In 2009, a community co-op saved an ailing greengrocer. Now it’s in profit, selling everything from fresh bread to locally grown limes

It wasn’t long ago that independent greengrocers looked dead and buried. As the multiples marched down the high street, greengrocers were among he hardest hit, unable to compete on range, quality or price. But then something strange started to happen. Green shoots of recovery began to appear as communities started to fight back - communities like the West Yorkshire village of Slaithwaite.

A little over three years ago, a group of villagers decided to rescue The Artichoke, which had been serving Slaithwaite since the 1940s but was struggling in the face of competition from the village’s Co-operative Food supermarket and a Morrisons three miles up the road. Its owners wanted to sell up. But, given the climate, a sale looked unlikely. Closure seemed inevitable. But the residents had another idea: turn it into a co-op.

Now the Green Valley Grocer (as it was renamed) is turning over £250,000 a year. It employs eight people and the ongoing share offer, which gives local people the chance to buy a stake in the store (so far 180 have signed up), has raised more than £25,000. Most importantly, the store is now in profit. How?

The fact many of Green Valley’s customers are shareholders helps. But its success is down to more than that, says co-founder Helen Coxan (pictured above). It is the focus on local food coupled with the expansion into prepared foods such as cheese, wholefoods, cakes and bread, which now account for roughly half of sales, that has paid dividends. “The original idea was to create community and cut food miles,” she explains.

It has certainly achieved the latter goal: 35% of its lines are grown or prepared within 30 miles of the store. As well as fresh produce from local farmers and two new growers’ co-operatives, Green Valley also serves as an outlet for local allotment holders, whose produce includes purple sprouting broccoli and even limes - “Anyone who says you can’t grow citrus in Yorkshire has it wrong,” maintains grower and shop assistant Ange Dews.

And the aim is for half the stock to be local and 20% to be superlocal - grown within five miles - by 2015. But finding local suppliers is a challenge, admits chairwoman Camilla Govan: “There aren’t any in the Huddersfield phone book. The growers we’ve spoken to are in or approaching retirement and only a few are passing their businesses to their children. It paints a sad picture.”

Of course, consumers don’t just want local. That’s why the items Green Valley can’t source locally - bananas, oranges and so on - come from Manchester fruit and veg market. “People expect certain produce all year round,” says Coxan. “If we didn’t supply what people wanted, we’d close down.”

There is therefore a focus on quality as well as provenance. When the co-operative took over the store in July 2009, it launched the Handmade Bakery, an artisan bread maker that has since moved into new premises in Slaithwaite and grown to supply several other independent shops in neighbouring villages in the Colne Valley. Stocking such products helps create a point of difference from The Co-operative Food, it believes.

The Co-operative may not sell local bread as such, but it could argue that the offerings from its in-store bakery are fresh. But on the provenance of its limes, it will surely have to admit defeat. Yorkshire-grown limes: now that’s a USP.