Belfast Food Co-op
A journey through Northern Irish Co-ops . . .
1 Why did you choose to become a coop?
We chose the Co-operative model because it puts decision-making into the hands of its members being them our customers, our employees and our suppliers.
Following the seven Co-operative principles, being a Co-op promotes values that enable us to grow as a healthy, sustainable enterprise, supporting and supported by our members and a network of like-minded organizations.
The co-op model was also a good choice because we create opportunities for our members to actively participate in the day-to-day operations – this is our answer to bringing affordable and ethical food into every home.
Belfast Food Co-op takes out the middleman and offers affordable, organic, eco-conscious products, which are both accessible and low waste.
2 What type of coop are you?
We are a multi-stakeholder co-operative. As such we were able to define membership to fit the various stakeholders: customers, suppliers and also, potentially in the future – staff.
3 What business are you in?
We retail and promote food and household goods that are ethically produced at an affordable price.
As a business we run two main types of activities:
- A retail pop-up shop which we open weekly for members and non-members in the Macrory Centre in Duncairn Gardens in North Belfast.
- A bulk-order service which we manage and administer for our members. This service allows our members to benefit from bulk-buying price while reducing packaging and increasing their access to organic and healthy food.
We are born out of a Suma buying group but we quickly saw the opportunity to increase the offer of local products to our members and build working relationship with local suppliers. We support now the work of at least NUMBER local businesses.
By working closely with other local co-operatives, we were also able to provide a one-stop collecting-selling point to our members.
4 In you opinion, what are the main benefits of being a coop?
It’s all about members!
- Members take part in the decision-making, bringing richer and stronger values to the enterprise.
- Members support the co-op’s operations and help to make our goods accessible to the wider public
- Members are also part of a larger network of businesses and organizations that mutually support each other.
5 Who are the co-op members? How do they benefit from the coop?
Our members are primarily our customers – either from the retail shop or from the bulk order service. In both cases, they join us because we provide a good and timely service to them at an affordable price.
Our range is diverse including both edible and cosmetic products. We stock artisan baked goods, freshly milled flour from outlets such as Dove and Dunany, spices, grains, pulses, rice, cocoa, spreads, chutneys, in-season organic vegetables, Shorespore mushrooms, honey and preserves.
We also offer locally produced toothpaste, Green Ladies natural deodorant, Ayurvedic skincare, Ecoleaf toilet tissue and Ecover washing up liquid.
We also offer an online click and collect service. https://www.openfoodnetwork.org.uk/belfast-food-co-op/shop
We encourage our members to be involved in the life of the Belfast Food Co-op (BFC). This is not only to help the enterprise grow, but an opportunity for them to learn new skills, from sitting on the BFC board, getting in touch with suppliers or helping man the stall at the pop-up shop.
We encourage our suppliers such as Sporeshore Mushrooms, other local co-ops, Green Ladies, Dove and Dunany, to join the BFC as all members have a voice in the decision-making of the Co-op and help shape it according to the values of the co-operative.
6 How does the coop benefit the community?
Belfast Food Co-op has already developed a significant number of connections with the local community. During the first Covid-19 lockdown we were able to contribute healthy and organic food to a local food bank and we did this by raising some money from our members. We all believed that food parcels should not compromise on the quality of the food offered.
We strongly believe that healthy food should be accessible to all.
Being involved with the co-op as a volunteer will also help many to enjoy healthy social activities and develop new skills outside their usual work roles – the “Nordic way”!
7 What goals/aspirations did/do you have for your coop?
We want to grow from a “pop-up” stall into an established shop where our members can access healthy and nutritious food all the time. We also want to reduce the distance between producers and consumers and build our awareness of the impact we have on the environment around us.
We are encouraging many ideas and projects from our members since we believe that members are the centre of our co-op.
8 What are/have been the main challenges to become a coop? How do/did you respond?
Our founding members all have a job, a family and personal commitments.
The co-operative is a formal enterprise, which requires skills and knowledge in domains that are mostly new to us and lots of dedicated time.
Our aim is to build the foundation of an enduring enterprise run by its members. We have learnt not to walk before we can run, and spend time building strong foundations.
9 What support did you get along the way?
Co-operative Alternatives, the local development body, has provided invaluable help in keeping the steering group focused and helping to make the right choices for our enterprise. Co-operative Alternatives involvement was funded by Belfast City Council though the Go Social programme and did not cost us anything.
Our project would be non-existent without the inspiration of other local Co-operatives, which has been supporting us from the very early stages.
We have also had many inspiring discussions with the Dublin Food Co-op that have been very generous with their advice and time to us along the way.
10 What advice would you give to others considering starting a coop?
Build a network and seek help from established local co-operative development bodies like Co-operative Alternatives and get connected to the wider co-operative movement with Co-operatives UK, people, co-operatives and other enterprises are very willing to help new Co-ops!
11 What do you think is the future of the coop sector in Northern Ireland?
We are seeing many businesses embracing social and ethical values and we know that publicly stated ethical commitments add value to businesses in the eyes of their own staff, the public and other businesses.
However, we believe that co-operatives are a great way to embed those social and ethical principles from the outset and we believe this will become a more popular model.