My friend Tim and I started a vegan food co-op in Southampton called Fruity Nutters around four years ago. We thought that some Vegan Views readers might be interested in setting up a food co-op in their own areas, so here's an explanation of how ours operates.
Goods supplied by Fruity Nutters
These include: dried fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses, grains, cereals, flours, sugars, chocolates, biscuits, cooking oils, condiments, herbs, spices, spreads, canned items, soya products, plant milks, juices, squashes, hot drinks, alcoholic drinks, pet foods, household cleaning and personal hygiene products, water filters, night lights, A4 recycled paper, the Animal Free Shopper, essential oils, and even Vegan Views. If it's vegan, we'll try to get it.
We first approached Essential Trading in Bristol (0117 9583550 www.essential-trading.co.uk) but at the time their policy was to supply only wholefood and healthfood shops. Their reasoning was that co-ops take business away from these shops. But, as Southampton does not have any independent healthfood shops, just Holland & Barrett and GNC, we thought their attitude a little strange.
However, as Suma Wholefoods in Elland (0845 458 2291 www.suma.co.uk) have a good reputation for working with co-ops, and are a co-op themselves, we began by ordering exclusively from them.
About 2 years ago we had a few problems with Suma poor service, lots of products out-of-stock and items supplied that we hadn't ordered. So we looked at other suppliers and found Infinity Foods, another co-op, in Brighton (01273 424060 www.infinityfoods.co.uk). Infinity tend to be cheaper on wholefoods, especially organic ones. We've found their service to be excellent, they haven't let us down yet. Suma, however, supply a much wider range of products, so we still order many items from them. Their service has also improved considerably and they now also give us excellent service.
We are outside the normal delivery area for both Suma and Infinity, so instead of using their own lorries our goods get sent by a commercial carrier. This means we need a higher minimum order to get free delivery £350 for Infinity and £300 for Suma. This causes us no problems as our total order is usually between £2500 and £3000.
If you are looking to start a vegan food co-op it's probably better to use just one supplier to start with. However, once you get a bit bigger it's advantageous to have two or more suppliers. They tend to have different products on special offer and we can also switch any out of stocks at either wholesaler to the other.
Fruit, veg and perishables
It would be nice to offer organic fruit and veg, but they are perishable and have a short 'shelf life'. So to make our lives easier we just direct our members to the organic box schemes available in our area.
Our only real problem is with chilled products. Because we are outside the Suma and Infinity delivery areas and the commercial carriers they use don't use refrigerated lorries, we just can't get items like margarine etc.
Wholesalers sell products in bulk e.g. washing up liquid is sold in boxes of 12. We cannot expect our members to buy such large quantities individually. So, for popular items, Fruity Nutters buys a box but sells the contents individually. We are big enough now to be able to do this. Any items left over get put in our 'Shop' i.e. my kitchen table. When people arrive to collect their orders, many of these items get bought by people who forgot to order them.
We like to encourage people to buy organic goods and our pricing structure reflects this. We add only 5p to the wholesale prices we are charged for organic products, but 5% onto non-organic. We then round up to the higher 10p. This helps to reduce the price difference between organic and non-organic products. The 'profit' pays for our expenses, and any excess goes to good causes.
It's rare for any of our prices to be higher than anywhere else, including supermarkets. Often, our organic prices are less than shop prices for non-organic. Occasionally, a supermarket might better our prices with a special offer, but generally they don't sell the same line that we do. We achieve low prices not only by buying direct from wholesalers, but also because for wholefoods (nuts, seeds, dried fruits, grains, pulses etc) we buy large packs and split them ourselves. Supermarkets charge extortionate prices for putting small amounts into excessive packaging.
We only supply goods that are vegan. Both Suma and Infinity only supply vegetarian goods, and Suma also label all vegan goods in their catalogue. Both suppliers also operate boycotts on certain manufacturers, e.g. Nestlι.
If by now you're thinking of setting up a food co-op, it is important that you know the work involved. The following describes what happens for Fruity Nutters, and may sound daunting, but remember that we are now a very large co-op with around 60 members. Most people would probably run much smaller co-ops, at least to begin with. Also, we get help from two or three of our members at the busiest times.
Producing price lists and order forms. We produce a new price list for our members four times per year. We currently order eight times per year, which works out to be about every six or seven weeks, so the price list lasts for two orders. We tried ordering every month. but this left us with little free time between orders. The price list comprises a double-sided sheet of A4 recycled paper. When we are compiling a new price list, we have to check for price changes by Suma and Infinity (both supply a catalogue), so this can take a few hours. The order form is a double-sided sheet of A5 recycled paper, and rarely changes from order to order. Both are produced on a PC, and are printed then photocopied. We make it clear on the price list that prices can change, so any increases by our wholesalers will be payable by our members when they collect their orders.
Reminding people of the order deadline. To reduce expenses, we don't phone round reminding people of the order deadline (always 6pm on a Sunday). Recently, however, we've started sending e-mail reminders to people who have e-mail, since this costs us nothing.
Receiving people's orders. Out of our 60 members, we usually receive orders from around 50, the remaining 10 skipping that particular order. Their order forms come in with payment we insist on payment at this stage. Most people call round with their orders, but a few send them in by post. We check and correct them, then mark the items ordered on a master control sheet, which automatically collates all the items ordered. All of this takes around 12 hours in total, but spread over several days. Things that cause us problems are bad handwriting, bad maths, and people who turn up an hour before the deadline and don't know what they want. Occasionally, we have people who turn up a week late. Fortunately, we direct them to the 'shop' since at least some of the items that they want to buy may still be available.
Banking money. We tend to bank the payment from members about five times for each order. This probably takes around 1 hour in total.
Ordering from the distributors. We have computerised our ordering system. From the control sheet we enter the number of each product required and the database produces printed orders for both Suma and Infinity. We fax the order though to Infinity on Sunday night and they pick and dispatch it on Monday. We prefer to phone Suma before 9 am on Monday as this ensures they will also dispatch that day, and they also read back our order to make sure they have not made any errors.
Bringing the delivery indoors and checking. The order arrives the next day, Tuesday, usually in the morning 1½ to 2 tons of food on three pallets. Three of us carry this into my house, which takes around half an hour, then we spend about an hour checking that everything that we ordered is there.
Splitting wholefoods. We then spend 3 to 4 hours splitting wholefoods into people's individual orders. We normally buy in large pack sizes for popular items, 12½ kg or 25 kg boxes/sacks, and accept orders for 1kg upwards. Buying in these large sizes keeps our wholefood prices very low and allows us to pass most of the savings onto our members, and to send more money off to good causes. We then phone our members, saying that their orders will be ready for collection from Wednesday afternoon onwards.
Sorting out individual orders. Three or four of us do this on Wednesday from around 9am till 3pm, putting them into boxes and bags.
People collecting orders. People start turning up to collect their orders on late Wednesday afternoon (we do not deliver), and by Friday it's nearly all gone. Some people collect and deliver orders for other people who live near by or who don't have transport. A new order form is put in each order and a new price list if applicable. We also enclose flyers for demo's, bazaars, good causes, etc as a service to our members.
Tax. As we are a formally constituted co-operative, and our rules says that all 'profits' go to good causes, we have no tax problems to deal with. Our turnover is well under the VAT threshold.
Expenses. These include phone calls, printing, paper, photocopying, and bags. To save on expenses we try to get people to return the wholefood bags, but some people don't, so we still have to buy some.
Originally, we used the Portman Building Society, but recently they introduced banking charges so we looked elsewhere. We now use, and would recommend, Unity Trust Bank which was set up by Trade Union and Co-op organisations (0121 631 2743 www.unity.uk.com). They do not charge fees if you're in credit. We always keep at least £200 in the bank in case a cheque should bounce (none have so far) or one doesn't clear in time.
Sending money to Good Causes
So far we have sent £3,050 to good causes. These have included several local animal sanctuaries, our local hunt sab's, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, Plants for a Future, Vegan Organic Trust, and several local and national environmental organisations.
Items that aren't on the price list
If we are asked for an item that's not on our price list, and we can get it from Suma or Infinity, we will order it for them so long as it's vegan of course. Typically, it has to be bought in quantities larger than the member requires, so we will always try to sell some of it for them by putting it in the 'Shop'. If it proves to be popular we will then add it to our price list next time. This means that our price list just reflects the goods our members order.
Other food co-ops spawned by Fruity Nutters
Some people who have moved out of the area have quizzed us about starting up a co-op in their new area. We're not sure what has become of these, but we believe that one in Oxford got started and is still going. If you would like any advice on starting up your own co-op in your area we will try to help. You can contact us at email@example.com or 023 8063 6080.
Taking it further?
People often ask us if we've ever thought of turning Fruity Nutters into a shop with its own commercial premises. Yes, we've thought about it, but neither of us wants a full time job. Our co-op does involve quite a bit of our time but when you add it all up it's only a few days every 6 or 7 weeks. What's more, if it were a shop, there would be overheads rent, business rates, staff wages so prices would have to go up. The whole reason for setting up a food co-op is to purchase good foods cheaply.
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