How Belsize Park Budgens could help change the world

Tom Conti and Andrew Thornton, who runs the Budgens in Haverstock Hill and was vocally opposed to Te

Andrew Thornton outside the Haverstock Hill store with actor Tom Conti - Credit: Archant

As the cost of living crisis bites, and the gap between high and low paid earners widens, a timely book reminds us that it's possible to run a community-minded business with a conscience.

Putting The Heart Back Into Business: How to Place People, Planet and Purpose at the Core of What You Do is co-written by Andrew Thornton, whose Budgens stores in Crouch End and Belsize Park gave a whole new meaning to the phrase shop local.

With initiatives like a rooftop community garden, going plastic free, and stocking local suppliers, he showed bigger supermarkets there was a different way to operate.

Thornton's own career took a handbrake turn in 2006 when he ditched a successful life as CEO of a consulting company to buy a Crouch End convenience store and six months later another in Haverstock Hill.

"I was 42, had two kids, a nice life in London and a cottage by the sea," he says. "But I had a midlife crisis thinking 'is this as good as it gets? How am I going to spend the next 30 years?'"

Thornton grew up in Dublin and started working in a convenience store aged 12, selling newspapers, before working his way up to run it when the owner was away.

"There was something about the retail buzz and connecting with customers that meant it wasn't a surprise when I bought the Budgens. It was sort of logical."

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Far from being a faceless owner, the affable Thornton got to know his customers; "Guardian readers who cared about the environment".

"People say there isn't a community in London, but there is a real community in Belsize and Crouch End. They are foodies who really care about provenance and the planet. Customers were saying 'we need to do something about plastic' and in 2006 we were the first supermarket to not give away plastic bags. We had a farm on the roof and started to get a reputation for innovating with a conscience - a community supermarket that cared about people and the planet."

Despite winning awards, the store hit an insurmountable hurdle when in 2008, Woolworths closed down and Waitrose moved in.

"If there were three supermarkets I hoped wouldn't move in it would be Waitrose, Waitrose and Waitrose," he says.

"The big guys can afford to operate some stores with a loss, but if an independent loses 10 percent of takings it's over."

Thornton sold up in 2012 and threw all his efforts into the Belsize store, stocking small local producers and ditching packaging.

Plastic-free zones at Budgens in Belsize Village. Picture: Budgens / Higginson

Plastic-free zones at Budgens in Belsize Village. Picture: Budgens / Higginson - Credit: Archant

"We nurtured lots of small businesses in North London; provided your product wasn't rubbish we would give you a try. There were curry sauces, local honey, hand made soap. We introduced 1800 plastic free lines and saw an extraordinary response with customers coming in to congratulate us. It was the proudest day of my working life, and made the people working there feel they were making a difference and not just filling shelves. It also showed the supermarkets it was nowhere near as difficult as they were letting on. The Tesco CEO said one little shop in Belsize Park had transformed the relationship between customers and plastic."

The Budgens team bidding farewell to former owner Andrew Thornton

The Budgens team bidding farewell to former owner Andrew Thornton - Credit: Budgens/Danielle Booden

But by 2021 he felt it was "the right time" to move on and he wanted to share his theories, based on experience in business.

"Driving for profit is terribly short term," he says. "Pressure to deliver profits makes a soul-destroying experience for the people working there and for the customers. All the evidence shows, that if you take care of all the other stakeholders first – customers, community, suppliers, staff – shareholders will do better in the long term. With Thornton's Budgens people would talk about a community, a family, they loved it. It has an impact on personal lives and creates an extraordinary loyalty. It's interesting to see where that experience could lead."

The launch of Thornton Budgens new "Unpackaged" range at its Belsize Park store on Wednesday October

The launch of Thornton Budgens new "Unpackaged" range at its Belsize Park store on Wednesday October 23. Photo: Isabel Infantes - Credit: Isabel Infantes

His conclusion: "The cookie cutter doesn't work. Give them something that's tailored to them rather than a standard offer. That's why the independents haven't been completely obliterated by the multiples."

Thornton and his partner Eudora Pascall have founded a coaching and personal development company Heart In Business (heartinbusiness.org) aimed at creating happier leaders running sustainable, profitable businesses – people like him who don't see personal wealth as the ultimate goal and want "a different way of doing things".

He points to the numbers changing their lives post pandemic, just as he did 17 years ago, and talks about the Japanese concept of ickigai: "finding the sweet spot" between doing what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you will be paid for.

"The Great Resignation is very real. During Covid people were working at home and realised: 'I don't need to spend three hours a day commuting. I can go out for a walk at lunchtime and be there for the kids when they get back from school.'

"That's brought out the people who are really unhappy in their jobs. It goes back to the heart and having a clear purpose."

And he's hopeful for the future: "It's an exciting time, the younger generation have a greater commitment to the environment and will make better choices."

Putting The Heart Back Into Business by Andrew Thornton and Eudora Pascall is available from Amazon

Putting The Heart Back Into Business by Andrew Thornton and Eudora Pascall is available from Amazon and WH Smith price £16.99. - Credit: Supplied

Find the book at www.amazon.co.uk/Putting-Heart-Back-into-Business/dp/1912300540