The coronavirus lockdown turned life upside down for many small businesses. But the unusual circumstances gave the Village Greengrocers in Charlton a much-needed boost. LANCE BOHL found out more.
Originally from Kathmandu, Bardan Pradhan gained an MA in business administration before taking jobs as diverse as a smartphone area development manager for a Japanese conglomerate and as a tutor in economics. He also co-owned Philly Boys Cheese Steaks, which sold fast food at Camden Market, London Zoo and music festivals. “Although I worked with red meat for about six years I’ve never really eaten it myself,” he says.
“I always knew that I wanted to do something on my own, and decided that I wanted to make a definite move away from that area and focus on enabling people to eat healthily and sustainably. And that’s how I came to be involved with the shop.”
When The Village Greengrocers came up for sale in 2017, Bardan jumped at the chance. Although it was a traditional greengrocer, its main focus was supplying pubs and restaurants with the shop run very much as a sideline. The first thing he did was to reposition it as an organic grocery store with not just fresh vegetables but also bread, dried fruits and honey. “I started selling only good quality, sustainable, foods from local suppliers. If air miles had to be involved, I wanted them as low as possible.”
Although 2019 was a very difficult year, lockdown actually helped the shop not just grow, but thrive. It was the first shop in Charlton Village to introduce a distanced queuing system and also restrict the number of people in-store, before lockdown came into effect.
“This made our customers – and staff – feel much safer and more comfortable when shopping during lockdown,” Bardan says. “The personal service my customers received made a huge difference to them. There was a definite shift away from large supermarkets in the retail parks, which had huge queues and staff who could be quite rude to people.”
People suddenly found their choice of places to shop had reduced dramatically. The vast majority of stores were closed and The Village Greengrocers was one of only two shops in Charlton Village which were open. People still needed to buy food, but had fewer places to buy it from.
“Our customer numbers increased hugely and, because we only sell food, it meant our queues were relatively short – so the shop was more convenient to use. Plus we opened regularly from 9am until 3pm every day of lockdown, whereas other shops varied their hours significantly, with no notice.”
People started to stockpile – not just toilet roll, but even fruit and vegetables, sometimes buying as much as two or three weeks’ supply at once. This meant that staples, such as potatoes and carrots, became very hard to source at a supplier level. “My main problem suddenly became getting hold of enough stock for the shop. Luckily, I’d built up a good reputation over the years with traders and porters at the wholesale market which stood me in good stead. But it was a difficult time.”
Before lockdown, almost half Bardan’s stock came from major organic suppliers. After March, these suppliers experienced vastly increased demand from their larger customers and smaller independent shops such as The Village Greengrocers were unable to get deliveries. “I quickly found local producers who were more than happy to supply me with fine quality artisan bread, pastas, cheese, poultry and dairy, Kentish eggs as well as fruit and vegetables. What’s more, I trust them and they’re reliable. These relationships work really well and the shop’s now got a whole new network of local suppliers.”
A government small business grant and council rent relief meant the shop could invest in more stock and hire a fourth full-time staff member, helping Bardan concentrate on getting stock in.
Home deliveries of fruit and vegetable boxes have helped keep vulnerable people going while shielding. Many were unable to get a delivery slot from the major supermarkets, and this personal service has been rewarded by customers staying loyal to the shop. “I’m expanding our delivery service with locally-produced bread, milk and eggs,” says Bardan. “The next step is to finalise and launch the online store. Our customers will be able to select from a range of pre-set boxes, which they can customise if they want. At the moment they create a list and send it by email, which is quite time-consuming.”
Bardan also plans to cut the shop’s impact on the environment by making 30 currently pre-packed goods – including rice, greens, dried goods, coffee and pastas – available loose from dispensers. He is passionate about the idea. “By dispensing with the individual packaging, customers will be able to bring their own bags and get the same quality but at a much lower price and in a more environmentally friendly way.”
Publicity including coverage in Metro and American Express’s Shop Small campaign has also helped, with the shop regularly updating its social media accounts.
“I think lockdown has completely changed people’s eating habits,” says Bardan. “Fast food chains were closed for a long time and this, along with home working, meant people started to prepare and cook food themselves. Also, they are focused on building up their immune system and the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables is now much greater than ever before.
“I really think the four of us make a great team. We’re in a very good position, and we’ll continue to serve the local community we supported during the difficult time of lockdown.”
The Village Greengrocers can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
LANCE BOHL lives in Charlton and is an internal communications contractor.
This was originally published on our sister site, The Charlton Champion. It is one of a series of stories about how SE London’s communities have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic. See all the stories published so far.
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