During the racial reckoning of the past year, many of the major UK supermarket chains pledged to do more to support their Black customers and employees. However, there is an easier way: Shoppers can support Black-owned supermarkets and grocers.
According to the IPA’s Multicultural Britain report, the Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) community, a categorization often used by the government, represents £300 billion of collective spending power in the UK and rising. Considering how much economic power we have as a Black community, we should be directing our coins to support Black-owned supermarkets and convenience stores. This has never been more important as the global coronavirus pandemic has massively hit small businesses.
Jackson Mclarty, the founder of Black Eats LDN, a platform that connects people to the UK’s best Black-owned food outlets through an interactive directory, told BuzzFeed News that choosing to shop at Black-owned supermarkets helps “create jobs, support local communities, and work toward closing the racial wealth gap.”
He added that “spending in Black-owned supermarkets gives you the opportunity to speak with someone who fully understands products targeted toward the Afro-Caribbean community, the origins and how it can be used, an experience you wouldn’t get in the chains.”
One such market is Cinnamon Leaf, a grocery store in Tottenham run and owned by siblings Kiera-Lorelle, Jay, and Lewis, who didn’t provide BuzzFeed News with their last name. As Black business owners, it is important for them to display a wide array of foods, Kiera-Lorelle told BuzzFeed News. She called her business a “fusion grocery store” that sells organic and whole foods, but also Afro-Caribbean foods.
She added that her store also doesn’t relegate Afro-Caribbean products to a separate shelf or “world” section, as some other stores do, saying “all items deserve the same limelight on our shelves.”
“It allows anyone and everyone to discover products they may or may not have heard of, therefore giving these businesses good publicity, and also allows customers to enquire about it,” she said.
This exposure can be invaluable in helping Black-owned businesses grow, said Khalia Ismain, the founder of Jamii, a discount card and discovery platform that makes it easy to find and shop at independent Black-owned businesses in the UK.
In general, Ismain told BuzzFeed News, Black-owned markets tend to be more “willing to take a chance on food entrepreneurs creating something new for the Black community as they understand the market in [a] way that no one else does.”
This exposure has been invaluable for business owners like Seema Raj, whose sea moss gel brand Take a Bite With Cee is sold at Cinnamon Leaf. Raj, who is of South Indian heritage, told BuzzFeed News that since her product has been stocked at Cinnamon Leaf, the benefits have been “countless.”
These range from “exposure to a wider demographic to gaining customer confidence in a new brand, to sales increasing, to gaining a new fruitful relationship, with a like-minded business,” Raj said. She also credits Cinnamon Leaf for its “professionalism and encouragement” and for helping her gain clarity on what was required to get her product up to the correct standards.
Shirley White, the owner of OTC Beverages, which specializes in nonalcoholic ginger beer and sorrel drinks, also told BuzzFeed News Cinnamon Leaf’s willingness to stock her products has been invaluable.
Her product is stocked in several Black-owned grocery stores and supermarkets, including Cinnamon Leaf, Montego’s Food Market, and M&M Afro Caribbean Supermarket, as well as takeout restaurants across London, and they’re only expanding.
White said she has been focusing on stocking her product in these smaller, independent grocers because “they know the grind,” and it’s a way to support other Black business owners. By stocking their products in a Black-owned supermarket, companies are driving business through that store's doors, she said. Larger chain grocers, according to White, also “come with a lot of requirements that small suppliers are not always able to support.”
“They buy in bulk and want a low price,” White explained. “This will eat into your profit. Also the relationship is transactional, impersonal, and you have a significant amount of competition if you are a new drinks brand going up against a corporate [one].”
The difficulty of breaking out in a bigger chain is one felt by many Black UK food and beverage founders, some of whom explained, in an interview with the Grocer, the difficulties they encountered on their entrepreneurial journey. These included shelf segregation — shelf space being limited to the world food aisle — and little willingness from supermarkets to work with Black food entrepreneurs on products not targeted toward an “ethnic” audience.
Many of the founders interviewed by the Grocer suggested the adoption of something similar to the 15% pledge launched by Aurora James in the US, so supermarkets can be held accountable. James called on major retailers in the US to pledge a minimum of 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, as Black people make up nearly 15% of the US population.
Black-owned supermarkets are not just good for the business owners, though. Ismain said shopping there can be a better experience for customers as well, noting that many national chains fail to stock many items, like yams or plantain chips, that the Black shopper is seeking.
“You can walk into a Black-owned supermarket and do a full shop,” she said. “You’ll find jollof sauce on their shelves a lot sooner than a national chain.”
Shirley feels that being stocked in Black-owned supermarkets also benefits the local community as “you inspire your community to achieve in areas they felt they could not participate in.”
Kiera-Lorelle explained that since opening the store last year, they’ve had “wonderful support,” not only from the Tottenham community, but beyond. “We’ve even had people hear about us from Barbados and America, and that is very touching,” she said.
Black-owned supermarkets also offer community, with Ismain saying that her store has become “a community hub, often providing useful information, support, and resources.”
Shopping at Black-owned supermarkets and grocers is about more than just buying food and essentials. For Black customers in particular, it’s opting for a shopping experience where they feel safe and fairly treated.
Although many of the UK’s “leading supermarkets” united to take a stand against racism amid the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been several examples in recent years of national supermarkets discriminating against Black and other ethnic minority customers.
Last year, an 11-year-old Black boy reported being followed around M&S by a security guard in an incident that drew national scrutiny. At the time, an M&S spokesperson said the guard made an error after being given the wrong information. Both he and M&S apologized.
In August 2020, a Morrisons employee was filmed screaming racist abuse at a customer. A spokesperson for the supermarket chain explained that the individual in question no longer works for the store and added, "Morrisons stands full square behind the fight against racism every day.”
These experiences of racism and discrimination within supermarkets further highlight why people should support the local Black-owned equivalents. As lockdown restrictions are slowly lifted and we return back to some form of normality, let’s make shopping at Black-owned supermarkets and grocers part of our routines.