Do we deserve specialist shops?

Barley Greengrocers Epping

Like many people I speak to in Epping, I was delighted to see we had a specialist greengrocer once again on the High Street: Barley. The produce is excellent, and temptingly displayed. Unlike in Tesco, you feel it has actually been grown as food and is being sold with care. Furthermore, you can buy the quantity you want in a paper bag, not more than you need packaged up in unrecyclable plastic.

But the problem is, many of these same people have said on being questioned that they still buy most of their fruit and vegetables in Tesco or Marks. Why? Because it is either cheaper or more convenient, or both. People agree the quality and choice is better in a specialist shop, but largely buy in Tesco “because we were already in there”. You can’t say “We really need a Greengrocer in Epping” and then not make enough use of it.

That’s why there are so few specialist food shops here. We are comparatively lucky still to have a good butcher (Church’s), but the bakery options are really limited to Epping Sandwich Bar and Bakery, which is a pretty half hearted bakery, but at least you can go in there and buy just one or two of a small cake. I discount Greggs and Café Belgique as being no more specialist bakers than Tesco or Marks. Fresh fish is limited to the mobile stall one day a week outside Church’s. We’ve not had a proper Deli here for some years.

In the past we’ve had some interesting food shops here, but they have never lasted. There was the Sausage Shop, which perhaps was too specialist. Then we had another greengrocer for a while, but that soon failed.

Why is it so hard in this country? Epping is not alone in this regard, although a few localities manage to have excellent food shops – Wanstead, for example. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Wanstead lacks a supermarket. In most European countries, there are proper small independent fine food shops in most towns and city districts. I suspect the answer is a combination of rents and rates that are just too high for small high street businesses, and a customer base that in the UK has grown lazy and too used to the easy supermarket option.

So Barley, I hope you can sustain a presence here: I for one will try to use you and not take the easy option in Marks or Tesco.

By the way, you don’t have a friend who’s a master baker, do you?