You can tell by sight that Grocer & Grain is not just any grocery store. With its pot plants, firewood and bunches of flowers spilling out onto the pavement, its bold, handwritten chalkboards and Turkish-inspired mural; this is a shop that manages to look both modern and old fashioned at the same time.
I spoke to Lizzie Toklu, who owns and runs Grocer & Grain with her husband Hakan. Lizzie comes across as warm and kind, and full of enthusiasm for the produce and homemade foods that they sell in their shop near Brighton Station. It’s no wonder that the store is beginning to attract attention from television producers and publishers. People are starting to realise that labels on processed foods might not be reliable, so knowing, and approving of where their food has come from is becoming more and more important to consumers. As well as that, environmentally – and price – conscious people are starting to seek out shops that sell refills and operate what I call a ‘paper bag policy’. Indeed, when I asked Lizzie for her email, she apologised for giving it to me handwritten on a brown paper bag, because ‘that’s all we have’. It’s so refreshing to find proper shops like Grocer & Grain that put personality and conversation back into food buying, but enough of what I think, here is what Lizzie says about her business:
What is the motivation behind Grocer & Grain? Both of us wanted to run our own business. Hakan is Turkish and being self-employed is a cultural leaning for him. I have had a long career in retail as a visual manager for many different brands and, with a young baby on the way, I was ready to take the plunge with my own business and get out of the commute to London. We took on this shop that was formerly a video store four years ago, with the idea to convert it into a kind of ‘farm shop in town’. I have a passion for all things food related; I enjoy sharing cooking ideas and cooking myself. We felt that there was opportunity to create a quality neighbourhood store that offered an alternative to a recently opened Tesco round the corner and the tired Spa up the road. We later learnt that our shop used to be grocery store 100-years-ago, and now we have a great photograph of it. Over the last four years Grocer & Grain has been establishing itself as a place for good local and homemade seasonal produce; servicing and anchoring the neighbourhood in an old fashioned way, which is a real pleasure.
What do you sell? Local dairy, breads, salads, meat, fish, honey, coffee, chutneys and plants, homemade baked goods, organic bulk grains and cereals and pulses that we bag up in store, cutting cost and packaging. We sell all larder essentials as well as local wood and charcoal. We provide a refill service on olive oil and Sussex rapeseed oil and serve locally roasted take-out coffee. We stock local free range and organic eggs – bring your own box! – and a wide range of Italian charcuterie and deli produce. Our best sellers are coffee, homemade goods, refills and bread among others. It depends on the season.
Who and where are your main suppliers? We source locally, throughout Sussex, but we also stock Turkish and Italian fresh produce. We find our customers are price sensitive and want local as a first option over organic. We buy veg from markets and our buying decisions are driven by taste and quality.
And who are your customers? A mix. We open at 7am, catching the commuter who will buy coffee and breakfast before the train. It has taken us four years to establish strong support from the neighbourhood. We are in a transient area so near to the station, so we always see new faces. The summer brings lots of tourists and passing trade while all year round the evening brings commuters buying ingredients for their dinner. We also have lots of office workers and taxi drivers coming in for their lunch.
What are the most important things that you look for when buying food? Taste, source, appearance, the story behind, cost, the suitability for our shop in terms of how it sits amongst rest of produce: does it empathise and would our customers want it.
Can you share one of your favourite home-cooked dishes that someone could make with ingredients bought in your shop? I cook every day for the shop and my tastes lean towards the east for salads and meals, probably Turkish influences. I’m currently devouring Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem as inspiration for our evening meals – just taking any page and experimenting.
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