hiSbe co-founder Ruth spent 15 years working for big companies including the likes of Tesco, Procter and Gamble, Unilever and Sara Lee.
This gave her firsthand experience of how big supermarkets were treating their suppliers – and gave her the motivation to try and make things better.
“hiSbe is all about reinventing the supermarket model,” explains Ruth. “We believe that by reinventing the way supermarkets do business we can transform the food industry.”
Ruth and Amy first started planning to change the food industry in 2009, but they weren’t initially sure how to go about it.
Amy had moved to Brighton and had started a social venture selling Fairtrade coffee, from a company called Oromo, on a market stall.
“Oromo is a region in Ethiopia that makes amazing coffee,” explains Ruth. “And these Ethiopian coffee farmers had come over to the UK.
“They were importing coffee from their mates back home, grinding it in Manchester and making a really good product. The proceeds of it went to community projects back home and top educating their kids here.”
Working with Oromo gave them a different model for selling food. Profits were being used in a better way: the middleman was cut out and farmers were being paid fairly. They made the decision to replicate this model on a bigger scale.
“It was a logical step to start a supermarket,” said Ruth, “We believe the only way you’re going to change the food industry is by changing supermarkets.”
When they launched hiSbe they started with the organisation’s values. They sat down together and laid out their own personal values of how a supermarket should run.
They came up with eight principles:
The principles have since featured in everything hiSbe has done. They’re prominent on the website and in store, and are the guiding light for any decisions they make. Their customers love them too.
“What we’ve found is of the eight principles, everyone has one they really care about,” says Ruth. “And most customers that come into our shop aren’t die hard ethical crusaders, just normal people trying to make good, healthy, ethical choices.”
A big part of hiSbe’s success is their willingness to do things differently. One example of this is the environment they create in their shop.
“We create a happy store environment,” she said. “It’s important because the supermarkets have made it so miserable.
“People have really got to the point where they really don’t like going shopping: they whip round and don’t look around, they buy out of habit, and they get some miserable, unhappy person serving them at the end of it all. People are fed up with that – they tell us that.”
They also place a huge emphasis on staff happiness. They pay their staff the living wage, have strict limits on shift lengths and give discounts to their shopping. Crucially, they also give their staff a lot of autonomy in their job.
“It’s turned into a completely new way of running the shop,” explains Ruth. “We give staff a lot of trust and control, we take them as seriously as people.
“They’ve responded by coming up with ideas and implementing them, by creating a great atmosphere.
“It’s hard sometimes because you have to let them cock up and make mistakes, but it’s helped us get off the shop floor.”
The duo’s grand ambition is to ‘create a national chain that shakes up the entire food industry’, but they know this is a long way off. For now the team is focused on building locally.
“Our short term vision is to build a hive of 10 local stores in Brighton and Hove,” explains Ruth. “Our challenge is to replicate. When we’ve done say 10, and we have a chain of them, we’ll start replicating to other towns.”
Helping them achieve their ambitious target is UnLtd, a programme supporting social entrepreneurs across the UK.
hiSbe recently received funding from UnLtd’s Big Venture Challenge award to help them raise investment to grow the business.
“Big Venture Challenge will help us raise our profile and get us in front of investors to help us fund the second and the third and the fourth and the fifth store,” says Ruth.
Ruth is passionate about growing hiSbe and trying to create real change in the food industry – but she also hopes that it could be a source of inspiration for others to step up and create change.
“hiSbe matters to me because it’s a beacon for people,” she says, “It’s like if you can reinvent supermarkets and make it work, what else is possible in the world?
“I want people to look at hiSbe and think: Oh, blimey, they’re having a crack at supermarkets – what can I do?”
And her advice to anyone wanting to tackle another big problem?
“Just start. Everyone has to start before they’re ready. You’ll learn along the way, you just have to take that first step.”
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