At the end of 2011, Sharon Llewellyn from Weston-Super-Mare was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her partner, Damian Ward, was self-employed, so when he had to give up work in order to care for her, the couple were suddenly faced with surviving on a very different level of income.
Ward, 41, explains: "We were having to manage with very little, so we worked very hard to cut all our costs.
That was when I discovered you could buy food very close to its best before date - or just after it - for a big discount." When Llewellyn had recovered in 2014, the couple decided to go into business selling out-of-date food.
Ward explains that out-of-date doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the food. He says: "The manufacturers put the best before date onto their packaging to say that after that date, the product may not be at its best. It doesn't have anything to do with food safety, and after that date it's perfectly safe to eat." Over time the quality of the product will deteriorate, but the margins that the manufacturers build in mean that the food won't immediately be stale the day after the best before date.
18 months ago Ward and Llewellyn opened their first Bargain Brand Food Outlet in Highbridge in Somerset. Last month they opened their fifth in Clevedon in North Somerset. Ward says: "It just got bigger and bigger, because there's so much demand for affordable food."
Clevedon is a quiet seaside town, where the store nestles between an independent women's boutique and the kind of greengrocer that specialises in organic food and sourcing locally-grown Christmas trees. The reaction to the newcomer has been somewhat mixed.
The talk in town is that it's a bit of an eyesore. Ward says: "People have commented on how the shop looks." It's certainly not going to win any design awards. The window display consists of banners announcing that everything in the shop costs 25p 'unless otherwise marked'.
Inside, the food is put on the kinds of wooden shelving units that students tend to buy at Ikea, or it is left in plastic crates on the floor. Nothing has been spent sprucing up the look of the store, or investing in technology, as the shop operates on a cash-only basis. Ward says: "We run on very low margins so that we can sell items cheaply. It's not in the business model to have a flashy shop, or we'd have to put the prices up, and that wouldn't be any good for our customers."
There are plenty of people in this sleepy town who cannot believe there is any call for a local shop appealing to those on small budgets and low incomes. However, Ward says: "Even in a town like Clevedon, not everyone has plenty of money. So many people are struggling right now that every town needs something like this."
He adds: "We didn't start this business to get rich, we did it because we have suffered as a family, and helping people on low incomes feels like the right thing to do. We have single mums who come into the shop and say that it has changed their lives being able to cut their food budget so much." The couple also donates a great deal of stock to local food banks, and last Christmas donated 100 shopping baskets of food to families in the community. Ward says it feels only right to give something back.
Middle class shoppers
It's not just those on low budgets who are venturing into the store. It is also appealing to the growing army of middle class shoppers, who over the past decade have typically become less interested in the status they get from spending a fortune in expensive shops, and more interested in the status of being a savvy shopper. It's the same phenomenon that has seen the middle and upper classes make up one in thee shoppers in Aldi and Lidl.
Clive Black, a retail analyst at Shore Capital, said this is because: "In response to the cost of living crisis, many middle-income families began shopping at cheaper stores to keep their living standards high. Many people are happily continuing that trend, even as real incomes start to recover, and that's why you now see plenty of Audis, BMWs and Mercedes parked outside Aldi and Lidl - it's now seen as a badge of honour."
Ward says this is reflected in shoppers at his store. He explains: "We get people from all walks of life in the store. We had someone park a 12-plate Mercedes outside and come in. He wasn't short of a few quid, but he still didn't want to pay more than he had to for food that's perfectly good to eat." Debbie Henley, a mum from Clevedon, is happy with her bargains, and posted on Facebook: "It's fantastic for packed lunch stuff. 50p for a 6 pack of Monster Munch is a bargain, and they are in date. You'd be mad not to go there."
These savvy shoppers are also drawn by the idea of avoiding waste. Mark Whitehouse, a 46-year-old taxi driver from the town says: "I like a bargain, but it's not really about the money, it's wastage. I know it may be different for meat, and eggs, but for other things, the dates on food should be researched a lot better, because millions of pounds worth is wasted every year because of best before dates. I've never been one to waste food."
Yet there is still some trepidation among some in the town. One woman had set off for the shop, planning to buy in bulk for a group of children, but changed her mind when she saw the dates on the packaging. She said: "In the end I bought one chocolate bar for my daughter who ate it and said it was fine, so perhaps I should have bought more after-all".
In the interests of experimentation, I bought a sample shop. It's not the kind of place you go with a shopping list, because the stock changes very regularly and turns over fast. Therefore, the vast majority of my sample shop was crisps, cakes and biscuits. I spent £7.75 and among the haul were three boxes of Mr Kipling cakes, two multi-packs of crisps, Lindt chocolate bars, three packets of Fruit Pastels, a multi-pack of Chomp bars, Fox's Classic biscuits, Rocky bars, a bag of brioche buns, a bar of chocolate, lemon juice, soy sauce, pickled onions and a bottle of shampoo. A quick comparison shop on MySupermarket.co.uk revealed that buying them for full price at the supermarket would have set me back a shade under £22.
Some of the best before dates were distant memories. The longest out of date were the Chomp bars - best before last September. However, after a particularly arduous spell of investigative journalism, my family sampled them all, and absolutely everything tasted just fine. Three days later we're all feeling fine too. The brioche buns were a bit squashed, and the Dr Who chocolate bar had gone slightly white, but all in all it was declared not only a triumph, but the best bit of shopping that the children had ever experienced (largely because it's hard to say 'no' to buying a multi-pack of Monster Munch when it's only 50p).
The experience will certainly change my shopping habits. I won't be buying crisps or chocolate anywhere else in a hurry. But what do you think? Would you buy out-of-date food for a third of the price? Let us know in the comments.
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