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.