After her experience in the fashion industry left her feeling “a bit chewed up and spat out,” Claire Wayman was looking for an alternative to “the corporate world, and letting it suck my soul”.
She returned to her hometown of Sunderland after living in the US and got stuck into a number of community projects including skill-sharing, a growers’ group and chairing the friends group of her local park.
With her husband Wojciech Bozyk, she was also part of a Suma Co-op buyer’s group, enabling them to purchase wholefoods in bulk with other members of their community. Claire says her interest in organic food had developed during her time in the States, where she used to visit local markets to avoid genetically modified and processed foods sold in supermarkets.
Having struggled to find work when they returned to Sunderland, Claire and Wojciech decided to channel their passion for food and community spirit into a new business. In 2018, the food delivery business Sunshine Co-operative Community Interest Company (CIC) was born, serving Sunderland and surrounding postcodes with organic food from local suppliers.
Sunshine Co-operative received support from the North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC) while it set up as a CIC. Claire says that there was never any question of not setting up as a social enterprise. “It was the only option I ever considered”.
For many customers, Sunshine isn’t just about the food: “With certain customers, we know we’re going to spend about 20 minutes with them when we deliver,” says Claire. “That’s about valuing them, because we’re here because of them – we’re all co-operating together. Without them there would be no Sunshine Co-op.”
Sunshine’s delivery service was described as a ‘lifeline’ for many during the pandemic and in September 2020, the co-op raised over £11,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to support the opening of its new shop.
A year later, the shop opened in a restored Grade II listed building on High Street West, part of Sunderland’s Historic High Streets Heritage Action Zone. Opening a physical store was always part of the. co-op’s business plan, but customers had also started asking for it, says Claire. “Some people want to see the food. So even though it was part of a plan, it was kind of also fuelled by customer requests.”
As well as giving Sunshine a base to sell its products, the new premises have room for a refill station, to help customers cut down on packaging when they shop. This will be the first refill station to open in Sunderland.
The co-op is also planning a training programme from the store as part of its Sunshine Training Academy. The course will give unemployed local people with little or no work experience the chance to gain skills in retail, customer service and learn about sustainable business practices. Claire says Sunshine want to find people with an “entrepreneurial spirit” and give them a leg up.
“As a CIC, we want to encourage people to create their own food and drink businesses,” adds Claire, who says the co-op has in the past made a conscious effort to work with up and coming local businesses and organisation – including a local kombucha brewer, which was sub-letted part of Sunshine’s old space while it got up and running.
“It’s that idea of not looking at people as competition, but looking at them co-operatively as partners, or potential partners,” says Claire.
Coffee shop, arts venue and fellow CIC Pop Recs recently opened its doors next to Sunshine; this is also part of the Heritage Action Zone, and Claire says there is now a “buzz” about the area, as well as Sunderland in general.
“Every single one of us wants to make this town the best place to be. And there’s a whole movement in Sunderland like that. Sunderland has been a black hole for far too long, and it’s like now all these rosebuds are starting to form and starting to flower.”