In December 2018 (L-R) Alec Paterson, Matthew Bunch and Scott Winston opened their artisanal anti-supermarket in Camden’s Stables Market. We see what’s happening inside
Only a stone’s throw from the world-famous Camden Market sits the recently rejuvenated Stables Market, a labyrinth of quirky market stalls and independent stores selling antiques, fashion and food. One of the most recent additions to its cobbled streets, housed in a rustic Grade II listed building, is The Camden Grocer.
The choice of site makes perfect sense, with the 1,200 sq ft deli opening in December as a place to curate and champion artisanal suppliers. Premium cheeses, wines and charcuterie line the wooden shelves, while it enjoys an exclusive wholesale contract with many of the recipients of Great Taste Awards, from Mount Mayon’s pili nuts to Dark Woods coffee.
This focus on only the finest in grocery did create debate among owners Alec Paterson, Matthew Bunch and Scott Winston when it came to whether or not to make room for a few household names too. “We didn’t want to exclude established brands just because they’re popular,” says Paterson. And they’ve made a few exceptions. Now essentials such as milk, fruit and veg are stocked alongside Coca Cola and San Pellegrino.
Three quarters of its lines remain Great Taste Award winners though, in what it claims is the largest selection of such products. “We couldn’t just have what others offer,” says Paterson. “We have almost as many lines as suppliers, and we’re prepared to go the extra mile because that’s how we differentiate ourselves and give customers the element of discovery.”
If these words don’t sound like those of a foodie novice that’s because they aren’t. All three founders have brought a wealth of industry experience with them to the store. Bunch has been retail director for Thorne’s Foods and wholesale manager for Paxton and Whitfield, Winston has been a buyer for Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Selfridges, and Paterson led ice cream store Gelupo. “Thanks to our experience we know what lines will work,” says Paterson. “It’s not about being pretentious or snobby - food doesn’t have to be expensive to be brilliant.”
It’s by no means a rival to established supermarkets though, on price or otherwise. “The way we compete with supermarkets is by not competing with them. The Morrisons nearby is not a threat - it’s the opposite, in fact, because we’re different types of stores offering different things. If an item is readily available, we’re less likely to stock it because we give smaller producers first opportunity.”
It also hopes to succeed where so many supermarkets have struggled: in creating a destination, with its on-site café. The menu aims to engage customers with its products, many of which are used as ingredients. Brunch choices include French toast with vanilla raspberry compote and elderflower sabayon for example, while deli plates feature a revolving selection of cheeses and charcuterie from the store. There are also made-to-order sandwiches and snacks, from mixed Italian olives to rosemary focaccia. So closely aligned are the store and the café in fact that the trio repositioned it from the left to the right side “so customers can see the cheese and charcuterie counters, and food being prepared from where they’re sat while eating or having a coffee. Initially we had the seats away from the hustle and bustle, but it felt right for customers to see the items we stock and dishes being made using them.”
Is it hoping for many regulars? After all, it’s slap bang in the middle of one of the most touristic parts of London. Almost two thirds of its customers are tourists, Paterson admits, but local custom is growing from affluent surrounding areas like Primrose Hill.
They’re looking to build that up with experiential and educational events too. Supper clubs, food paired with movie nights and masterclasses have all been suggested. It is these, Winston hopes, that will lead customers to develop “connections with our products”.
The trio are clearly optimistic about the concept. Footfall and sales were higher than expected in the first month after opening (though dipped in January) and there are plans to launch several similar delis. Winston is confident. “Our future stores may have a different look and feel but there is appetite for food-led concepts like this.” One that goes beyond these quirky cobbled streets north of the River.