A nation of food-shopping-lovers

Supermarket cafes: Not usually that great.

For many years the UK’s major supermarkets worked hard to convince people shopping for food was a massive chore while there were so many more interesting things they could do with their time.

To support their argument, they created sterile environments and put elements in place to ensure customers would be in and out of their enormous superstores as quickly as possible. That is why their cafes have always been a massive disappointment. For these purveyors of food to have presented food so badly in their in-store eateries has always shocked me.

They are now realising their argument was flawed. The reality is many people in the UK enjoy food shopping, with the rise of farmers’ markets, the new breed of delicatessens, street food markets, and new craft and artisan food and drink producers as proof. The major supermarkets have ultimately failed to fully quash British consumers’ underlying love of food and drink shopping.

We have arguably moved into the domain of some of our European cousins. The Spanish and Italians, for instance, have always retained their links to food in a way we lost years ago. We should be thankful, therefore, we have had the likes of the Roux family, Raymond Blanc, Antonio Carluccio, Giorgio Locatelli and José Pizarro (to name a few off the top of my head) who have made the UK their home and played major roles in promoting the philosophy of “living to eat” rather than “eating to live”. We should be grateful for their efforts over many years.

It is in this tradition that Andrea Rasca has put down roots in the UK, opening Mercato Metropolitano in south London in 2016 to promote what he describes as a “healthy and sustainable community food market with an Italian soul”.

Mercato Metropolitano

The 4,500 square metre site focuses on artisans and local producers who take space within the market and pay a sales-related rental fee. The market also raises awareness of sustainability through its on-site farm, cookery lessons and a cultural programme of films, exhibitions and events that involve the local community.

This latter aspect is possible thanks to Rasca’s decision not to configure the business solely to maximise profits. He admits this philosophy has been tough to hold on to as it would have been much easier to do deals with the likes of Coca-Cola and other big brands but this would have diverted him from his long-term plan to build a business that is profitable but maintains sustainable and ethical principles.

Cookery classes at Mercato Metropolitano

Having attracted three million people during the past two years who spend an average of 192 minutes in the market and with healthy profits flowing through, Rasca says the concept is proven. This has led to interest in Mercato Metropolitano-type propositions being developed elsewhere, with three projects set to open in the next 12 months.

Mercato Mayfair will be first, with a market created as part of the Grosvenor Estates’ £5m restoration of St Mark’s church. With 300 square metres given over to community classes, music and readings, Rasca says it was made clear to developers this was not solely about profit. He says: “We talked about our values and the expected rent. When they gave me the figure I told them they needed to talk to Tiffany & Co – I sell aubergines – but we came to an agreement.”

St Marks Church: Mercato Metropolitano will play a part in the building’s rebirth

The second market will be part of a new development in Ilford funded by the Greater London Authority, which will see Mercato Metropolitano given funds to replicate the regeneration work it delivered in Elephant and Castle at an area nine miles east of central London. The 2,500 square metres of trading space will be complemented by a hydroponics set-up that will allow the market to grow vegetables and herbs. This will form part of what Rasca calls a “circular economy market”. Thirdly, Elephant Park will launch in Elephant and Castle involving plenty of production alongside retailing and community activities.

There is clearly much to be learnt from these new ways of dealing with food, which will ultimately feed not only into the way major supermarkets operate but also mainstream food and beverage operators because it is becoming abundantly clear we are a nation that has a deep love of food.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.