Can “big food” companies help chart a fresh future for food retail? Or are supermarkets always bad?
“Burger chain” and “supermarket” are not words that usually come top of the story list at Monocle. But they did this month. We have always been proud champions of the small-scale, of individual traders and the local, but there are now some “big food” names who are also charting out a fresher future for food retail and creating surprising business models in the process. Take Japan’s Mos Burger which has 1,393 outlets in Japan and 261 overseas. It’s a burger chain. Yet look at some of the elements that make it a success and you could be talking about a niche food brand: it sources its vegetables from family-owned farms; it buys beef from hormone-free cattle that graze on green Australian grass and, if you visit its website, you can see every ingredient that goes into every product.
Or how about Denmark’s Irma supermarket group, which is determined to support Nordic producers, or Austria’s MPreis that’s grown into a 200-shop supermarket business by championing contemporary architecture. These are just a few of the firms that appear in our survey on the future of food retail (page 83).
Of course, it’s not just the major players that have all the vision. We also look at how small-scale food businesses can help regenerate neighbourhoods with visits to London’s Bermondsey markets and Save on Meats in Vancouver, whose revival has helped anchor a deprived neighbourhood. Good food can make people proud of where they live.
You’ll also discover who the supermarket sheikhs of the Middle East are; how fashion retail inspired a booming juice company; how Shanghai became the testing ground for the latest grocery store technology and why the Italians design the best food shops in the world.
It’s not all good news. On our frequent visits to Australia we have often wondered how a nation that has one of the best restaurant cultures in the world has some of the most boring supermarkets: Coles is like a 1970s throwback.
Yet at the heart of the story is the recognition that our relationship with food retailers is more complex now than ever before. Take the UK, where there are regular campaigns against the likes of Tesco or Starbucks opening on high streets. Tesco has some 30 per cent of the UK grocery market and attracts the ire of people who say it crushes local traders, as well as environmental campaigners who believe it’s the devil in disguise. Look online and you’ll find page after page from irate anti-Tescoites.
Now look at how many campaigns there are opposing the opening of a new Waitrose (clue: you’ll be hard-pressed to find any). Perhaps it’s not the concept of the supermarket that provokes protest but simply how it uses its influence. Waitrose, which is run as a “partnership” (ie a workers’ co-operative), gets off to a good PR start even before you walk through the door. Then there’s the fact that it’s always been a pioneer of organic food and, despite being a key brand, has just 4 per cent of the market. It’s a mom-and-pop operation in comparison to Tesco.
It’s encouraging to see so much best practice from major players such as Waitrose on display in our survey. Løgismose – Denmark’s leading luxury food retailer, with everything from an organic dairy farm to a Michelin-starred restaurant – is now also supplying up to 30 lines to the discount retailer Netto. Løgismose’s Christian Grønlykke insists that it has not compromised on taste, nor, perhaps more importantly, on being transparent about where everything comes from.
So walk the aisles of Monocle and fill your trolley with our smart food survey, but also leave space this month for our reports on the new generation of diplomats; the start-up entrepreneurs hoping for a business revolution in Egypt, and the pioneers behind South Korea’s golf obsession. We’ll meet you back at the checkouts.