We went to meet Josie and Debbie from Foodshed Co-op in Brighton Open Market, just off London Road, Brighton – to find out more about the fantastic initiative and business they have set up to support community food producers and worthy causes in the local area.
Tell us a bit about your background
Debbie, co-director: I used to work in London in affiliate marketing. I moved down to Brighton to get more invested in food businesses.
It had been a dream of mine to have a food business, so when I met Josie at the Food Waste Collective and she mentioned she was opening Foodshed and a Rent a Shelf Scheme, I jumped at the opportunity – starting by renting a shelf and selling my jams and chutneys.
Josie, founder and co-director: You missed out the bit where we went to Amsterdam – we were sat on some steps and simply said “Do you want to be my business partner?” and that was it!
I started Foodshed because I’d been doing gardening and making my own product – Seed Bombs – for guerrilla gardening – and when going out to larger suppliers I found constant stumbling blocks and barriers in selling my product through them e.g. needing to be VAT registered, or getting an unfair cut of sales.
So I kept riding past the food market and something kept niggling at me that I should set up in the Open Market. It was that quick really – once I have an idea I just go for it and am a bit like a dog with a bone.
I approached Brighton and Hove Food Partnership and told them I’d like to open a shop and rent it out to small food producers that don’t have to be VAT registered and can sell their product through us, without worrying about us taking a cut of their sales.
The Food Partnership gave me a £5000 grant they’d been given by the Lottery Fund, to support small producers – so it was a bit of a perfect storm, timing-wise – as that covered the first month’s rent and deposit, building the shop, fridge, stock, shelving, the whole setup, which I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own.
They also helped me come up with the business plan and acted as mentors. They were fantastic!
I then had to find people to rent the shelves (which we call Shelfies, by the way), so went around local food festivals and markets and spoke to people.
I then met Debbie at a Food Waste Collective meet-up, which is an action group that I helped to start, where we go to local producers and retailers and ask if they have any surplus food.
Off the back of that we then made this event called Good Food for Good Causes – where we get food from Infinity, Real Patisserie and vegetable growers and have a big get together where local charities come and get food we’ve made for them.
Debbie: Linked to this I ran the Lantern Fayre – to highlight food waste in the city – I organised a feast using surplus food that would normally go to waste. We got half a tonne of food and fed 1,500 people, with the help of The Food Waste Collective.
The Food Waste collective is still going and regularly holding events – we’ve had to take a step back since starting Foodshed, but we’re still keenly interested in the work they’re doing.
What is Foodshed Co-op about, in a nutshell? I.e the food it stocks, your courses and events.
Josie: It’s a food hub so not only do we sell food, but we share recipes and stories and ideas – talk to people about food waste and being environmentally friendly.
We give people the opportunity to enjoy fewer steps between the customer and the producer. People want to know where their food comes from, so Foodshed gives them that opportunity.
We started off do educational film nights and workshops and are still keen to do those if anyone is interested. When we first started up we used a screen against the front of the shop and used a projector we were leant. At one point when cold we got all wrapped up in blankets, which was quite nice – although we did decide to do it in the Market community room.
Debbie: We even host other community groups from the city – giving people a platform for their specific focus. So for example at a film night, we had the Pesticide Action Group involved to educated people in the use of pesticides in fruit growing.
One of the big things about Foodshed is we offer fruit and veg and dried food packaging free. We promote the fact that recyclable packaging and package-free produce is totally possible. So we have customers coming along with their own ways of carrying produce home.
Josie: When we first opened we had this guy doing workshops making Sauerkraut – he’s now created a product and branding and is selling his product on our shelves. So everytime I look at his little tub of KimChi I smile and think how awesome it is as it’s gone full circle for him, from customer, to running workshops, to seller.
Can you tell us more about the Food Growing Grant Scheme?
Josie: When we were given the grant by the Brighton & Hove food Partnership, they also ended up sponsoring us. They have a scheme called the Good Food Grant, where local community groups, schools and projects can apply for a grant of up to £800 to help them start a project e.g. Florence Road Market received a grant to help them make flyers, or Brighton Youth Centre got a grant for a new cooker and there’s all sorts of amazing projects out there who can apply for this great grant.
Our aim is that whenever we’re making enough money to turn a profit – we want to give that money back to go to others, as part of the Good Food Grant.
What were your main reasons for starting Foodshed?
Josie: There’s a lot of talented people in this city and it’s really tough for them to get the money they need to get going. Working with Foodshed means you can put as much or as little of your product on our shelves as you like, to balance with how busy you are with other things in life. I wanted to support with that, helping people grow their food businesses on the side and beyond – when they want to take it full-time – if they do.
A great example of this is a lady called Katie, who was a customer and now rents a shelf. She started Katies’s Nuttery and her products are so popular she could certainly stock our shelves with more, as the demand is there. However, she’s happy with the way things are at the moment – as she knows what her threshold for supplying produce is, given her current lifestyle as a busy mum.
What are the main impacts you have had on the community and further afield?
Debbie: The Shelfie scheme has had a big impact to help people launch / act as a springboard their businesses. For example, truthpaste – made by Marisa – is a clay toothpaste that she’s now started selling to Infinity Foods and even has her own web shop for, so she’s actually doing really well from that now.
Josie: Another big impact comes from the fact we give suppliers the opportunity to trial new products. Taking the truthpaste example again, Marisa had the chance to do a customer trial of new flavours, for example her fennel flavour. Marisa came in one day and had a long conversation with her customers who were there at the same time – so that research and development of products can be instantaneous here.
We can also give customers and the community answers they need to their questions and give instant feedback they want. Everyone who works in Foodshed has a passion for food or specific knowledge. We have Abi who specialises in nutrition, I’m (Josie) an expert in gardening, Debbie specialises in food preservation – so we have the full shebang covered.
How many members of the team are there:
Josie: We’ve got us as the two directors and two other co-op members, plus four flexi-staff on top of that.
What’s your proudest moment?
Josie: Abi (working in the shop during this interview) works for a Brighton community group called Synergy, where they have drop-in centres for people living with mental health issues. It’s a place where people come in and they play music, cook together, do artwork together each week.
The only problem is, every week they struggle to pay the rent. So I said to them, you can make some energy balls to sell in Foodshed to help pay your rent. Off the back of that I was telling a guy David about the Synergy project and the energy balls. THE NEXT DAY HE CAME IN WITH A CHEQUE FOR £1,500! We’d been open for two weeks at that point, so it was overwhelming to make such a difference and experience the generosity of the community so quickly.
In summary, my proudest moments come from connecting people – for example we can help point people in the direction to get involved with volunteering, or community gardening projects etc. It feels good to act as that resource for the community.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get Foodshed going and keep it successful?
Both: Time with our families, sleep and weekends! It’s hard when you’re sick and no one can cover for you because it’s short notice. But, you just do it because you believe in it – you can’t call in sick, because you’re your own boss!
What role has The Brighton & Hove Food Partnership played in your successes to date? Would you like to call out any other supporters who’ve helped?
Josie: The Food Partnership were instrumental in the planning of Foodshed – giving so much of their time and advice to help launch the business, including financial planning and marketing.
They had a team of people from their board that came to the initial meetings – so we had the founder of Infinity Foods there for example, making us aware of things that you may not consider – such as needing to keep a formal record and monitor food waste, to keep tabs on it all. To be honest – we don’t have a lot of food waste as if anything is left over, we take it home with us!
We also try to incorporate some of The Food Partnership’s schemes in Foodshed – so we had their ‘Sugar Smart’ campaign display up outside the shop for about a month – we’re always happy to support where we can, simply because The Food Partnership is awesome!
We also got The Good Food Grant from Brighton & Hove Food Partnership for the Cook & Creche course we ran, to tackle the needs of single parents requiring childcare solutions (often without being able to afford it), so that they themselves can have the time to access adult education, in this case cookery workshops. We got help from Infinity food who gave us food we could use and also a donation to set it all up.
We also went to Brighton Soup – which is a really nice fundraising community event – and we got some independent donations off the back of that – so there’s a lot of goodwill in the city.
The Cook & Creche course had to be run at an appropriate venue, with lots of logistical factors to consider – one such example being a place where if the kids had to be taken to the toilet, the parents doing the course couldn’t be visible (as children can get upset / want to go back to their parents if they know they’re there). We even took some of the older kids to the cinema to give parents the time off they needed to learn!
We held it at the Honeycroft Centre in the end and it worked really well. Next steps would be running an event closer to this end of town (The Open Market, off London Road). Since we ran the course, it’s also inspired other people to do similar e.g. Cooking with your kids classes etc., which is very satisfying to see.
What were the biggest challenges you faced setting up the co-op / face every day running the co-op? E.g. demand and supply for rent a shelf scheme?
Josie: Initially it can be hard setting up to get the grants you need – especially without prior experience or case studies.
Our biggest challenge outside of that is having the time to do everything we want to. Cook & Creche as an example took months to plan – so we are constantly having to balance everything, making sure we don’t take our eye off the ball elsewhere.
Debbie: From a tongue-in-cheek perspective, one of the biggest challenges is being too cold in Food Shed during winter months!
Josie: Yes! I think my record for layers of clothing is about eight!! Haha.
What can people do if they want to get involved / support your business and your causes?
Josie: We were thinking last year about trying to increase our membership – so we can have a bigger bank of people to call on for running workshops / film nights / doing fundraising.
Debbie: A really good way of people supporting us would be for them to join the co-op and pay into it. By people doing that, they get cheaper products and, as Josie said, in return we get an increased bank of skills and money to invest in supporting the community further.
People can join by sending us an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Are there plans for expansion?
Josie: At the moment, the one shop is manageable for us. By expanding it would also be difficult to protect the community we’ve built up – which would be difficult if we were on the street, rather than in the market, here.
What advice would you give to someone looking to set up a similar a business using a similar formula to you?
Josie: Get funding and have a clear structure about what it is you’re wanting to achieve and offer. Also, be flexible to customer and your community’s suggestions and allow your social enterprise to expand accordingly and fit them where possible.
Would you like to nominate a Community Hero?
Josie: I would!! It’s a place called The Brighton Southdowns Recovery College. I went to their open house and really recommend checking it out. It’s a place where people with mental health issues can go and learn to dance, cook, do art. It’s just a brilliant place!
At their open evening I was crying my eyes out, because all these people had made these paintings and pictures that were expressing them as human-beings and it was a big thing for them. The people that run it are amazing and I didn’t even know it was there – it’s a fantastic community project.
Please just click on the button below to email Debbie and find out how you can get involved in this wonderful Co-op.