Sara-Christine Gemson looks ta the troubles befalling Oxfprd's small businesses
Coming back from the summer vacation, you may have noticed the addition of the Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Wagamama to the culinary offerings of central Oxford. A stroll down Cowley Road reveals the arrival of a Costa Coffee and the opening of a new G&D’s. Little Clarendon Street, which formally appeared to be a bastion of indie charm (if in appearance only) recently added Strada to the chains to which it plays host. What’s happening to Oxford? Despite its unique architecture that attracts tourists from all over the world, are its commercial offerings becoming increasingly homogenous? And if so, is this something of concern?
On this question, the City Council abdicates responsibility for any major role in the nature of shops and restaurants available in Oxford. John Kulasek, the Acting Assets Manager for commercial rents at the city council, while hesitating to give an exact figure, said that the town council owned at most five percent of the commercial spaces in Oxford. On Cowley Road in particular, the town council has very little control over the commercial spaces available: “I’ve not actually counted them but I imagine there must be a couple of hundred shops on Cowley Road. The City council owns six. So our influence there is very slight.” However, he admits that the council does have a bigger influence in the center of town, where it owns entire streets such as George Street or stretches of Broad Street as well as the Covered Market. For the property that it does own, the council has a policy to try to maximise local opportunities. Everything else being equal, the council would favour a local business over a chain: “In terms of commercial shops and restaurants we would look at all offers received and, wherever possible, try to use a local company.” So how does he explain the Gourmet Burger Kitchen replacing the independently owned lebanese restaurant Tarboush on George Street? In that case, the owner signed over his claim to the property to GBK and the council didn’t actively seek out a chain. More generally though, Mr. Kulasek asserts “Sometimes you can’t hold the tide back” so the council tries to concentrate the chains in one area rather than have them scattered all over the city. In the three and a half years that he’s been in his position he has noted a change “I’ve noticed an acceleration of chains trying to get into the city.”
For Ian Pavier, the manager of Hedges, one of the butchers in the Covered Market, the current trend dates much further back. The Covered Market wasn’t always filled with souvenir shops and cafes catering to tourists: “In the last fifteen years the butchers and fishmongers have all dwindled away.” Supermarkets like Sainbury’s and Tesco, with their centrally located “local” or “metro” branches can capture a major share of the grocery business even in a town like Oxford, where the majority of students don’t have cars and can’t drive to the big supermarkets on the outskirts. There has been an outcry in the press and in recent books published on the supermarket industry in the UK on how big supermarkets are even encroaching on small city center shops with their smaller “convenience” shops. Conversely, the “Market Investigation into the Supply of Groceries in the UK” report published by the Competition Commission on 31 October concluded: “Concerns have also been raised regarding Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s expansion in convenience store retailing. We do not find any adverse effect on competition arising from these issues. We consider that those convenience store operators that provide consumers with a strong retail offer will continue to survive and prosper, and the evidence suggests that current developments in convenience store retailing reflect consumer preferences.” This reflects Mr. Pavier’s experience when Sainbury’s first opened in the center of town. While they initially experienced a drop in business, it didn’t last: “People like Sainbury’s and Tesco’s don’t really know what butchery is so people go there once or twice but can’t find what they want so they go back to the butchers.”
So is Oxford no worse off for having lost a few independent restaurants and shops in exchange for chain restaurants and the big supermarkets? It depends what you are looking for. Wanting to ensure a uniform, quality experience and avoid any variation that might tarnish the company reputation, head offices make sure that franchises provide a certain level of service, quality of food and maintenance of venue. Aneta Wetlsha, the assistant manager at GBK on George Street explains that people from the central office visit regularly to make sure that the franchise is abiding by company rules. In some cases, customers are quite happy with the result. “I don’t see it as a big loss, given that there are three other similar restaurants left” says Farid Boussaid, a student, of Tarboush being replaced by GBK. “The service [at Tarboush] was not always great and the burgers [at GBK] are excellent!” Similarly, John and Ann Priest who’ve been living in Oxfordshire since 1988 have noticed that Oxford has become more commercial but didn’t seem too concerned about the trend. In fact, many customers actively seek out chains for the familiarity they offer. Seth Anziska regularly studies in coffee shops and chooses his venue based on the type of work he’s doing: “For uninterrupted writing, I prefer Starbucks on Cornmarket, which has outlets, long hours and no accessible wireless. Sometimes not being able to get online is a must to avoid distraction. The familiar ritual of Starbucks means I could be anywhere, which helps to keep me grounded.”
On the other hand, it’s precisely that uniformity that can be off-putting. Independent businesses tend to be a more integral part of the community and make an effort to offer a more personalised service. Jan Rasmussen is the owner of Green’s Cafe on St Giles: “What we try to offer here is to be part of the local community. I’ve been here for two years now and I know pretty much all the regulars. People know me, we have a chat.” Because it’s their own business and it’s usually “one of one”, owners of such independent businesses are often far more actively involved in the daily operations. As Mr. Rasmussen puts it, “Places like Starbuck’s and Costa do very well, but when you go in, you don’t normally meet Mr. Costa.” This doesn’t go unnoticed. Customers such as Aleksandra Gadzala note the difference in the service offerings in independent places likes Green’s: “The independent coffee shops have more character, often friendlier staff and a greater variety in terms of food.” Indeed there is often a certain flexibility in the offerings of independent restaurants that chains can’t accommodate. At Green’s, you can ask for something off the menu and they will be happy to satisfy your special request.
This attention to individual and local needs is what distinguishes the independent shops from the chains. Green’s flexibility stands in contrast to Wagamama, where any special request would need to be sent to London for approval: “The customers should experience the same service everywhere they go […]. They [the franchises] can also create their own seasonal specials but all these need approval from the UK Wagamama head office team. We obtain our food from our central depot which supplies all our restaurant so that we can have a standard uniformity throughout the group and achieve high quality and standards in all our restaurants, so that the food consumed in Oxford is of the same quality as the food served in any of our other branch’s.”
Similarly, the big supermarkets arrive with their established selection of products that don’t necessarily reflect local tastes, needs or products. At Hedges all the pork and lamb is from the Cotswolds area and they actively try to sell as much local product as possible. The big supermarkets are now starting to offer local products, but these new offerings seem to be a marketing ploy as opposed to an organic way of doing business. This can be seen in Tesco’s official line on the local products it sells: “Tesco is British farming’s biggest customer and our own customers tell us they want us to do even more to find and stock great local products. This year we have opened up seven regional offices all of which are making great progress in this area, and have introduced 600 new lines. It’s something we’re committed to.” (More generally, when trying to find out about service offerings and their relationship to Oxford, managers and owners of independent shops and restaurants were available and happy to talk while I had to go through press offices based in London for chains such as Wagamama and Tesco.
Even though both chains and independent stores can offer quality products and services, the concern in Oxford is that independents are being pushed out because they can’t afford increasingly exorbitant rents. Max Mason is the owner of the Big Bang, a restaurant on Walton Street in Jericho that offers gourmet bangers and mash. He expresses serious concerns about the changing nature of the commercial offerings in Oxford: “Oxford is a place of international interest, a place people visit wanting to see oldie Britain. They want to see them cobbles, they want to see the Covered Market, they want to see independent places.” Yet such places are being pushed out because “Oxford is so expensive that only the big chains can afford the rent.”
So what does the future hold for the independent shops and restaurants of Oxford? There is hope, though success depends on a lucky combination of good business sense and hard work. When he opened Green’s two years ago, Mr. Rasmussen was both tactical and pragmatic. He couldn’t open in a more prime location because of the competition and the expensive rents. But he found a promising location on St Giles: “We had to choose our location very carefully. We are lucky, we are in an independent area. St Giles is not the main shopping area and there aren’t many commercial properties here so there can’t be a Starbucks or something next door, which is something we definitely considered.” Mr. Mason also highlights the importance of intelligent appraisal: “You need to really work hard on what you are, what your special slant is on the market, how you are different from your competitors and then work out if it’s financially viable. It’s a tricky balancing act.” Fortunately, there’s a critical mass in Oxford that’s interested in keeping independent places open and that ensures that restaurants like the Big Bang do well: “There’s a massive intelligent, affluent market. There are people who will pay the Covered Market prices. The populace of Oxford is keen to keep the town an interesting place.” There is also the strong possibility that niche business models like the Big Bang, which only serves food and drink produced in a twenty mile radius, may be the only viable business model in the future. As Mr. Mason explains: “In three or four years time, when petrol is ridiculously expensive, all restaurants will have to source everything locally because it’s not going to be viable to source things from nine or eleven hundred miles away.” Until then, you can choose between a bowl of noodles, a burger or bangers and mash next time you go out for dinner.