Islington in London is home to dozens of independent food businesses with a loyal following among the area’s residents. Butchers, delicatessens and cheesemongers thrive there and Ottolenghi, the bakery and restaurant, has its flagship store in Islington making and selling patisserie, including its best-sellers, passion fruit meringue tart and lemon mascarpone tart.
In January this year, Hubbub, an online local food delivery scheme was launched in Islington by businesswoman Marisa Leaf to target consumers eager to buy from local shops, but wanting the convenience of online shopping.
The website takes orders from local residents and Leaf’s drivers collect the products from businesses such as Ottolenghi and deliver them to homes around Islington. "The principle behind the business is to support as many independent shops as possible," says Leaf. "When we talk about the delivery area, we’re really talking hyper-local, like a two-mile radius. What I really want to do is to be supporting as many local independent businesses as possible, so that is why we keep the area tight. We take a commission on sales and that is why it is so important that we bring in new business to the shops."
Basia Murphy, general manager of Ottolenghi in Islington, says the orders are small, typically under 10 tarts or cakes per day, but supporting a community-based business is important.
The scheme is just one of many local food operations around the country, all run in different ways, with the aim of increasing the market for local food businesses.
Local food boom
According to market analyst IGD, the proportion of consumers specifically seeking out local foods has grown from 15% to 30% in the past five years. The opportunity for online businesses is also growing. IGD forecasts that we will spend £7.2bn on food and grocery shopping online by 2014 nearly double the figure for 2009. In 2009, 13% of adults shopped online for groceries an increase of 63% on 2006.
Ian Thomson, who runs Thomsons bakery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is enthusiastic about the potential of local food schemes to boost the trade of independent bakers. He is a supplier to an online local food website Foodlocalfood.com, which, like Hubbub, delivers to consumers who place online orders. "Foodlocalfood aims to collect the best of artisan food and deliver it to anyone who wants it," says Thomson. "Basically they just put in an order to us and collect it, and then redistribute it to whoever wants it. That enables us to sell to people whom we would never be able to reach." He produces specia-list products such as oat breads, Newcastle brown ale bread and Geordie stotties. As well as local people, there is also a good trade with holiday cottages in the area, he adds.
Thomson says the orders are often small, but there are additional benefits that make being part of the scheme worthwhile. "I’m quite old-fashioned in that we find promoting our business very hard. And when we can only deliver locally, it can be quite expensive for very little return. If we deliver via foodlocalfood.com, it gets our name out there. We are reaching people we could never have reached and they think, ’We’ll go to Thomsons and see what else they’ve got’. The orders might be small but it is invaluable as far as publicity is concerned."
The logistics are also easy, he says: "They come and collect the bread and distribute it themselves. We also get a much larger percentage margin than if we were selling to the supermarkets."
Some larger box schemes also require the services of a baker. The Authentic Bread Company, for example, is the main bakery supplier to box scheme company Abel & Cole.
Abel & Cole has national distribution, so it is different from local food schemes, but, in some ways, the experiences of Authentic’s MD Alan Davis are similar to bakers looking to gain additional trade through local food schemes. He says it’s very convenient. "It is much easier to supply box schemes than shops," he says. "We have a full van every day and as regards food miles, we have to do a lot less. We deliver into Abel & Cole and they trunk it to their departments."
There are other inspiring local food schemes based on selling more high-quality bread from around the country. In Oxford, a local bread group has been formed to make bread from local wheat and sell it to subscribers in the city. According to Andrew Whitley, founder of the Real Bread campaign, the Oxford bread group is truly innovative. The scheme has gone back to basics, growing ’heritage varieties’ of grains that are milled locally then baked in the area too, he says. The bread is distributed to subscribers in Oxford, who sign up to a system so they get one loaf or two loaves a week and they go and pick them up from a distribution point in the town.
"Delivery is very quick for the baker, because he just drops them off at a dozen or so places around the town and then people collect their loaves from their neighbour who acts as a drop-off point," says Whitley. "It is an integrated operation, because it goes from the grain through to the final loaf in the local area." Around 200 people subscribe, he says.
Whitley also cites a separate scheme in Fife, where hundreds of locals have signed up to the ’Fife diet’ and have committed to eating as much food as possible from within the ’kingdom of Fife’. Whitley says there are plans to set up a bakery in Fife to serve those committed to a local diet.
Beware the pitfalls
Despite enthusiasm from schemes around the country, as with all innovative, independent businesses, the failure rate is high. Own Online, a Devon online local food scheme that claimed consumers could buy their full weekly shop from producers in the area, went bust last year after overstretching itself and being too ambitious. It had claimed it would be the Ocado of the south west.
It is clear the recession has also affected Abel & Cole. The company made a loss of £27m in its last full year and, in September 2009, it started to sell non-organic produce for the first time in a bid to capture more price-sensitive consumers.
The key to success appears to be making the model scalable. Leaf of Hubbub says it is "not really viable for any one business to do its own deliveries and develop and manage a website and run a van and pay a driver; it is just prohibitive, so it is all around scale for us."
She is planning to launch other Hubbub schemes next year, initially in other areas of London. "We are still in our first delivery area, but the plan is to roll out to lots of other delivery areas in London and eventually the rest of the UK. However, we’re not ready yet. The model has got to be watertight before we do that or there is a risk that you could compromise the integrity of the business," she says.
The future is uncertain. Yet Whitley is optimistic. "I expect local food schemes to grow considerably in the next few years, because they have that community cohesion aspect that will become more important as prices and availability become tighter with the current economic situation."
People will want more for their money, and that doesn’t mean buying at the lowest possible price."
Murphy also has a positive vision of the future. "I would like to think that local food schemes have a strong future and would want people to think of Hubbub before they go to Waitrose online."
Local food schemes
Launched in January 2010, Hubbub’s website allows consumers within a two-mile radius to order groceries from local independents
Abel & Cole
One of the first organic box schemes, Abel & Cole delivers a range of fresh produce, bread and meat to consu-mers’ doorsteps
Food Local Food
A local delivery service covering the north east, which claims to provide a true alternative to supermarkets
Brings together food producers from across Kent, including Plaxtol Bakery
We Love Local Food
Exeter-based service with artisan flours from Clyston Mill and bakery Emma’s Bread
Love Local Food
Norfolk and Suffolk website featuring breads from Dozen Artisan Bakery