The unicorn that’s also a bumblebee

I’m fascinated by organisations that shouldn’t work, the ones like bumble bees that have no business flying but somehow do. Unicorn Grocery’s two story supermarket building dominates South Manchester’s Chorlton shopping strip. With a product range built on fresh produce, bulk dry goods and a few refrigerated items by all rights it really should be a a squeeze-your-basket-into single fronted health food shop.  

That it’s also vegan means it should be also tucked away in a quiet side street between an op shop and a soon-to-retire furniture upholsterer.  And that it’s  a workers co-operative as well, where everybody from the longest serving manager to the newest oat packer has equal say and equal pay, definitely means it should have wound-up mired in indecision and factional warfare a shortly after it opened twenty-one years ago.

But inside Unicorn Grocery on a Saturday morning it’s a food retail thing to behold.  The shop floor is pumping with customers tearing into the constantly being restocked produce section, aisles full of dry goods, people several deep at the bakery/deli, counter, fridges full, half a dozen tills ringing away like mad. But for a couple of flyers you’d never know you were in a worker-owned cooperative and interestingly there is no mention of vegan or even vegetarian.

On being a vegan supermarket – my host and long time member, Debbie, puts it this way, “We never proclaim we’re vegan and we don’t make a big deal out of what we don’t do. We just concentrate on what we have got and that relaxes people.”

It has an interesting effect on customers –vegans new to the shop walk in and breathe a sign of relief – the common response is a sometimes teary, “I can eat everything here and I don’t have to read any labels.”  Likewise non-vegans feel like Unicorn is theirs too because it presents simply as an ethical supermarket you can find high quality, sharply priced organic fruit, veg and groceries and a truly awesome bakery/deli (the best flapjack I ate in the UK).

Next day I’m given steel caps and an apron and get shown the ropes by Rascine, who has been a coop member for just over a year.  I ask her why a vegan supermarket thrives here? Rascin, the articulate, working class daughter of textile industry union members, explains Manchester has long been a radical city – home of female suffrage (Emily Pankhurst was from Manchester), it was here that Marx & Engels observed the excesses of industrialisation and the vegetarian and co-operative movements were both founded locally.

Today Unicorn employs eighty people.  After a 9 month trial new employees can become a member of the coop. Pay is roughly $21 per hour about 50% above the UK minimum wage (equivalent here would be around $27 per hour).  Surpluses are distributed among workers in the form of small quarterly payments ranging from $600-$900 the scale is only recognition of length of service or responsibility.

Staff training is critical: in her first year at Unicorn Rascin worked in every part of the business.  She shows me the systems designed for all but the specialist jobs for anyone to walk in and begin working with little direction – they have to – there really are no bosses here.

Everyday decisions are made among small work groups, while larger decisions are made by whole group consensus – almost consensus – up to three “no” votes can be made and a decision will still pass. Working collectively this way makes for slow progress but despite frustrations at the pace members are invested in decisions and seem to stay with Unicorn longer than traditional workplaces. “An interesting side-effect”, Ben, a dry goods buyer, tells me with a grin, “is that every year you work at Unicorn the less employable you become somewhere else.”

I finish my time at Unicorn with Debbie in the upstairs staff area looking out onto a newly installed rooftop meadow/verandah that would make a very nice café.  She explains how Unicorn members helped buy their building and how each year an equivalent of 5% of Unicorn’s wage bill is donated to building the capacity of fair trade coops in majority world countries.  And how, now after 21 years of growing, Unicorn has decided it’s time to start new Unicorn coops at other sites –  to see if this particular bumblebee can fly in other towns.

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