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Plump Organic Grocery: A Community Store

 

Sitting down with Jock, the owner of Plump Organic Grocer, you are immediately struck by the fact that this is a real community minded business. In the 30 minutes that we chatted no fewer than 5 people stopped to say hello, engaging in the day-to-day running of this longstanding organic business. Founded on principles of fresh local produce with strict organic labels, Plump has been one of our longest-serving customers. Here Jock muses on the challenges facing organic business and reminisces on how the industry has developed! 

 

Tell us about Plump, what were your intentions in starting the store and how has it grown throughout the years?

 

Our original idea was to start a community grocery store, which is basically what we still are 12 years down the track! We wanted it to be exclusively organic. We were both working in organic stores at the time and thought we would pool our collective knowledge and create a little community hub where it was a nice place to shop for good produce, which differed from the generic format of the traditional supermarket shopping experience. Our focus has always remained the same: we wanted to sell really good fruit and veg, coupled with the best range of dry goods we could find. The space has evolved slightly, but we are still so consumed in the day-to-day running of the space, it's difficult to conceive and make changes. We're still making it up as we go along!

 

You've been in the organics industry for a number of years now. What are the major shifts and changes you've witnessed and have you got any predictions as to where things are headed?

 

The industry has definitely become more mainstream; it’s good to see the supermarkets giving organics a run. It does seem a bit weird to me to see them offer organics right alongside conventional produce, however it is great to give people the option. I mean Plump would never sell conventional fresh produce because it really sends out a mixed message: on one level you are trying to say "eat seasonally...but for your convenience we also have a range of other products which don’t meet the same standards". It is however great for public awareness, as they [supermarkets] are really opening up the market and allowing individuals the opportunity to engage in the organic lifestyle. It no longer seems like organic has a strong hippy or bourgeois tag on it, it is really a lifestyle open for anyone to embrace!

 

In saying that, it may seem a bit clubby to some people. All our customers seem to know each other, the store is full of people chatting away and sharing stories, I think if you were a first timer that might be a bit intimidating or confronting, but ultimately what they get is a friendly atmosphere where people are supportive of their lifestyle and happy to chat.
In terms of peoples' reasons for engaging in an organic lifestyle, there seems to have been a subtle shift. Personally we started this store from a strong environmental viewpoint, we wanted to do the best for the soil. Now you can definitely see a renewed focus on healthy eating and we generally support that too!

 

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Your shop sits in the heart of Yarraville Village, can you describe the community for us - where does Plump fit in?

 

Yarraville has evolved significantly since we moved in 12 years ago. When we first started out there was a huge Greek community, which still exists, but on a smaller scale. We now see more and more young families move into the area, which is great for the community and the local businesses around us. Lots of the people living here have young kids or are beginning to start a family, what we notice with that is a strong interest in health and the environment so that brings a lot of people through our doors.

 

I think people in Yarraville are generally pretty friendly; on the spectrum of friendliness for people living in urban areas, we would be at the better end of the scale :)

 

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Plump is renowned for its super fresh and vibrant produce. How often do you visit the markets and where does most of your produce come from?

 

We get most of our produce from the wholesale market on Footscray Rd. We visit most days, however we occasionally skip Wednesdays if our fridges are full and there isn’t anything exciting coming in. We get some stuff direct from growers, but not a heap. There used to be more growers on the floor at Footscray, however it has largely been taken over by organic specific wholesalers.

 

Of the produce we do stock direct from growers, most of these relationships have occurred as a result of our close relationship with staff and customers. One of our customers has a lemon farm in Foster, so we get in a lot of his produce. Elli, who used to work here, hooked up with one of the great biodynamic growers and has started selling us these amazing strawberries, which you can’t really find anywhere else. Also Rosco Jones, who used to live in Yarraville and shop here, always longed to have his own chunk of land. He got a place in Slaty Creek, he now grows the best garlic around, which we sell too. That is the exciting thing for us, being able to really connect with growers, and pass this information onto our customers.

 

 

What are your plans for the future of Plump, I’ve heard you are going to be helping out with the newly established School Of Life in Melbourne?

 

 

Yeah, we helped out with some fresh produce for the launch of Alain de Botton’s School Of Life event in Melbourne. It is great to see people like him actually provoking philosophical thought. It’s a nice connection for us, people who tend to shop here tend to be thinkers, they think about where there food is coming from, what they want to stick in their bodies and they think about supporting little local businesses where people know their kids. This has actually been one of the great things in the past 12 years, seeing kids walk by who we met as babies, now hitting you up for a job after school. That is the great thing about being a small shopkeeper in a small shopping strip like this, the connections to people and families. That is what keeps you going, it’s fun to walk around and say hi to everyone!

 

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What do you see as the biggest challenge to retailers in the organic, sustainable and eco-friendly food industry these days? There seems to be a wealth of products entering the market, this can be quite a challenge for consumers deciding what is of value and what isn’t, so I can image this as being equally as challenging for shop owners?

 

What we have is a plethora of fresh produce available to us, this is really what sustains us and keeps us going, that is our focus. In terms of packaged goods you have some premium local products but you also have cheaper imported products too. Really we emphasise the local stuff and stock it where we can. The price disparity between the local and imported is extreme. That is a bit of a conundrum in some ways - are we just about supporting organic food wherever it comes from, or should we really support local stuff even though it is going to cost you more? The price pressures on people is the real challenge...we want people to overcome that price barrier and really embrace it. Even though it’s not going to leave them with as much money at the end of the week, we believe it’s important to prioritise their health. As we say, "there is no such thing as cheap food". We really believe it!

 

 

Some retailers will overcome this with volume-based purchases; they will put small margins on products and churn people through the tills, making money in the volume of food that they sell. We wanted to create a different environment for our customers; we like stopping and chatting with our customers and to slow down the whole experience.

 

Online shopping is another area that is presenting a challenge. To compete with online purchases you need to create an experience for customers, you need to make it exciting for people to come in and discover new things. You can always put new products on the shelf, but the whole Plump experience is about good music, inappropriate humour and friendliness. So far it seems to be working!

 

 

24 Ballarat Street, Yarraville, VIC 3013

 

Mon - Fri, 9am - 6.30pm
Saturday, 9am - 4pm

 

Visit the PLUMP website here or follow them on Instagram too!

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