Honeysuckle Wholefoods in Oswestry, Shropshire, has celebrated 45 years as a workers’ co-op, having been established in 1978 by four like-minded friends.

Co-op member Gemma Syrett-Judd (pictured in main image second from right) tells NPN that when the store started, commodities sat in large sacks from which customers helped themselves and wholesalers didn’t even deliver, so trips were made to Jedwells (now Meridian) and Van’s in Wales for vats of nut butters, tahini, yeast extract and to Community Foods in London. Grain was even milled on the counter to make wholemeal flour, as it was so hard to source.

Above: founder co-op members Chas Nicholson, Susy Nicholson and Thoby Miller

So, how much has the store altered over the past four and a half decades? “Members have come and gone, each making their contribution to the direction and longevity of the shop,” says Syrett-Judd. “We are still in the same premises and the interior has changed little. Commodities became increasingly pre-packed, and we no longer mix our own muesli, but we still pack oats and flour into various sizes due to demand. We have returned to refills, but this time concentrating on cleaning and bodycare products. We now deal with a broader range of suppliers too, which is reflected in the huge range of lines we now stock.”

Honeysuckle is a vegetarian/vegan store which focuses on organic – it’s been Soil Association-certified for 30 years – as well as supporting local producers, for example of honey, sauces and bodycare products, and sourcing sustainably. It has regular in-store tastings, supports local charity events, and members are always on hand to offer advice, information and a friendly ear.

Syrett-Judd explains the co-op’s community involvement has changed to reflect members’ interests and the communities’ changing needs. “Once it was introducing Oswestry to  wholefoods, world music and dance, like Salsa. We were then involved in local environmental and green issues, the Incredible Edible movement and working with the local Fair Trade group to gain Fair Trade town status and prevent out of town developments. We now support the local community orchard, offering them an outlet for their produce; waste food is given to OsNosh, a local initiative to cook meals from waste produce for those in need of a meal; and the food bank has increasing need for donations which we supply whenever we can and always contribute to its Christmas hampers.”

As for the health food industry itself, Syrett-Judd says it has expanded hugely and is no longer the domain of the wholefood shop from the 1970s. “We now compete with supermarkets, our own wholesalers, and the ever-increasing dominance of online shopping. I feel it is positive that wholefoods and organic have become freely available to more people but believe the move to online shopping and the decline of the high street is very negative. Online shopping cannot provide what people generally need, human contact and the collective knowledge and passion for what we do after so many years in the trade. Brexit has also affected supply chains and the loss of many lines as well as causing an increase in prices as so much comes from Europe.

“Our greatest USP is us and the friendly informative service we offer as well as the ethos and structure of the co-op. We work together for the benefit of our business and are flexible and adaptable in making both quick decisions and long-term plans. During COVID this was a real game-changer. As commodities became in short supply we could shop around, sourcing from wherever we could, unlike chain stores. We could adapt as the pandemic evolved. We looked out for our vulnerable customers, delivering to them or allowing them to come in when we were closed so they could shop in isolation. Survive we did, but it is a long road to get back to pre-COVID footfall.”

It is amazing we have been trading for 45 years. It is reflected in our loyal customer base and how the shop is cherished by so many, and especially us

To mark Honeysuckle’s 45th year, the co-op held a free raffle for the month leading up to the birthday weekend which prompted customers to reminisce about the shop. “Many have been coming since its doors opened and now their adult children shop here,” says Syrett-Judd. “The raffle was drawn on a day celebrated with delicious cakes and cordial. The prizes were a range of hampers and goodie bags collated from products generously donated by suppliers and from our own classic staples. Photos through the years were displayed around the store along with the obligatory bunting. Social media platforms were used for promotion too.

“It is amazing we have been trading for 45 years. It is reflected in our loyal customer base and how the shop is cherished by so many, and especially us. We would like to thank all our suppliers for their help and support over the years. In particular, Suma Wholefoods Cooperative with whom we have been a customer since the early 1980s, Mintons Good Food, which in its original form as Van’s, was supplying us from the late 1970s, and more recently Essential Trading Cooperative which again has been trading since the early 1970s.”

Main image: current co-op members Laurie Syrett-Judd, Sarah Nelson, Gemma Syrett-Judd and Jessie Miller