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Q&A with Steve Heyman from Alligator Wholefoods

Seren Hughes interviews Steve Heyman, owner of organic food shop alligator, on the joys and challenges of independent business

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What's it like running an independent business?

The business is very demanding, and it's not just standing downstairs talking to people all day, dishing out food, its enormous amounts of administration to do, running any kind of business. Loads of stuff that's done behind the scenes; dealing with tax and national insurance, doing ordering, counting stock, that keeps you busy all the time. It's a minimum of 60-80 hours a week, just to keep the shop ticking over. If you've got a big turnover, you can employ people to do what I do, but we can't.

So those are the cons, what about the pros?

We started by doing all sorts of things that you couldn't get anywhere else. That was incredibly pleasing, to be able to do that.

There's a little community built around us, where we have a lot of local customers who come to the shop because it's not quite like shopping in the supermarket. We know the names of a lot of our customers. A lot of time is spent just talking. And, funnily enough, there's all this publicity about loneliness and part of that is that historically you always knew if you went into your local shop, chances were, you would meet someone you knew. It just so happens that that is what we have done.

Independent businesses still have a human face and are able to provide information. It's more individual, friendly, and maybe more adaptable. A lot of stuff is available that most of the big stores don't sell. Most of the big stores seem to go by if they don't sell enough of it, they won't have it. And so, all the more niche things they won't have, or will only start to have when it sells in volume.

When we opened, there was no supermarket really selling anything organic, and then slowly they became interested in organic stuff, as soon as there was a certain volume of sales. We've just gone on selling the organic stuff because we believe we should offer it so the public has a choice, and we believe it's a good thing. We're offering a choice. It might not be the most money-making thing, but it's there so that people can choose it if they wish.

York, in particular, seems to be a haven for independent business. What do you think of this?

I'm not sure. I guess it's variable. When I came to York in the '70s, there were a few corner shops, but they slowly started to disappear. I don't know whether York has hung onto the them, I just can't say. In places like London there are loads of little shops. In the '50s there were no supermarkets. There was a local shop and everybody knew each other and everybody knew the name of the shop keeper. And the largest shop was the co-op. The first supermarket to arrive in my town was Tesco, and slowly the smaller shops would disappear.

This shop was started by ex-graduates from the University of York. One of the founders of the shop was in the very first intake of the University. I also went to York in the '70s.

So, do you think independent businesses are a dying breed?

The demise of the small shop was the growth of the out-of-town supermarket. As soon as this happened, the town centres would die slowly, and people would travel out of town. And that's reached saturation point, so now their answer to that is to come in to the city and open all their local versions. And this is in danger of drowning out the remaining corner shops. And then there's the growth of online shopping.

It's fantastic that independent book shops survive because of the onslaught of Amazon. But that's because there's a whole literary community built around an independent book shop, in the same sense that there's a little community built around us.

One of the arguments for independent, or local business, is that they are better for the environment. What do you think of this?

Well, that depends. There's all sorts of independent shops which sell stuff that's not particularly green. But, within any kind of small shop, supporting of the environment and being ethical is more likely to come through, because the bottom line isn't always to make money.

Supermarkets tend to follow rather than lead. For example, plastic packaging: you're more likely to find less packaging in a small independent store. Supermarkets are more interested in shelf life and mass distribution. But there are more and more zero waste shops popping up everywhere.

How should we promote independent businesses?

Well, if I knew that... Big shops spend loads on advertising, but small shops don't have the budget. Then there's social media, of course. But, in York, there's a thing called Indie York and they are very good. It's a whole grouping of people who run independent shops and they have a map and a website.

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