Isn’t it rubbish that the world’s so slippery. So hard to simplify. So reluctant to be summed up in a tweet? Wouldn’t it be brilliant if all the stuff that surrounded us was reduced to a thumbs up, a rallying cry or a crafty business model?

Imagine if every independent was, like, great and cool and, like, so much better than the nasty, money-grabbing chains that lay waste to our high street, and enslave our people?

Wouldn’t it be better if we could say fuck off to Liverpool ONE’s Apple Store, with its shiny stuff that just works – we’d much rather go to Computer-factors of Bebington, and get a tower PC built from cast off parts and flickering VDUs that just didn’t. Fuck off John Lewis, with your enviable staff perks and your eye-wateringly good profit shares, we’d rather work for one of those local beauty parlours on the Wirral that have just been outed for paying below minimum wage. Because at least that £3.40 an hour stays in the local economy.

But the truth is – thank god – life is way more complex than any Pinterest manifesto to save the independents. For every Hope Street Hotel there is a Hotel Inspector horror. And good independents know this. And while the independents movement makes noises about caring for the little man, it’s actually promoting a very shallow and narrow definition of independent trade. There’s no mention of independent carers, cafes in North Liverpool, plumbers, therapists, anything remotely un-hip just falls off the map in favour of coffee and cakes. Life just isn’t all jam, sorry.

And the truth is – it’s always been so. There was no golden age, when an independent shopping trip was like a bucolic dance along sunlit sidewalks, where shops’ awnings shaded reasonably priced and locally sourced foodstuffs. Where customers were always right, and where Britain’s nation of shopkeepers ploughed all their profits back into the local community.

Get fucking real.

When Napoleon spluttered out the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ line he was onto something. British power, unlike our continental cousins’, has always risen from commerce. We’re still a nation enthralled by entrepreneurs – managers of businesses, who are driven by the simple desire: to make a profit.

Nothing wrong in that.

But let’s not kid ourselves, eh?

Tesco started as an independent – Jack “the Slasher” Cohen’s “pile it high sell it cheap” model is the same guiding principle behind the store today – with its 260,000 employees, and global profits of more than £2bn last year.

Yeah, it would be great to live in Kirstie Allsop’s world, to bounce along to the office, nipping into your local sourdough baker’s shop to break off a Poilâne quarter, and enjoy a single estate frappuccino at some rough-edged table scattered with zines. It would. But the truth of the matter is, what we want now is what we’ve always wanted: value. And sometimes, we get that from chains, and sometimes we get that from independents. And Liverpool ONE has boosted this city more than anything else in living memory – and, in doing so, helped spread that good fortune to Cow and Co, and Baltic Bakehouse and a legion of great new indies.

So, really, it’s about championing the best, isn’t it? About saying we love Byron Burgers (we do), and Waitrose (we do) and Home Bargains (we do), as well as Bold Street Coffee (we do) and Berry and Rye (we do) and Lucha Libre (we do). And about saying, if something’s worthy of my custom (or not) no amount of discounts will change my mind. And no amount of small-town love will stop Lucha (or Moose, or Almost Famous) from eyeing up their next city location. And their next…

Take Radio 4 award-winning Edge and Son butchers – they’re an independent, in New Ferry: a shopping centre made, almost exclusively, of independents. They’ve survived, ooh, just a couple of hundred years, while independent after independent around them have faltered.

And why? Not because they offer 10% discounts, or free pork pie Wednesdays. They survive because they do what they do brilliantly. And people travel to buy their (relatively expensive) cuts of meat, willingly. They travel because they get value.

“Few people are willing to put the effort in,” Callum Edge told us on a recent visit, “their shops aren’t welcoming, the pavement has dog dirt outside, but they think it’s the Council’s job to clean it. If you want to survive, you have to go the extra mile.

“In our situation it would have been easy to say we’re all doomed. But if I decide that Aldi is my competitor, I’m not going to do it. If I decide that Waitrose is my competitor, I won’t beat that either. So you look for your advantage. It might not be price, it might not be range. We say that supermarkets can’t compete due to their commercial demands and the margins they need.

“We say they’re limited in their flexibility from the animals they buy. They’re driven by cash flow, we’re driven by true quality in breeding, and butchery.”

Nowhere, of course, is this disparity better observed than in the food industry. And this is what most worries me about any campaign – no matter how well intended – to try and bolster up a blanket definition of ‘independents are best.’ Yes, many of the businesses on the Independent Liverpool card are great. But there are a few which, frankly, I’d never choose to spend my money in (Tapas Tapas immediately springs to mind).

Because nowhere is the independent road more rocky than in the city’s restaurant trade. And here’s where the original point of this feature lies:

photo-5We visited What’s at 62 recently – the new Liverpool venture by local indie outfit, What’s Cooking? And I was planning on posting a regular feature. But the event highlighted a nagging issue that I’ve been putting off airing for too long. Because, last time we looked, we’re an independent too. But it needs saying: to build a truly great city offer, we need to be way more nuanced about the causes we snag our souls to. It’s trite and wrong-footed of us to blindly support someone else’s notion of what’s worth preserving and what’s beyond the pale. Each of us have a duty to preserve the Liverpool that gives value to us. And to do so without the lure of a free coffee. That’s what makes a city. And that’s sort of the journey we’ve been documenting these last few years.

Billed as a “southern soul” menu (an odd concept, when you think about our city’s less-than-appetising historical ties with the American deep south), inspired by Memphis and the Deep South of America, What’s at 62’s located in that troubled spot on the corner of Castle and James Street. And it’s to soul food what Rick Astley is to soul music.

The point? It sits almost directly opposite Salt House Bacaro – the city’s best (in our opinion) new independent restaurant. It will never need an incentive to lure people into its buzzy, assured and just spot on offer.

The two couldn’t be further apart if they tried. And yet, if you follow the independent lobbyists’ mantra, the two are essential assets, worthy of our time and money.

Sure, if you want stale bread, cheap-as-chips ingredients, ice-cream tasting like a frozen chemical spill, deep fried chicken mutated into something slimy, sinewy and suspicious and a general cluster-fuck of bad geography (so, when exactly did New York, New England and, er, Nova Scotia move below the Mason-Dixon line?) head on down.

We love many, many independents. But What’s at 62 (and the £80 bill) made us wish we’d eaten at Pizza Express. And its deep home cooking revealed an uncomfortable home truth: sometimes it’s good to be back in the chain gang.

16 Responses to “The trouble with independents in Liverpool”

  1. goldenblls

    I think the Independent Card is good because it helps draw attention to the many independents about, but that’s all that it tries to do.

    Ultimately, any business won’t survive if it’s not delivering what it promises and personally I’ve had mixed experiences from various Indies.

    I’ll doubt I’ll visit one the businesses on the card again because there was certainly nothing soulful about the jerk chicken in this cafe, but hey, if it goes belly up it won’t be because they didn’t embrace campaigns such as the indie card.

    It will be because people will go to Raggas if they want jerk chicken.

  2. Kevin Donovan

    Interesting analysis. Thank you. Yes, we need to admit that shysters and incompetents don’t acquire talent and virtue simply because they are sole traders. And I emphasise the term ‘are sole traders’, (Say it quickly and you get my point.) Too many vanity projects and forms over function. And too many ill-considered planning and licensing decisions. You concentrate rightly on the food sector. The answer? Well, one solution is to insist that anyone who wants to open a bar or restaurant should be forced to travel with their whole team and an interpreter to NewYork, Paris, Madrid or Sienna for a week to see how it might be done. Rather than spend a pissed up week at a stag party in a bar somewhere hot and decide, “I can do that. “

  3. Philip Stratford

    I’ve been saying something along these lines for ages. I’ve got an Independent Liverpool card and I love trying out as many of the small, local businesses that are associated with it as I can, but the “Big chains bad, small independents good” philosophy that many espouse (not the Independent Liverpool boys themselves, I don’t feel) is clearly as inaccurate and unhelpful as most sweeping generalisations.

  4. “Billed as a “southern soul” menu (an odd concept, when you think about our city’s less-than-appetising historical ties with the American deep south)”.

    Really? Too soon to eat food from the deep south because of our slavery connection? Good job that logic isn’t applied to the country as a whole as we wouldn’t have French restaurants because we once had a tiff with Napoleon or Indian restaurants because we were swines to them when we occupied their country and ran off with their prize jewels. In fact any commonwealth country has probably got some underlying beef with how they were treated by the British at some point.

    Shit…..why don’t we cancel Africa Oye while we’re at ! That’s an odd concept when you think about our city’s less-than appetising historical ties with slavery.

    But time is a healer and the world is a smaller place. Culture’s have changed, merged and crossed geographical boundaries. All of a sudden a Southern soul menu in a city with a slavery connection does not seem like such an odd concept.

    An let’s no forget good old William Roscoe, a Liverpool MP, who raised his voice against slavery at the cost of his reputation amongst the higher echelons of Liverpool’s Merchants and Traders. He did so much to right the wrongs of Liverpool’s involvement in the Slave Trade that I think we might just about be able to eat of a Southern Soul menu 200 years later.

  5. JD Moran

    I would have to question the assertion that businesses don’t need “gimmicks” or promotional discounts to survive? My inbox is littered daily with emails from
    large chains offering EXACTLY THAT, this World Cup period being a prime
    example. It is the same in the high street and with the large supermarket chains.
    It’s also the same with your independent pub who decides to put on free
    butties or chilli at half time to encourage punters to watch the match in their
    establishment as opposed to the numerous other options. Also, the Independent Card isn’t a million miles away from the Tastecard or Hi-Life Card which offers restaurant discounts and featuring on these cards is almost an advert for the businesses involved. You will notice that these dining cards feature both independent and some of the larger (and very successful) restaurant chains. While there are clearly examples of businesses, both independent and otherwise, that do not need to offer promotions or occasional discounts to draw the punters in, that is not to dismiss those that need to do just that to entice people in with the hope of encouraging future visits.

    I think the message and ethos behind Independent Liverpool isn’t so much “Independents are all great and the big chains are all abysmal AND evil!!”, rather it is a platform to try and level the playing field somewhat and also helps shine a big massive torchlight onto the wealth of independent businesses operating locally. I still get people asking me giddily about Camp & Furnace if it’s any good or not as if it’s not long been open; the sort of people who are already well aware that TGI
    Fridays have arrived in the city.

    As hinted on the comments here and on your Facebook page, most people don’t use the card as some sort of glowing endorsement, they’re savvy enough to go along and try individual places for themselves. If they like it, they’ll pay return visits and, just as importantly, spread the word about how good the place is. And if they don’t, they won’t. The problem for a lot of independents out there is they struggle to get the exposure required to attract enough people to try them out. Maybe they would rather get involved with the Independent Liverpool scheme than throw money at promotional pieces online packaged as “reviews”.

  6. Stella

    The trouble is, I think the Independent Liverpool people DO winge on too much about how chains are bad. I unfollowed them for that reason, tbh. Even if you look at their new site they go on about stuff like this” Do you remember what it was like before the surge in online shopping? It is now a distant, romantic memory when you would get your fruit and veg from the green grocers, meat from the butchers and bread from the bakery. You’d be greeted with a big smile and a hello before chatting to them about work, new recipes and typically the weather. The prospect of such a scenario may not sound overwhelmingly exciting to the masses but there is something intrinsically warming about such an ordinary scenario. There is a lot of beauty in ordinary, that is kind of the point, isn’t it? Sadly, the above is nothing but a distant memory’. I’m sorry, but that sort of toss isn’t what supporting Independents is about. The boys may well have a heart of gold, and they sure are doing great, but it’s way too simplistic a vision to get behind. As David Lloyd says, we shouldn’t automatically jump on their bandwagon, because that saves us from thinking and having a critical faculty of our own, and these days that’s what we’re all tending to do. So I say fine, if Independent Liverpool happens to love exactly the same stores as you, go ahead and stand in their camp. If not, plough your independent own furrow. That’s kind of the point isn’t it? Rather than saying ‘Im Brian and so is my mum’?

  7. Nicola

    I’ve eaten a What’s At Sixty Two a couple of times and recommended it to friends who also enjoyed it enormously, Whichever mealy-mouthed shit-head wrote this guff obviously has personal historical issues with the owners. Hence the absurd food review and the crass horse-shit about Liverpool’s former ties with the South.

  8. Rachel

    Agree with the main idea that we should not simply say independents are great and view them with rose tinted glasses while seeing chains as their evil step mother.

    Independents, which do well, will grow and potentially become chains themselves. The main point is that whether you are an indie or a chain, if you provide a good product, with good service people will support you. The independent card is a way of promoting indies, it may raise your awareness of some new places to try. However, I doubt anyone will keep going back somewhere that didn’t deliver the goods simply because it is an indie.

  9. Christian

    Those who can’t…write bollocks like this.

    Couple of points.

    1 ) Good local independents should actually be championed above good chains, not knocked unfairly. Even the ones you slag off here (eg Whats at 62- open for a whopping 4 weeks and still finding its feet) are at least trying to do something positive. Unlike yourselves.

    2) The slavery/deep south connection. Are you for real? I don’t see you running an article campaigning for the demolition of half of the buildings in Liverpool? All built on the slave trade and probably actually inhabited by some of you hypocrites. At least be balanced.

  10. This article seems to be mostly just a collection of straw man arguments. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t shop at both chains and independents as and when it suits their needs, so why is this even an issue? And isn’t it a bit patronising to assume that people need to be told that not all independents are good and not all chains are bad?

    The essence of the piece appears to be: I went to a restaurant on the Independent Liverpool card that I didn’t like, so rather than just review the restaurant I thought I’d have a go at the Independent Liverpool card instead. Talk about punching down.

    Also, it’s a bit odd (to say the least) to read an article wherein the writer celebrates Apple products whilst assuming a moralistic posture in relation to slavery. Surely stories like this can’t have just passed you by:
    ?? Maybe it’s just easier to give up gumbo than it is to give up your iPhone.

  11. It’s not a straw man argument if you follow the independent liverpool campaign – they bang on about how you shouldn’t use chains at all. Do you follow their twitter account? It’s sickening how they berate anyone who even thinks about using a chain. And I’m another person like Stella, who used to support them. I’m not sure he was celebrating Apple, he was merely saying there is hypocrisy in the independent’s argument, assuming they use apple to write their tweets on.

  12. I’ve always thought the overall concept of the Independent Liverpool card is somewhat incongruent with the message they promote:

    1. They claim to support Independents
    2. The public pay them for a card which offers discounts at independent stores
    3. Independent stores end up losing money due to offering discounts and don’t receive any of the funds raised by card sales
    4. The truth is the public are not really supporting independents but instead taking advantage of the discounts being offered via the card

    I wonder how successful the campaign would be without the discounts being offered and with the money raised from card sales being donated to independent businesses instead…

    I’ve nothing against the Independent Liverpool guys but I can’t help but feel the values and actions of the company are somewhat confused and contradictory.

  13. JD Moran

    If it alerts people to the fact these independent businesses exist in the first place then it could be suggested that the money lost on discounting is in fact money invested in advertising.
    Also, if it encourages people to go to these businesses over to try them out when they wouldn’t have gone in the first place and, this is the key isn’t it, if they get a great product with great service then the repeat business is massively beneficial to these companies.
    Again, I will ask the question why chains are able to benefit from discounting their offer yet independents are not? Sure, the margins can be a lot tighter but they’re done for the very same reason – to draw business in, especially on quieter days or times of the day.
    I would also ask why anyone would buy the cards in the first place if they didn’t offer any discount? £10 to invest in these businesses? For what return? While I am happy to support the local independent businesses in their endeavours, they are not charities so I, and I would assume, a lot of people would rather do so by frequenting them rather than just throwing donations at them.

  14. I certainly agree that the concept of a local discount card provides benefits to both consumers and independent stores – the issue I have is with the underlying tone of the Independent Liverpool “movement”.

    This is best illustrated by the non-stop militant tweets pushing a message forward as if they are on a crusade to abolish anyone who is not an independent.

    If the tone were more along the lines of “here are some cool local businesses who are offering discounts” it would be much closer to the truth. I just don’t see the need to push the “independent only” agenda.

    To clarify – the basic concept of the card is sound (independent stores are an important part of the local economy), but I feel it is being used to push forward a message that isn’t actually true (independents can survive alongside the corporate giants and we as consumers benefit from them both – it’s not a zero sum game).

    You’ve also highlighted the main point I was trying to get across:

    “why anyone would buy the cards in the first place if they didn’t offer any discount?”

    Indeed, they wouldn’t – so why is there a need to associate the card with an unhealthy anti-corporate message?

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