captures that spirit of hope, engages people in better food and farming and shows them what we do. It’s a compelling invitation for people to switch from their regular supermarket to shops like ours.

What are your aspirations for the future – during the pandemic and beyond?

Our mission is to transform the food industry by reinventing the way supermarkets do business.

We’ve achieved the first step, which was to create a successful pilot store that turns the existing supermarket business model on its head. After almost seven years of trading, HISBE Food is now recognised as a successful innovative model in food retail. We have been able to run a supermarket as a social enterprise, uphold values for a sustainable food industry, contribute to the local economy and make a decent living for ourselves, our staff and our suppliers. We’re not saying it’s easy, but we have shown it’s possible!

Our next step is to build a regional chain of stores in Sussex by successfully replicating the pilot store. Building a regional model that works will create resilience in the local food supply chain, enable our suppliers to scale up, and expand our social impact to tens of thousands of people.

Then our task will then be to replicate that model, by enabling engaged groups to create decentralised regional HISBE chains in their own cities, all across the country. We can’t transform the food industry on our own, so we call for radical collaboration! We seek to ignite a revolution that inspires independent retailers, big supermarkets, big food brands and government alike to follow. And we believe radical collaboration has the potential to transform the food industry, for good.