How collaborative business can benefit food entrepreneurs and their communities

Originally published by the Business Journal Botswana, issue 002.

From finding the right premises to creating growth plans, a business owner’s to-do list never ends. For companies run by just one or two people, the challenge of limited time and resources combined with too many options can be overwhelming.

Luckily, though, the English city of Norwich may have a solution: here, innovative local businesses have come together to establish a distinctive culture of enterprise that’s rooted in collaboration and designed to make life easier for would-be entrepreneurs –whether they’re owners of long-established small businesses, home kitchen start-ups or aspiring students with an inventive idea.

This collaborative movement is popular within the city’s street food scene, where a growing number of entrepreneurial foodies are re-imagining the traditional restrictions of commerce. Rather than kicks-tarting cafés and restaurants from scratch, they're finding homes within pre-existing businesses, resulting in unique and laid-back partnerships that allow them to operate in ‘pop-up’ style during certain hours. Combined business ventures like this are enabling ambitious entrepreneurs to road test their ideas without the usual perils of starting a business in the high- risk food sector.

At trendy Norwich barber shop Swagger and Jack's, coffee brand The Window serves premium roasts
to customers while they wait. At specialist wine bar The Wallow, sugar artists Doughnut Lab provide gourmet
creations to enjoy alongside a tea or coffee. Platform Twelve, a popular night-life spot, hosts a menu of comfort food from youth-led start-up Beer and Bowl to accompany drinks on select week nights. Together, these small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are rewriting the rules of the market by building through community rather than competition. Norwich gastropub The Mash Tun hosted a Mexican street food pop-up called Chihuahua Burritos for an eight- month stint last year, and found that pooling businesses under one roof was both simple and beneficial. Chihuahua
provided its own staff and took the money for food orders directly, while the pub benefited by attracting more people through the door, which meant more drinks sold.

"Businesses like us work hand-in-hand. It really helps when you have something that complements the drinks you serve, so a big benefit is that we can offer food but don’t need to worry about preparing it ourselves," says pub manager David Roylance. The burrito makers were not the first pop-up the pub has hosted. It previously opened up its kitchen for a year-and-a-half to Harbarbecue Smokehouse, another Norwich-based outfit, which serves slow-cooked barbecue food. Playing host to these temporary restaurants gives pubs and cafés a novel way to offer new choices to their customers. In return, smaller businesses get access to attractive spaces that already receive a lot of footfall, along with a wider audience for their products.

“Making connections is the most important thing. You can’t live in your own little bubble, you need to get out there,” says Laura Phillips, co-founder of Chihuahua Burritos. “When we started, we’d talk to different business owners and attend as many events as we could. By making friends with other businesses we found people would often recommend us and the opportunities snowballed from there.” It might seem risky to have businesses sharing the same space, with the potential to confuse consumers, but Roylance doesn’t believe that’s the case. "Getting two brands together benefits both sides. Customers understand that a pop-up is a limited-time offer and can see it fits with how the pub works,” he says.

Collaborations work best when a pop-up has established a strong brand in its own right. “It's not just about having the right product, you have to make yourself stand out. Some small businesses think branding isn’t important for them because it can be expensive and they’re just starting off,” Phillips explains. “But we've found having eye-catching branding and imagery makes other businesses want to work with us.”

One of Norwich’s most popular home-grown brands is specialist brewers and importers Strangers Coffee. Co-founder Alex Sergeant was a finalist in the UK Barista Championships before giving up on his competitive coffee-making ambitions to grow the business in creative ways. In expanding, the company has chosen to capitalise on the collaborative nature of doing food and drink locally by getting their coffee stocked in more than 20 outlets across the city, encapsulating everywhere from late night wine bars to grab-a-slice
lunch spots.

Strangers has been careful in selecting its partners, and it’s a strategy that’s paid off. William Maddocks, one of the company’s directors, explains: “It’s really helped to grow our brand. You can walk across most parts of the city and spot the name ‘Strangers’ on a billboard or a sign outside someone’s shop. People go to these places because they know the coffee’s going to be good quality.”

The ingredients that allow Norwich’s collaborative food scene to flourish are a strong sense of community, an ongoing and friendly dialogue between business owners, and the expensive reality of commercial property in the city centre. But more significant than any of these factors alone is the local appetite for experimentation. Kieran Miles is founder of LeadNorfolk, a network of ambitious young entrepreneurs from Norwich and its surrounding area. He believes this openness to new concepts is driven largely by the city’s younger residents. “We have pools of energy from young people who are of an age where they’re embracing new events, activities and products,” he explains. “We have a mixing pot culture that is creative and strategically driven. Put together, this means you have a group of people who
are willing to actually try things.”

When food and drink SMEs work together, the result is a thriving local industry that inspires, sustains and reproduces itself. By looking to other businesses in their sector as collaborators rather than competitors, the food community in Norwich is able to share customers, create opportunities and learn from each other’s experiences. The collaborative model is one that other communities across the world could easily adopt through a simple change of mindset. When companies open their doors to one another, customers tend to follow.

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