Unicorn follows on from a model devised by Roger Sawtell in the 1980s and used first at Daily Bread Co-op, Northampton. Essentially the model revolves around direct, often bulk purchasing of wholesome foods, on-site processing and competitive margins and pricing. This is all run by motivated owner/members following a clear social agenda.
In September 1996 saw Unicorn’s two year preparation crystalise into a busy first day's trading. A two person working group had swelled as we approached finding premises, reaching six by opening day.
Preparations had been carried out with a backdrop of dire warnings of possible bankruptcy and general incomprehension at the plan, but support from the Co-operative & Community Finance Team and other friendly backers outweighed the sceptics at the banks. Sales grew quicker than our cautious forecasting and we were quickly recruiting again, reaching ten members by the end of the first trading year. Steady growth was matched by the amount of slog done by sometimes very weary members, but early sacrifice laid solid foundations for the future and we’ve never looked back.
Since the early days, much has changed. We’re several times the size we were, in 2003 buying the building we had previously rented just a part of. Our purchase of the site was forced by imminent sale to prospectors but with the loyalty of Unicorn customers £350,000 of loanstock bonds were sold, crucial to our financing. We are now the proud owners of a 10,000ft² site. This has allowed us to develop the site, adding solar panels in 2005 and a rooftop pond and wildlife garden in 2007. Our most recent addition is a large kitchen, where we make fresh 'ready to go' food for the shop.
Commercial success has taken our members’ numbers way beyond the ‘human sized’ group sought originally. 2004/5 saw particularly rapid growth in sales, as have the years from 2011 to the present, way beyond anything we could have predicted. Reacting to demand we have continued to find more quality products to sell and squeezed more into our now crammed storage space.
Despite what’s changed, the model remains a precious tool to challenge the orthodoxy of multiples with their high transport miles, out of town storage, supplier frustration and demoralised staff. Whilst our offer is popular with our catchment area, much of the UK has sadly limited choice. Supermarket domination of a highly skewed market continues and cheap food thinking post-1945 has degenerated further into an almost impossible situation for many primary producers. As multiples drive prices down, consumers lose understanding of how much a product costs to be produced.
The original Rochdale Pioneers were reacting to harsh market realities and co-operative grocery may well have some relevance yet. Our Statement of Purpose, sets out clearly what we stand for - the challenge is to run a business which can turn ideas into reality. By conventional standards we have achieved a lot, and we are proud of the business we own and run. For others who feel the same we have produced a Grow a Grocery guide to help them do something similar.
Check out our photo gallery from opening day to the present to see how much Unicorn has grown and developed.
Roger Sawtell is
a former chair of ICOM. Roger has written at length on co-operative
structure and employee participation. ICOM is the Industrial Common
Ownership Movement Limited, a non-profit membership organisation promoting
and representing democratic employee owned businesses throughout the UK. See his very informative Blueprint for 50 Co-ops and Co-operative & Community Finance for more details.
Daily Bread is a workers co-operative.
There are now two Daily Breads, one in Northampton and
one in Cambridge. These are separate companies but have both
grown from the same vision of putting 'people before profit'.
If you can visit Daily Bread, otherwise find out more at
Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming,
campaigns and educates on a wide range of food issues, promoting food and
agriculture practices that are healthy for people and planet. Its website
includes a wealth of information on everything from food marketing to
kids, to protecting ancient orchards, to sustainable curries! It's well
worth a look.
Please read more about our Statement
of Purpose on our principles page.