Brexit roadtrip - Elaine Mason (soupmonger, Edinburgh)
"I guess what Brexit does is it makes the he kind of cakewalk that all businesses are in anyway, it makes it more nervy. I mean I'm nervous about this. Simply because it feels to me like there's so much on the line. I've never run a business before. Union of Genius is absolutely my baby and I love it. And I'm under no illusions as to how responsible I feel for the staff that work for me. You know I've got you've got 15 people here. That's rents that's families. That's people's lives."
Elaine started this business seven years ago, in a cafe in Edinburgh. She cooked in the kitchen in the back, and sold soup in the cafe at the front. But as she got good reviews, other cafes started approaching her about cooking soup for them. So she added employees and grew the business. In 2013 they got their first industrial production unit, and kept on growing from there. They're now cooking for 35 cafes, all here in Edinburgh.
How has the prospect of Brexit affected your business?
“The issue that we have right now, is that the government is saying ‘All is fine! Just go to https://www.gov.uk/prepare-eu-exit’. But there’s only information on there about what to do if there’s no deal. There’s nothing there about potential deals that we might strike with other countries. So it’s kind of leaving me in the dark, and a bit scared. Because we’re offering six different soups every day, and chilli, granola and salad to our wholesale customers . Our menu changes every day, because we want to keep it seasonal, and we want to be able to offer variety as well. So our customers get an offering of about 18 different soups every week, six different salads, et cetera. To do that, we need a continuous supply of fresh vegetables, we go through hundreds of kilos of vegetables every week. Our veg supplier sources as much as he can locally, but, there’s limits. There’s limits on climate, on what British farmers can actually grow.”
“Most of the stuff that we get, especially this time of year in March, is imported, and most of the inputs come in through Europe. I mean we get things like butternut from the Ukraine, and our big fat onions that we love are Spanish onions. Our leeks come from Northumberland and Scotland at the moment, but a month ago they were coming from France. And we get tomatoes from Spain. All the root veg we use at the moment, like turnip and celeriac, they're coming from the UK, so that's all fine. But you can't run a soup business on root veg alone, you need some fancy stuff. You run out of variety of what to do with turnip and lentils.”
What have you done to prepare for possible effects of Brexit?
“I'm stockpiling stuff that I know comes in from Europe. Like chickpeas, black beans and crushed tomatoes. That's the big one for us. We get through ten kilo boxes of tomatoes, coming in from Spain. We're literally making piles of boxes and crates here. And we've got our kind of target like we've wanted to stock a few hundred kilos of tomatoes, 35 cases of beans, all that sort of thing. And we're nearly there. I mean we'll keep stockpiling more. But there's limited space.”
“Then I've been working to get my cost of goods down. I've been lucky with the food rep I have, he's busy finding pretty good prices for his customers. So we've been working with him to get out a lot of our cost of goods right down. And that's been pretty successful. So that gives me a little bit more margin.”
“I think what I find most astonishing about this is that, never before in my life have I felt actually personally impacted by a political decision, you know. But this is as personal as it gets, this has hit me in the business that I set up I love. I mean when governments change and all, sure, it affects you. But this feels very absolute an unfairly personal somehow, that I don't know where my my vegetables are going to come from in a month's time. So. Yeah, I feel a bit lost and a bit floundering, but we are doing the best we can. I'm not a brave face on it with the staff that work for me. They know how I feel about this. Because I believe in being open with people. So they know I'm nervous about it.”
What do you anticipate happening on the 29th of March?
“A no-deal is the thing that scares me, because that means Britain is basically in freefall. But it does look as if finally the government is taking no-deal of the table, in stead of using it as a threat against the MP’s. So if that comes off the table that would make me a bit happier. Personally what I now want to happen, is if a Brexit moves ahead I want a second Scottish independence referendum. With the first referendum for Scottish independence I voted to stay part of the UK. I'm a believer of working together, on any scale. Countries can achieve more if they’re part of the Union. And I thought Scotland could do the same. But now I would actually like to see Scotland going into the EU.”