Real shopping revival

Most of us have a crusade or two in this life: Subjects we feel really strongly about and which make our eyes widen and our breath quicken whenever we think about them.

But Susanna Atkins has at least six crusades she feels passionately about, and possibly a couple more she is keeping in reserve.

At the top of her list is the sterility of supermarkets and the food they stock, not to mention the surfeit of packaging that disconnects consumers from the source of their food rather than bringing the two together.

Close behind is the daft way we buy food from the other side of the planet, when an identical (or better) product is often available just down the road.

Not to mention the available-all-year syndrome that means we have no idea what is in season and when.

And the way we have all helped to kill off any feelings of community by driving to vast, distant supermarkets where we shop in air-conditioned, silent anonymity.

But while most of us just rail and rant about such things, Susanna has acted.

She had already had a taste of the retail world, thanks to her family’s farm shop and running a caf in nearby Whitstable.

But when an old goods shed at Canterbury West station came on the market for 100,000 she saw a chance to create something altogether more unusual.

This grand industrial building was refurbished for 250,000 and opened as Britain’s first full-time indoor farmers’ market in August 2002.

It was a great concept, retaining the meet-the-producer benefits of a farmers’ market, but with normal shop opening hours.

It would be just like the best aspects of 1950s-style shopping, like bumping into your friends and neighbours, chatting with the stallholder – and all under cover.

The food was as local as Susanna could possibly make it, some coming from just down the road.

Except that there was a flaw.

“We realised that for it to be worthwhile for a farmer to man a stall, he would have to sell 300-worth of produce every day, which many of the stallholders weren’t,” she says.

So instead she employed knowledgeable staff and the farmers brought in their produce.

The till has a button for each producer, so they know exactly how much money is due to each supplier at the end of the day.

And – amazingly in this buyer-dominated world – the farmers set their own prices.

In fact for most foods they get 80% of the selling price.

Step into the Goods Shed on a cold, damp winter day and you pass back in time to a warm, friendly, informal place.

Vegetables are piled high along a central counter, while around are arrayed a meat counter with a full-time butcher, British cheese counter, fish stall, a bakery where bread is baked the slow way, a kitchen where ready meals and puddings are prepared and a small area selling pasta and provisions and local beer.

Up on a mezzanine, the restaurant turns out traditional British food made entirely of the fresh produce down in the farmers’ market.

With a turnover last year of 2m, a waiting list of farmers wanting to sell there and a loyal clientele from all walks of life, it sounds like dream come true for Susanna.

Maybe so, but she has bigger targets in her sights.

She would like to see more places like the Goods Shed set up around the country, for a start.

And she sees no reason why this sort of locally-produced food should not be available to schools, caterers and hospitals.

But there is the small matter of bureaucratic inertia to overcome first.

“I do get cross about it.

The powers that be make the right noises and promise all sorts of things, but then nothing happens.

We are hoping we can start supplying a local school, though.”

She is keen not be seen as too holier than thou about all this.

“I’m not a foodie really, and I do occasionally go to a supermarket and buy ready-meals.

Really, all I want to do is provide local, fresh, good-value food for local people and plough some money back into the local economy.”

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