Mark Lane reports on the astounding success of a Newcastle business selling popular, ethically-sourced food and drink and offering clear proof that many of us will support our local retailers if given the opportunity

These are strange times for the UK high street. Some believe it is dying, as business migrates online, and there is some truth in that in some retail categories, fashion being an obvious one. Paradoxically, many high streets are busier than ever. Large stores might have closed, but smaller independent retailers are thriving – certainly those that can offer something different or niche.

The grocery retail operation of Simone Clarkin in Newcastle city centre is an excellent case in point. The uncompromisingly named ‘mmm… and glug…’ is one of those businesses which, in many ways, does the obvious, albeit rather well, selling fresh, often locally-sourced food and drink, the sourcing of which adheres to strict ethical and sustainability values.

The business and its offering taps into a desire by many of us to support the local community and its businesses as a welcome antidote to the large, faceless corporate retail outlets which have become so prevalent in recent decades.

Simone, who has worked in the food and drink business for most of her career, importing products and ingredients from European producers and selling to restaurants around UK, says she started her own venture because she wanted to “change the way food and drink is retailed in UK for the better… I wanted to retail in a way that is life-affirming, enhances the local community and is kinder to the planet.”

Simone’s company partners directly with makers, bakers, brewers, growers, and specialist importers whom, she says, “champion the use of real ingredients and have a passion for what they do.”

Part of the inspiration for mmm… and glug… came from Simone’s time working in the food import trade, and also living and working in Italy.

She says: “This made me very aware that, at the time, the UK was incredibly lacking in the kind of food retailers who were just selling good, well-made food for everyday consumption. The market is dominated by the massive multiples whose main objective is to sell food as cheaply as possible regardless of quality or knock on effects for the people in the supply chain.

“I wanted to set up a retail business to sell good quality food – by good food I mean tasty, nutritious food made with real food ingredients.”

In business terms, mmm… and glug… was started on a shoestring – with £1,500 of Simone’s own money and a £1,500 overdraft, the latter of which we can safely assume has been paid off. In 2018, the company turned over £462,000. Given that Simone only employs four people, this impressive figure shows that there is a genuine desire for ethically-sourced produce within the region, and that is perhaps one of the main reasons many people generally purchase most of their food from major supermarkets is because there is so little in the way of alternatives available.

Simone and her team plan to launch an e-commerce site later this year although this will be integrated with the company’s point of sale – there are no plans to go exclusively online as Simone remains as passionate as ever about the high street in this country, despite the doom merchants (of which there are many).

She has some interesting words on the issue: “I believe the future of high street retail is bright and that the future is independent and local, and by local I mean locally-owned and managed, not just physically located here.

“I believe consumers will always want to shop on high streets. People like shopping in physical stores. Brick and mortar stores offer more convenience and a better experience over internet shops and, when well-managed, independent retailers are best placed to take advantage of that.

“I believe that independent retailers in high streets create a better community, better quality jobs, more sustainable business and invest back into the local community.”

Few of us would argue with such a sentiment. Local economic development agencies: take note.

“I wanted to set up a retail business to sell good quality food – by good food I mean tasty, nutritious food made with real food ingredients.”