ON the window of the Down To Earth wholefoods shop on Sharrowvale Road, Hunters Bar, is a photo of the co-operative which ran it back in 1985 including present boss, John Leeson.
John, now 50, doesn’t look a great deal different. It must be all those years of eating brown rice and soya beans.
This year Down To Earth is celebrating its 35th birthday and John his quarter century there. “It sort of crept up on us. We didn’t realise until June,” he says, referring to the shop’s co-owner Joe Grainger, the only other survivor from that photograph.
The business was founded in 1973 in Crookes-moor when a group of students formed a co-op to buy in bulk for friends. The next year they opened a small shop with £800 capital provided by founders Dik Waring and Paul Jackson. In 1976 they upped sticks to Sharrowvale Road, where it has been ever since.
John, an out-of-work tobacco kiosk assistant, strolled in one day circa 1985 (it’s a bit hazy now) for his wheatgerm and noticed a sign asking for another member of the co-operative. He applied.
“It paid £70 a week and as I was single with a rent of £17 it seemed like a good idea,” he says, in the shop which has hardly changed since then. The facia has been up since it started and a man comes back from Wales every so often to inspect the shelves he built in the Eighties.
On them you will find local honey and almond butter, tahini, vegetable stock, wild blueberry jam and soya custard, enough nuts to send an army of squirrels into delirium, organic coconut flakes and yellow split peas.
But it’s the bins at the back of the shop full of three kinds of muesli, made to a special recipe, and several varieties of porridge oats which customers keep coming back for more. They are regular in more ways than one.
“The bowels of Hunters Bar are forever grateful to Down To Earth,” laughs John.
When he arrived the shop was a co-operative with six or seven members who, on a sunny day, would close and picnic in Endcliffe Park.
“It sounds ideal but I found it frustrating. We could never agree and were unable to compromise,” says John.
“They argued whether to sell halva with added sugar because it was an additive and the shop’s ethos was not to sell supplements, pills and potions because your diet should give you all you need to live.
“We still don’t sell halva with sugar but we do sell unrefined sugar. There are ways you have to compromise to keep the business growing,” he says.
In 1993 he and Joe took sole charge and turned it into a limited company.
In the early days Down To Earth was blazing a trail as the first place to sell wholefoods.
The policy then was the same as now. “We sell wholesome, organic and of course unprocessed food and are hence providing an alternative to processed, tinned or frozen foods.
“We aim to sell staple foods as cheaply as possible, rather than stocking a large number of less essential items,” John says.
Lots of things on the shelves now come in tins including chickpeas but if you are feeling virtuous John or Joe will sell you dried ones.
Down To Earth spent a lot of time being virtuous. Until the late Eighties it didn’t even have a till, prices being written down on paper and added up. This, added to the fact that goods weren’t pre-packed but had to be weighed into paper bags, meant service was slow and queues stretched out into the street.
Some tut-tut about the ‘plastic’ bags that the aduki beans, pistachios, tapioca, barley flour, prunes, sultanas and coconut flakes come in but they are made of glucose and biodegradable.
Down To Earth is proud it has never bought a plastic shopping bag and customers are encouraged to bring their own egg boxes.
Because something is wholesome doesn’t mean it is tasty. A customer once asked Joe how to cook field beans. “Soak them overnight, cook them for three hours until tender and throw them away because they are terrible,” he said. Field beans are no longer stocked.
Fashions come and go in wholefoods, as in the wider world.
“We’ve been selling a lot of oat bran and couldn’t figure out why until a customer told us there was a new diet with oat pancakes,” says John.
The shop tried to spawn an offshoot in Abbey Lane but it withered away from its natural home. “Hunters Bar is unique, made up of the middle class, social workers and students,” says John.
And all, thanks to Down To Earth’s muesli, as regular as clockwork.