I recently wrote about my involvement in trying to establish a community-owned ecology park and a community-owned microbrewery. In these projects, I’m working collaboratively with others, aiming to get each project into a position where we can raise investment and employ an experienced manager to drive the project forward. I see my involvement as helping move the project to this point and thereafter, my aim is to continue as an engaged member, hopefully enjoying some locally brewed beer, looking out over a beautiful ecology park abundant in wildlife, and picking up ingredients for my dinner from a shop that cares deeply about the provenance of its food.
From personal experience and meeting many community-owned businesses through my involvement with the Plunkett Foundation, perhaps I’m being too optimistic on the amount of work this will take. The process of starting-up a community enterprise takes a huge amount of energy, possibly more so than a conventional business as there are more people involved in the journey.
Nurturing the idea
Both the microbrewery and the farm shop are ideas that have spun out from my work at Sutton Community Farm – London’s first community-owned farm which bustles with many wonderful people. We started seriously considering a Community Farm Shop & Cafe in 2015 after we conducted a survey asking our friends, supporters and customers whether they would like us to open a Farm Shop. We had a fantastic response from 200+ people, displaying a huge amount of enthusiasm and pledges of time and money to help make it happen.
With some promising survey results, we sat down and debated whether to pursue the idea. It was an attractive idea for our farm that felt complimentary to our work, giving us a new outlet to extend our social impact. On the other hand, we didn’t feel we had the energy or resources to work on it. The truth was that we were incredibly busy, working long hours to keep the farm going on shoe-string budgets. How could we start thinking about a new enterprise?
The role we felt we could best play was to facilitate a public meeting, bringing everyone together that expressed interests in a farm shop, making it clear that the community or someone else with the time, skills and enthusiasm, would have to take it on.
I facilitated two community meetings at St Nicolas Church in the centre of Sutton because this was where the survey responders expressed their greatest desire to see the farm shop. The Plunkett Foundation kindly helped cover the venue hire costs and gave a presentation about community-owned businesses. I shared some of my hopes for a farm shop from the perspective of the farm, presented the results of our survey (shown in the presentation below) and then invited people to discuss their hopes and ideas. We had a healthy turn-out of around 25 people to each meeting and from this, a small team of people came forward who were willing to meet regularly, forming a working committee to drive the project forward.
Putting together the business plan
Our group of about 4-6 people met every 3 weeks. I was keen not to act as leader and encouraged others to take responsibilities of Chair and Secretary. This was partly because I didn’t want this to be considered a “farm project”. Knowing the limited resources of the farm, this project needs to stand on its own legs as a community business, even if it shares fraternity with the farm and its ethos.
In the first few months, it felt there was sometimes a danger of our meetings becoming more of a “talking shop” than an action group. It’s enjoyable to imagine together what our ideal shop or cafe would look like. What values it would have and how we would try to make it warm and welcoming for all. This was valuable and important discussion however I was worried about our momentum and keen to ensure there were well-facilitated meetings, agendas and action points. This happened with varying success but we did make progress and grew more confident as we visited other community shops, met a community business advisor and got to grips with who we were and what we wanted.
Around this time, the Plunkett Foundation launched a new programme called Our Urban Shop, which aimed to help communities come together to open an urban shop. Plunkett’s work usually supports rural communities so this was a very promising development for us. The opportunity was up to £30k grant funding matched by £30k loan finance, providing we also raised a similar level in community shares. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in our application for various reasons – one being that our business proposal included a cafe which the lenders were reluctant invest in. However the promise of funding spurred us on to write a fairly comprehensive business plan which I’ve shared below.
Not long after, we had a second knock-back on a smaller fund application which was aimed at helping us launch a scaled-back pop-up version of the farm shop. While I was disappointed, this may have been for the best. As a trading enterprise, the project feels more suitable for investment rather than grants. We also still didn’t have anyone in mind to manage the project if we were successful with funding. We wanted to find someone passionate about opening a shop and cafe, who understands and knows the business.
One of the challenges in the community business sector is attracting such entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs usually want to set up their own business, where they can reap the rewards of their own success and hard work. Community businesses on the other hand, are selfless enterprises, rewarding for many even if they are led by a few.
The business plan and next steps
Over the seasons our group has dwindled somewhat; one member is having a maternity break, another moved to Indonesia, another to volunteer with Raleigh International. A couple other members felt they didn’t have much to offer anymore, perhaps because we had become so focused on writing a business plan. I also had a busy summer working on a project that left me too tired in the evening to think about this project. I was also feeling a little deflated, unsure whether this was right project to be investing my energies into despite my desire to see it happen.
We haven’t given up though. We are keeping in touch and keeping an eye out for opportunities. A huge number of hours have been spent on this project and it would be a shame to see it go to nothing. Even if it does, we’ve had a lot of fun along the way and learnt a lot about shop and cafe planning.
So besides the therapy of writing about it, I’m making the business plan public, in the spirit of the creative commons and with the hope that someone may come out of the woodwork with the right expertise who wants to help make this happen. Perhaps someone with similar ideas, money or a shop location in mind.
Our business plan does a good job of expressing our vision for the shop and cafe, the products and services we intend to provide, detailed market research, with governance plans and financial projections. The plan and financial spreadsheet are adaptable, ready to be adjusted to suit the given location, expected footfalls and staffing levels.
If we are to open this business, we need to unlock at least one of the triple challenges we have: 1) finding a suitable location, 2) getting someone on board who wants to run it, and 3) raising the finance. So if you know of anywhere, anyone or have a stack of cash you want to put towards a good cause, do drop us a line. And finally, without further ado…
Further resources and examples:
- Community Shares Unit: explaining what community shares are all about
- Plunkett Foundation: more about community businesses
- Exeter Real Food Store: great example of the type of business we are trying to create
- HISBE, Brighton: an excellent ethical supermarket that puts people first
- True Food Co-op, Reading: another great example of a community-owned business.