Co-op success at Observer Food Monthly Awards

Beanies Wholefoods, a worker co-operative based in Sheffield, has been voted Best Independent Retailer in the 2015 Observer Food Monthly Awards. The award, one of ten categories voted...

Beanies Wholefoods, a worker co-operative based in Sheffield, has been voted Best Independent Retailer in the 2015 Observer Food Monthly Awards.

The award, one of ten categories voted for by readers, recognises local food retailers selling good-quality produce. Previous winners include Delifonseca in Liverpool (2014) and Yorkshire’s Keelham Farm Shop (2013). The award also follows recent success at the Eat Sheffield awards, where Beanies was voted top in the Retailer-Multi category.

Established over 30 years ago, with ongoing support from the Sheffield Co-operative Development Group (SCDG), Beanies works to provide good quality food in a straightforward way.

“It’s really great. Winning this award shows that our customers really appreciate what we do – it’s a fantastic motivation!” says Chris Baldwin, one of eight full time company-members.

Beanies is based in a pair of adjacent terraced houses in the Walkley area, selling bread, dairy produce and store-cupboard items on one side of the shop, and green groceries on the other. The co-operative has also run an organic box scheme for more than 20 years, making around 500 deliveries a week across Sheffield.

“My colleague Heather estimates the veg boxes are up to half our business – but what it does mean is that we can order things in bulk, so we can have more variety in the shop too, while keeping prices low,” says Mr Baldwin.

“We aim to ensure that all the products we sell are produced ethically – so we look for Fairtrade and organic lines. We like to buy from local growers and manufacturers – keeping food miles to a minimum, retaining local money in the area and supporting small producers.”

One of those producers is former co-op member Matt West, who left to set up a market garden, Sheffield Organic Growers, on the other side of the city. It’s just four miles from his fields to Beanies’ shelves – which means produce often arrives the day it is picked.

Alongside the eight full-time members, Beanies has a further seven part-time staff (two of whom used to be full-time).

“At times we have been as high as 13 members but the business has changed somewhat over the last few years of the recession and we have had to downsize a little,” says Mr Baldwin. “But there are a few green shoots peeping through after a difficult few years across the entire wholefoods and fresh foods sector – so we may be able to expand a little again in a year or so.”

Although, after three decades, none of the original members are left, Beanies has continued to embrace the co-operative structure.

“It gives members a real sense of ownership,” says Mr Baldwin. “Individuals have a real commitment to running the business without such a direct personal risk that starting a business on your own would entail. We can support each other and develop each other’s strengths.

“As with all co-ops, decision-making can be a time-consuming business, but we feel working towards a consensus helps to reinforce that sense of ownership and ensures we are thorough in our thinking.”

Alan Dootson, development manager at SCDG, believes Beanies epitomises the very best in democratic ownership and governance.

“As a group of like-minded people who have always pursued their business in as democratic way as possible, they have sought to build a working environment where each member is valued for the contribution they make,” he says.

“Successful, true co-operation in a business like Beanies is mainly due to their recognition that all day-to-day tasks are of value, from sweeping the shop floor to balancing the books. SCDG fully endorses these ethical and successful working practices, which are essential in building the longevity so often proven in the co-operative way of doing business.”

Top image: Left with boxes is Matt West and right is Heather Adams. Rachel Eyton is lying on the floor. Chris Baldwin is behind Heather. Far left is Dave Reeson and in the window are Jake Kay, Gemma Mulcrone and Mark Purling. Evan Griffiths, who is also a company member, couldn’t be there for the photo.

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