Emerald Foods is a much-loved market trader specialising in olives, loose leaf teas, coffee beans and extra-virgin olive oil, as well as a range of herbs and spices, dried fruit, snacks and nibbles. They’ve been a fixture on Cambridge Market since 1993 and are a big favourite with customers of all ages.
While photographing the stall for Cambridge Business in Pictures, I stopped for a chat with Emerald Food owners Tracey and Julia, to find out more about the business and how they’ve adapted during the coronavirus pandemic.
You’ve had a stall at Cambridge Market for 27 years, how has your business evolved over the years?
Tracey: We initially offered whole foods and olives, but two years ago we incorporated tea leaves and coffee beans to the stall, which have been a great success.
We always try to get good quality products. And we try to get interesting things that people maybe can’t buy elsewhere. For example, you can go to any supermarket and buy olives and apricots, but it’s harder to buy unsulphured apricots. Those are a bit more specialist. And that’s one of our selling points.
Where do you source your products? Do you have good suppliers and people you’ve had long-term relationships with?
Tracey: With the whole foods, we initially had one supplier but they changed their business model to focus on major retailers like supermarkets. So we’ve had to evolve and find smaller suppliers. Today, we have a couple of olive suppliers and three to four whole foods suppliers to source our stock.
What kind of customers do you have?
Tracey: It’s a really broad spectrum. We have Cambridge residents that have been customers for years. We’re also popular with students and tourists [pre-Covid-19 lockdown]. So it’s a nice mix.
What makes you different from other retailers selling tea and coffee and whole foods?
Tracey: One thing is, because we’re such a small operation, we really care about our products and our customers. And because we work for ourselves, we’re very passionate about what we do.
Talking about the teas and coffees specifically, we create blends that are unique to ourselves and for the orders we sell, we marinade them ourselves. Those things help us stand out.
When Covid-19 hit, what were your first thoughts about the business?
Tracey: I felt quite confident that, because we’ve been here for so long, we could keep going. I wasn’t under any illusion that it was going to be fantastic but I thought we could keep bobbing along. And that’s where Julia’s skills come in.
Julia is really good at putting things out there on social media. With her posting updates and the continued footfall, we’re okay. If we’d had just been trading in the market [without the social media presence], I think it may have been more of a struggle.
Did anybody give you any help, such as the council, or did you take out a business loan?
Tracey: No, we’ve taken no loans whatsoever. A good thing the council has done is pause rent. We haven’t had to pay rent [since the start of lockdown]. That’s been a massive weight off our shoulders.
What impact has lockdown had on business?
Tracey: First and foremost is the lack of footfall. Initially, in the first two to three weeks, people assumed the market was closed. So it was a case of word of mouth. The few people that we did see, we asked them to tell their family and friends that we were open. And, again, getting the word out on social media. Our customers have been fantastic.
Footfall has increased a little bit [in recent weeks]. I guess, with social distancing measures, people have felt a little braver about coming out.
Have you seen a difference in the customers that you serve?
Tracey: We’ve actually got new customers. We had a customer yesterday who bought something and asked, “oh, how long have you been here?” When I replied “27 years”, she was shocked. Though she’s shopped on the market for years, she’d never seen us.
You find that, when the market was really full, people would go to a certain stall but wouldn’t wander through. Now, because it’s not so busy, more people have noticed we’re here and we’ve got new customers. Hopefully, we can keep them.
Tracey: I feel good. Putting a positive spin on it, we’re still going to be down here when the footfall returns. We’ve been sending orders out to customers and maybe that can continue. And hopefully, the online presence will get better.
Have you thought about collaborations with other companies?
Tracey: We have. We’ve signed up with Click It Local.
[Click it Local is a home delivery service for local businesses that allows people to order products from different retailers and have their order delivered in a single package by a Zedify bicycle courier]
Julia, when Covid-19 hit, how did you feel about the possible impact on business?
Julia: Me, personally, I was kind of terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. But as the days and weeks went by, because we’ve got a rapport with our customers and have built up a good customer base, they wanted to get on board and help. They wanted us to stay open and their word of mouth has helped us do it.
Our customers have gone out of their way to promote us.
You’re the one that’s been responsible for the online presence and social media work. What have you done to help the business?
Julia: We’ve always had a social media presence. But at the beginning of [the pandemic], I thought ‘I’m going to create a Facebook page and post every day’. I’m trying to share different posts every single day. Not necessarily about our products, but what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis.
How are you personally feeling about the future of the business?
Julia: I’m optimistic. We’ve learned to trade in a different way. With the local mail order service we have in place [through Click It Local], it may enhance our business. [Mail order] is one of the things that we’ve always spoken about, but never done because we’ve never needed to.
Now, with the bicycle couriers and how easy mail order is, customers can phone us or email us one day and get anything from our store delivered the following day.
A huge thanks to Tracey and Julia for taking the time to chat to me for Cambridge Business in Pictures.
You can find Emerald Foods and pick up all kinds of wonderful sweet and savoury goodies at Stall C15/C16, Cambridge Market.