Anyone who has ever visited The Common Good (TCG) ethical grocery store in Church Street, Hawthorn, will attest to the passion and conviction of its owner, Meneka Premkumar. This month we interviewed Meneka about her journey into the world of ethical and organic food, and specifically, about starting up her local grocery store three years ago.
I must confess to being a little nervous about hosting Meneka for the interview and morning tea. I can’t drink a cup of tea without a sneaky biscuit on the side, and I wasn’t sure what she’d think of my choc chips…surely a tick for home made, but a cross against the sugar? With some relief, I talked up the organic ingredients and free-range eggs from TCG store, so it was a happy compromise. And, for the record, she loved them! For Meneka, it’s not about complete avoidance or detoxing, but instead, a lifestyle journey, and being able to enjoy an occasional indulgence without feeling guilty.
We began by asking Meneka about her journey with organic food – and like most people, it was a slow process, one step at a time. As a student, a persistent skin condition led her to seek out a naturopath, and so began her journey into the world of allied health. With this came a heightened awareness of food, and a desire to treat ailments with nutrition and natural remedies, rather than popping pills. Meeting her future husband, John, only consolidated this philosophy, as he was already on his own path toward a healthier, more ethical outlook on food. As Meneka says, your grocery bill takes up a significant chunk of household income, and it makes sense to consider where you’re spending these dollars. Gradually, they shopped less in supermarkets, and more at local farmers’ markets and organic grocery stores, until they finally made a complete break with supermarkets. Except for one item – vegemite!
Interestingly, our discussion turned to the distinction between eating organically for health reasons compared to ethical reasons. Most people eat organically in order to avoid chemicals, pesticides and growth hormones, so they can optimise personal health and wellbeing. But for Meneka, this is only part of the equation, and one of the layers in the conversation about organic food. 'Ethical eating' means really thinking about where your food is coming from, and the impact on both the environment and the animals: it's about making considered choices. Most supermarkets now have organic sections, but if you buy from a supermarket, your dollars are often going back into unethical farming and production – compared to purchasing from local stores like TCG, where Meneka personally knows all the suppliers, and she can vouch for the ethical farming and production methods that are used.
I think back to one of my first visits to Meneka’s store, when she’d just returned from meeting her pear supplier on the side of the road, half way between the farm and Hawthorn – here, they’d exchanged the crate of freshly picked pears, and within a couple of hours, they made their way into my shopping basket. Very impressive on the food miles front. Plus, Meneka could vouch for his organically farmed orchard. It is this knowledge and first-hand experience that develops the trust and relationships between Meneka and her customers.
This trust is especially important when products are non-certified organic, such as her eggs: “I can tell customers about the farm, but the only thing they have is my word, and my reputation is at stake”. Some of her smaller Victorian suppliers are against certification due to the cost involved, but others don’t want certification because “it’s important to normalize real food again”. But as supermarket customers are further removed from their food source, they demand increased reassurance and security about where their food is coming from. At a supermarket, you can’t ask about the farm – the staff at the checkout don’t personally know the growers, so the official certification provides the reassurance. So many smaller non-certified organic suppliers are shunning the supermarkets and choosing to sell only to smaller independent stores, like TCG.
As soon as you step into TCG store, you’ll notice that it looks very different to the conventional supermarket. There are no aisles, no trolleys or plastic shopping baskets, no large signage, no attention-grabbing price point displays or ‘3 for 1’ promotions. In a former life, Meneka had a successful corporate career, with several qualifications to her name – including a degree in ethics and an MBA. But when she established TCG, much of her ethical business philosophy went against what she’d learned from the marketing textbooks: “In our store, there are no signs telling customers where the tea is, where the pasta sauce is – this is deliberate, because the point of our business is to make customers engage and to be conscious and to make deliberate purchases. We don’t want them to walk past and buy three of something, when they only really needed one – and if you can’t find something, it makes you stop and look for what you need, and this in turn makes you think about whether you really need it. And it forces you to engage and talk to someone in the shop, to ask for assistance. It’s about saying, ‘this is the most important commodity you’ll spend your money on – don’t do it unconsciously, be present in what you’re buying’.”
So instead, at TCG you’ll find a store filled with old-fashioned goodness: a stack of woven shopping baskets at the entrance; a variety of interesting display shelves, fridges and tables; rustic wooden crates filled with fresh fruit and vegetables; handwritten price tags on recycled paper. Everything looks and feels wholesome, authentic and health giving – just as nature intended it. It’s a true community store, where children are encouraged to take a piece of fresh fruit (for free), and there’s a system of trust if you forget your credit card – just pop back the next day. Here, you’ll find everything you need to feed your family and run your household, including grocery staples, dairy and meat, fresh dips and antipasti, school snacks, toilet paper and washing detergent.
Over the past three years, Meneka’s willingness to engage and educate has started to shift the purchasing habits of locals – and in addition, she has a host of regulars who travel weekly from Kew and Camberwell. But she’s realistic, and acknowledges that generations of people shopping at Coles and Woolworths have normalized supermarkets, and people aren’t going to switch back overnight. It’s a gradual process. Some customers shop at TCG because it’s a nicer experience, while others are on an ethical journey. Others have returned from health retreats like Gwinganna, ready to embrace an organic lifestyle. Often, new mothers want to start their children on a better path. Whatever their motivation, once people discover the benefits of organic food, they rarely switch back. And the taste of her super fresh produce speaks for itself: I know my own children can successfully determine the TCG apples from a blind taste test! Intrigued? You’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
Interviewed by Carmen