There’s a secretly vegan supermarket on the outskirts of Manchester doing everything Whole Foods wishes it could.
“Morrissey’s a big fan of the fennel toothpaste and J Mascis has dehydrated kale picked up for him when he plays in Manchester. We get a lot of people stocking up for riders, actually.”
I’m talking shop with Dan Holden, one of over 50 members of a vegan, co-operative and 100 per cent organic grocery store called Unicorn. Father John Misty makes pre-show stops for dinner and Morrissey stocks up on essentials the staff assume are for his Mum. People get eco-conscious about using the ‘car park of shame’ to travel there and don’t even get them started on last year’s quinoa fracas. Welcome to Unicorn, the non-mythical creature here to save our screwed up food industry.
I remember my first trip into Whole Foods Market. Intimidated by the Flag Building scale, endless wicker baskets full of purple tortilla chips and Fiji water shrines upstairs, I caught the escalators down to the basement- to hot plates full of umami-ridden macaroni cheese and pyramids of ostrich eggs. My basket swung empty, my arms increasingly limp at every turn of the aisle- there was nothing for me here. It was 2010 so peak nut milk was still a way off, but I was well aware of the futility of spending my money in a place I so obviously couldn't afford.
The problem is that Whole Foods seems to know exactly what it’s doing. It’s both aspirational and unattainable. Even now as a vegan, I’ve taught myself to only go in when there’s really no other option- it’s a smash and grab and I’m out the door with the seitan stash before I can even consider why Vogue is on sale next to rainforest hummus. For a long time I thought this was the only way shopping for wholefoods post Y2K could be. For that long time I was wrong.
Catch the Metrolink twelve minutes out of Manchester and you arrive in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, or Chorlton, as it’s known by people that also can’t say Cockfosters. Locally, it’s fondly mocked for its yurt parties, semi-lazily described as “a more suburban Dalston” (having spent plenty of time in both I can say the only likeliness is how much people bitch about it), and status as the ‘vegan capital of the North West’. The shorthand for this is the hashtag #OnlyInChorlton, which seems to have the same self-reflexive awareness of calling your new neighbour a hipster or moaning about all the (incredibly convenient) Antipodean coffee shops that have opened up on the high street. From what I can discern, people are just too self conscious to admit that Chorlton is a meat free Mecca, and at the centre, there is Unicorn.
Unicorn is the only entirely vegan supermarket I’ve heard of in the UK, but instead of blasting this out on every hemp bag and wayward trolley assigned to the canal, it’s subtle A.F. This means card-carrying meat eaters will merrily stock up on hummus without realising they won’t find any bacon in the cold meat section. It means reviews online will happily natter away about the many reasons they do their weekly shop at Unicorn, before adding, as an after thought, that they do find it strange you can never pick up milk, and that “it doesn't sell much dairy produce”. Would Unicorn be making the bustling trade it is were it ‘go public’ about its vegan status? Nah mate. Should it?
“I think one of the big barriers to veggie or organic food for a lot of people is how it’s marketed by the supermarkets,” Dan explains, grabbing five minutes between breaking down cardboard boxes to talk to me.
“To them organic is synonymous with luxury, and meat-free or dairy-free foods are a niche specialist market. So they whack on a big premium which puts people off. It’s probably to make up for the other ‘everyday’ stuff they sell at a loss. Actually being good value is far less important to them than the perception of being cheap.”
It’s these assumptions that Whole Foods, with its ‘Are you hungry for better?’ tagline, also uses to its benefit. We’ve been trained to think things like tofu, tahini and coconut milkshakes need to be expensive. Apparently not so much.
“At Unicorn, the price we sell things for actually bears some relation to how much it cost us to buy it and therefore how much it cost to make or grow. I saw in a trade magazine that Aldi had the cheapest avocados of any supermarket last week, £1.49 for two. Ours were 22p each when I last looked. If you asked someone in the street where was cheaper, they’re going to say Aldi. If you’re on a low income food is one of the few things you can actually have much control over how much you spend, so people are really eager for a bargain.”
I ask Dan if he thinks it’s price, in general, that puts people off choosing vegetarian, vegan or just a more plant-based diet.
“Some wholefood or health food shops fall into the same trap of trying to be too ‘premium’ or niche which puts a lot of people off. We buy in large quantities - our warehouse is the same size as our shop floor space- so we can get bulk discounts and pass the saving on. Not many other wholefood or vegetarian and vegan places do that. I dont know why the model hasn’t caught on more.”
I don’t either, but with Unicorn’s sales steadily rising for the past few years, I’m fascinated to find out why. To help explain Unicorn’s success, it’s useful to zoom out a bit. It’s a funny old time to be in the supermarket trade. Tesco just suffered one of its worst financial years in living memory, and is currently clinging on to its lowest share of the market in a decade. Morrisons (the UK’s fourth largest supermarket) just ousted its chief executive last month, while Ocado, founded in 2000 and long the underdog of the grocery race, announced its first full year annual profit in February.
Organic food sales are on the rise again for the first time since the recession and alternative and free-from foods are growing at an extraordinary rate, with free-from foods fuelling a market worth up to £238 million. For the first time since most of us could read, there’s a change in order taking place when ten years ago no-one would have dared challenge the status quo of Every Little Helps. There’s a switch up in how we shop and prioritise food, and it seems Unicorn has found that sweet spot.
According to John Atherton, membership officer at Co-operatives UK, it’s all down to knowing your onions: “Despite operating in a highly competitive market, Unicorn has grown from just a few workers to 50. The people know their business and do it very well. And because all the staff at Unicorn own and control the business, and get a flat wage, there is a degree of enthusiasm and motivation rarely found in retail. Those who work at Unicorn care and are passionate about the business, which is why productivity is so high. Unicorn is an extremely successful worker co-op retailer and as soon as you enter the store it’s easy to see why.”
It’s cheap, it’s transparent and it’s got its priorities in order. Unicorn is on its way to achieving everything you’d imagine Whole Foods wishes it could in the UK, minus those extortionate pay-per-weight salad boxes and mineral water places of worship. While Whole Foods managed to cut its losses in half last year, its reputation for being expensive, only focusing on stores in cities and some somewhat hazy policies as to what it actually stocks on its shelves mean it’s often hard to discern exactly what Whole Food’s USP is, apart from selling the stuff you can never find at a price you can’t afford. Unicorn, in that sense, provides the total opposite.
Yet I can’t help but feel like Unicorn could make itself known as a clearer alternative. I ask Dan if the omission of any claims to be an 100 per cent vegan supermarket was a conscious decision:
“It’s exactly what we’ve tried to do. You put off far more people than you stand to attract by getting in their faces with veganism or other ethical labels, much better to attract people who might be a bit sceptical and show them the great variety of animal-free and more ethically-sourced foods available, than preach to the converted. We’ve got lots of information available in the shop and on the website but we don’t push anything on anyone.”
What about the emergence of the Detox Pound? That has to be good for business, right?
“Unicorn’s always been wary of anything claiming to be a ‘superfood’ or have ‘health giving’ properties. We’re grocers, not medical professionals. We’ve avoided selling stuff like chia seeds, coconut water and goji berries for this reason. There’s so much spurious information out there about ‘detox’ diets and eating weird foods to ‘burn fat’ especially online. All those clickbait ‘doctors hate this one weird trick a mom discovered’ adverts you see- they’re not our thing at all.”
Dan hadn’t heard of the clean food movement until I asked him about it, but he says it can all go the same way: “I think the idea of promoting a particular lifestyle with a list of ‘rules’ just rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, you seem a bit holier-than-thou which is the last thing a wholefood shop or vegan supermarket needs to do.”
I ask Dan if there’s any plans to spread the Unicorn gospel further afield. You know, maybe London? Any Unicorn Metros on the horizon?
“We’d rather other people were inspired to do the same thing where they are, and we actually wrote a pretty in-depth guide to replicating a Unicorn Grocery-style shop. We’ve just built a new bigger kitchen so we can make more fresh products in-house. We already use up vegetables that won’t keep for much longer in soups and salads for our deli counter, which really cuts down on food waste, but there’s scope for doing more. We want to continue to support local organic farmers and growers, we also own 21 acres of organic farmland 14 miles away near Leigh to supply the shop.”
For all our 80,000 sq ft Whole Foods and cold press juice bars, it’s crazy that Unicorn remains such a one-off. Dan lists a load of reasons as to why London isn’t suitable for them- mainly that they wouldn’t be able to afford a car park with the rents being so high, but there’s more to it than that. While I can’t help but think Unicorn could be saying more - arguably there’s never been a better time to be a better version of Whole Foods- I can also see the benefit of avoiding alienating anyone. After all, plenty of vegans use the term as a shorthand for a range of beliefs- it’s just the closest fit. Perhaps the best thing about Unicorn is that it doesn’t need to compromise.
Big thanks to Dan Holden at Unicorn and Co-operatives UK for their time in putting together this piece.