Can the family-run cash and carry survive in modern Britain?

Threats to a bulk-buying institution in south London could expose the high street’s next victims.

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In the aisles of Nour Cash and Carry, packets of Tropiway Fufu mix, Ghana Best palm nut soup and KTC almond oil sit on shelves, along with the smell of coriander stalks, and the odd amla oil spillage.

Outside, the shop declares its name in big red letters, rejecting the slick and corporate independent foodstore design aesthetic we’ve come to recognise: millennial-targeted and franchise-ready. Instead, the no-frills store opts for bare walls, hand-written prices, crates of stacked tins held in tight plastic. For a generation of cash and carry shoppers, it is distinctly familiar.

When Saja Shaheen heard that her family’s shop was under threat from closure, she leaped into action. Nour Cash and Carry, named after her sister (the name means “light” in Arabic), is a family business – one that has been in Brixton for the last 20 years, after her family moved from Iraq via Iran fleeing Saddam Hussein.

It is here, in Brixton Village, south London, over 3,300 square foot, seven days a week, that you will find Shaheen’s uncles, father or cousins working on any given day.

Quickly making an online petition, Shaheen split her energy in two directions: one to fight a battle against the property developer landlord Hondo Enterprises; the other to drum up public support and to remind people of its importance.

“As an ethnic minority, where do you go when you can’t find the food of your culture?” she asks me over coffee in a nearby cafe in the market, a few metres away from her shop. 

Shaheen had plastered printed signs around the walls and entrance letting customers know about recent developments: “Dear CUSTOMER, it is with great sadness that after 20 years of trading, we have been served a Section 25 to leave our unit… we would not be where we are without this wonderful community.”

A Section 25 notice, under the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954, sets out the information that a landlord needs to give the tenant in order to end a business tenancy. In short, as it stands, Nour is required to vacate the premises on the 22 July, amid ongoing discussions.

“We couldn’t afford the rent after a massive increase,” says Shaheen. “We don’t sell things you can make a massive profit on; we sell coriander and tinned tomatoes! They offered us a new space which is currently a yard space for a four-year lease they don’t have planning permission for yet, at a ridiculously high rent. We asked to stagger the rent but they wouldn’t.”

The modern incarnation of the wholesale cash and carry is often credited to Huddersfield-based entrepreneur Lawrence Batley who, in the late Sixties, saw an opportunity to bypass middlemen and buy directly from wholesalers.

The idea hit some stumbling blocks (namely, bankruptcy) but by 1970, the enterprise ­­– Batley’s former laundry premises turned into purpose-built warehouses – was floated on the LSE for £500m. The rise of car ownership, homeownership and a changing demographic in Britain all contributed to its success. So lauded is Batley for this innovation that the theatre in Huddersfield is named after him.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of the wholesale model was just how important it would become to companies providing stock food catering to specific communities in a changing Britain. While paltry “world food” aisles in the biggest supermarket retailers – a strange moniker that begs the question of where exactly the food in the other aisles has come from – has increased, cash and carries were ahead of the curve.

In Brixton Village’s Nour, customers – around 10,000 a week – happily reveal the contents of their trollies to me. Maureen, a Jamaican national, tells me, “I come here twice a month to get Cola champagne for my son”, calling the store a “tuck shop” to the Caribbean diaspora here in Brixton, while Samara, a second-generation Pakistani who lives locally, recounts an errand I recognise – coming once a month to buy rice for her mum.

Shaheen laughs when I tell her this. “We buy in bulk, that’s how we buy, we don’t know how to buy a small bag of rice and 50ml of oil, it’s so inherent in us,” she laughs. “We sell for home cooking – Dee’s imports, Grace, Dunns River, Syria Foods are all popular brands. Middle Eastern people come for pomegranate molasses and rose water.”

She recognises the anecdotal truth of immigrant culture of buying in bulk to provide “rice at home”, when precarious jobs allow for meals that can last longer than precarious work contracts.

“You can see a change in new demographics coming into the area – people will come in and buy half a cabbage and two carrots, so a new demographic buys less,” she muses.

The rise of online shopping, and consumer trends towards buying small and frequently may spell a downturn in the industry (some notable data from cash and carry heavyweight Booker showed last year 50.8 per cent of sales are cash and carry while 49.2 per cent were deliveries – a tighter gap than the previous year, which saw 53.6 per cent and 46.4 per cent respectively). While the change is minimal, it could show that online shopping is moving even bulk buying away from physical stores.

“There’s movement towards online platforms and payment, and collects and deliver, but we won’t see a move away [from cash and carry],” insists David Visick, a spokesperson for the Federation of Wholesale Distributors. “Our members supply 72,000 retailers and it’s about a 30 billion pound business.”

The business case for an enduring model that buys from suppliers and sells straight to restaurants and individuals is clear.

That these lynchpins of immigrant communities exist, rooted in bricks and mortar, feels increasingly important in a climate of cultural divides. For now, it will be interesting to see how the petition, currently at 3,793 signatures, informs the property developer of the shop’s importance and how much solidarity from other businesses – at least 70 per cent of local restaurants, according to Shaheen, buy from Nour – is shown.

While Nour does its best with hastily printed paper and flyers, the larger question around the importance of seemingly outdated models remains. It’s a specific case but by no means a unique story in a city where landlords demanding higher rents are ever-central to a London real estate market that frequently valorises profit over local communities. 

The idea of “buying local” has been successfully co-opted by farmers’ markets and food trucks but has somehow left family-run cash and carries behind. Either way, the fact that affordable food serving local communities is under threat by property developers is concerning – newly so in a pandemic situation. The cash and carry as a model has endured, changed shape, and served your restaurants, bars and pop-ups in a changing consumer landscape. While the industry at large makes profits through buying groups and huge wholesalers, it remains to be seen how stores like Nour fare.

A Hondo Enterprises spokesperson said: “Hondo have unfortunately had to serve notice to Nour Cash and Carry due to vital infrastructure works. However, we are actively pursuing options to retain them within the Market...Both a deal for this new space as well as a separate deal for their current location once the substation is constructed, remain on the table, which we've made clear to Nour at every opportunity.”

Kieran Yates is a journalist and broadcaster. Her BBC Radio 4 documentary Estate Music explores the role of British council estates in shaping music culture.

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