Neal's Yard Story
Neal’s Yard owes its name to Thomas Neale, who in 1690 received a piece of land from William III and created the Seven Dials area in which it is situated. By the mid-1970s, Neal’s Yard was a dark, derelict yard with a few fruit and veg warehouses, a place too insignificant to appear on the London A-to-Z. In 1976, Nicholas Saunders started the Whole Food Warehouse, and his entrepreneurial skills turned this neglected space into the thriving, characterful location. This is an extract from his account of that time, written in the 1980s.
“I spent the early 1970s producing alternative guidebooks, ending with Alternative England and Wales, which I researched by travelling around the country in a large van converted into an office/bedsit. By the summer of 1975 the book was finished and I spent most of the next year in Christiania, a large community in Denmark. Every few weeks I would travel back to London to pick up a load of nuts, beans and other wholefoods, which were so much cheaper here that they paid for the trip. That’s is how I got involved with selling wholefoods.
A few years before, I had been looking for somewhere to live in the rundown parts of Soho and Covent Garden and was amazed to find 2 Neal’s Yard for sale at £7,000 – the snag being that the area was scheduled for redevelopment. I thought that, by living there, I could help save the area from demolition. In fact I was refused planning permission to live there, so had to find some use for the building. I decided to start a wholefood shop – one that was cheap, efficient and would not make customers feel bad if they couldn’t recognise a mung bean. Everyone said it was a crazy place to start a food shop. At that time, the buildings looked derelict, with windows broken or boarded up. Neal’s Yard was a filthy backyard over-run by rats and used by tramps as a lavatory.
My plan was just to get the shop started, then leave it to an old friend to run, as my long term plan was to go off and set up a village community based on the lessons I had learned through living in Christiania. I started converting the building with amateur help. After three months’ work the shop was finished and it opened on 1st November 1976. Although it was fitted out very cheaply using materials from demolition sites, it looked refreshingly original and simple – heavy shelves loaded with large clear plastic bags full of beans of various colours with the price written on by hand. All the food was packed on the first floor and was hoisted up on the human counterweight principle – one person would attach the load, a second would jump out of the window holding the rope coming down from the pulley, while the third would haul in the load. It was hard work, but an exhilarating exercise in trust and awareness.
I invented a pricing system which reflected the work we put in, instead of a percentage mark-up. The result was that, except in small sizes of sticky goods, our prices were lower than anywhere else, and very much lower for large sizes of things like nuts, which were easy to pack. We filled a gap by offering by far the cheapest goods in the sizes between retail and wholesale – ideal for food co-ops and informal groups of people who bought in bulk to save money.
I set a target that I would take a break when our turnover reached £ 1,000 a day, and that took less than four months. There was no trick to our success. We were cheap and reliably well stocked and there were samples for tasting. There were no come-ons or other enticements to buy. Service was efficient but not subservient – my directive was that staff should help shy customers but not to give way to the demands of rude or pushy people, in fact we used to be equally rude back, to their surprise.
Jobs were rotated, from cleaning to dealing with the money, and I used to encourage responsibility by giving workers turns at managing the business, with authority to sign cheques – often without even knowing their surnames, which shocked the bank manager. The atmosphere was one of high energy, with no nonsense, and attracted an enthusiastic lot of workers. The business soon started to make a lot of money, so after nine months I divided up the profits among the workers and reduced the prices still further.
As Neal’s Yard developed, and other businesses moved in, it became a real social scene. My old idea of a village community manifested in the form of a community of small businesses, each one individual and free to go its own way. Many friendships formed, with several leading to marriage – the most dramatic being when Anita of the Coffee House [now Monmouth Coffee] married Randolph of Neal’s Yard Dairy. They held a sit down feast for everyone in the Yard – and symbolised their union by serving coffee ice-cream.
When it came for me to leave, I decided that I would do so with a bang. I invited everyone from the yard to the Canary Islands for a winter holiday in Lanzarote – 55 people in all, including some from Food for Thought, who were our best customers, and from Community, our best suppliers. I gave everyone a sort of ‘treasure island’ kit consisting of a map, a torch, a toy sunshade, a few sweets and a wallet containing real Spanish money. We took on the plane a marquee big enough for everyone to sleep in and we camped on the beach for a week.”