BelgoMarkt, the neighbourhood grocer banking on homegrown produce

Whilst Bio and organic produce is now a common occurrence on supermarket shelves, local fare still has a way to go. Indeed, despite the increased awareness to the benefits of short-circuit distribution and working with local producers, the highstreet still has to catch on, save for a few pioneering concepts. Amongst the latter is BelgoMarkt, a year-old new age grocer nestled in the heart of Brussels’ historic Matonge neighbourhood and whose entire business model – and product mix – relies on a myriad of different producers, all Belgian. Distinguished by its unwavering belief in the necessity and power of the local economy, the unassuming shop has since its opening gained a loyal following amongst consumers who, more than anything, favour homegrown produce. We met with Melanie Michiels, who together with Stéphanie Deblon and Tresor Stevens manages the store, on a scorching Tuesday afternoon to talk entrenched habits, learning curves and what lies ahead.

Visuals by Miles Fischler (c).

“It’s all very nice to buy Bio or organic chocolate in bulk, but if it’s made in Italy and was flown all the way over to Belgium, it kind of beats the purpose doesn’t it?” rhetorically asks Melanie Michiels, one of the three founders of Belgomarkt, a neighbourhood grocer that opened to the public to much media fanfare in May 2016. “We firmly believe in the necessity to bring consumption centers closer to production ones. Granted, eating avocados and chia seeds for breakfast is nice, but what is the environmental and economic impact of that?” she asks, by way of explaining the concept’s underlining principle. “We favour local producers, working directly with them in order to improve the traceability of our produce. We also, right from the start, decided to work in bulk quantities in order to minimise the use of packaging,” she continues, acknowledging that there remains a massive task of educating both customers as well as producers to the benefits of working in bulk. “Producers find working in bulk difficult because it makes conservation that much trickier. It also has certain implications in terms of stock management – tallying up and shelving, say, packets of biscuits is much easier than doing so for individual units. Then measuring up and evaluating the crumbled remains at the bottom of the container takes time, but it’s essential. On consumers’ side, shopping in bulk requires discipline. I used to find it difficult myself, remembering to take my empty bottles and containers to work so that I’d have them with me when I went to do my groceries after work. All these new ways of doing things differently need time to get engrained in society,” she states, undeterred.

Granted, eating avocados and chia seeds for breakfast is nice, but what is the environmental and economic impact of that?

To the public, the adventure began in May 2016, with the opening of the store in a sprawling, if sparse, surface in Ixelles’ historic neighbourhood of Matongue. Internally though, the idea had started being tossed around between the three friends in 2014 and in 2015 work began in earnest. “As customers, we weren’t satisfied with what existed on the market. You either had the traditional Bio shops of the 90s, such as Dolma, or you had the newcomers such as Les Tanneurs. But that was pretty much it. Most of the existing concepts were underpinned by strong ecological ideals, but we wanted to go further and add economic and ethical dimensions to our project,” she explains, revealing that producers were at first rather doubtful of their concept. “Certain producers told us they weren’t going to come to Brussels to deliver only two crates of strawberries, for instance, but once that increased to 150 to 200 crates per week they saw the economic incentive for them to do so. I also think the fact that we choose one producer and stick to him, without putting loads of different ones in competition with each other, was a strong selling point. Indeed, once we’ve selected a jam, for example, we’ll stick with that one, we won’t stock various different brands other than if they’re complimentary,” she attests. And it is precisely this kind of commitment to small, local producers as well as a fundamental understanding of the way in which they work  – “these guys are small producers. If the guy who makes our yogurts is sick, they won’t be any yogurts in the store that week, it’s a simple as that” – which makes BelgoMarkt unique. This isn’t your average fresh food grocer with a penchant for marketing gimmickry and a propensity for consumerist grandstanding but, rather, an ecosystem of mom-and-pops operations whose uniqueness lies in its capacity to curate and nurture a constellation of small, local producers. “Our tomato, orange and lemon jams are made in Ixelles. Our Moroccan bread is too. All our dairy products, as well as all our fruits and vegetables, come from Brussels or its periphery.”

Most of the existing concepts were underpinned by strong ecological ideals, but we wanted to go further and add economic and ethical dimensions to our project.

I ask Melanie about the mammoth task of researching all these different producers, and it is evident that this is where most of the fun was had. “We travelled the country for two years meeting with producers, understanding their production processes and tasting their produce. Personally, it was an incredibly enriching process, I learned so much. I found out about Belgian honey makers who use beehives’ residue production instead of replacing it with glucose for example. I also learned about the infamous E250 in ham, the additive that allows your ham to stay nice and pink, and the challenge it was for certain producers to find ways to stop using it. We also met the guy who makes hemp oil that has exactly the same nutritive value as olive oil. In many ways, I discovered Belgium’s culinary heritage – each meeting with a new producer was an experience in itself,” marvels Melanie, who also describes herself, inevitably, as the foodie one of the bunch. “I’m in charge of selecting and purchasing, meeting with producers – all the fun stuff actually. I’m also in charge of personnel, which is much more difficult – it’s an aspect I had underestimated. Trésor, my partner, used to work for a media agency and is now in charge of accounting and maintenance. Accounting is particularly difficult as we work with over a thousand small producers and each one sends us his or her bill, meaning there are a ton of invoices to input into the system. Then there’s Stef, who’s been part of the team since the beginning but only just left her job as a consultant to develop new business in B2B, renovate the stock area as well as oversee the opening of our kitchen in September.”

Bringing us to the issue of education. Indeed, be it in the use of seasonal produce, the organisation required to reduce packaging as well how to best use food waste, educating the masses is key. “We have recyclable sachets in store which customers can use, and we still go through 18,000 of them each month, which is enormous. Despite the best of intentions, most people still aren’t used to bringing their own bags and containers – changing habits takes time,” she says, adding that the store is currently testing out a consignment system for containers. As far as the use of seasonal produce goes, that’s where the opening, in September, of the kitchen and restaurant comes in. “The idea with the kitchen is, in the first instance, to recycle a lot of the food surplus we have in store – food waste that, for presentation reasons, isn’t put out on the shelves. Secondly, we also want to use the kitchen to show our customers how they can replace certain cooking basics that we don’t sell – things like olive oil, for example, or lemons. The key is helping them in their shift to local, bringing them closer to production centers, without necessarily changing their eating habits. Luckily, most of our customers realise the need for change and have a real willingness to do so.”

We travelled the country for two years meeting with producers, understanding their production processes and tasting their produce.

As with most new age grocers and organic shops though, the customer base remains, for the most part, resolutely white, privileged and middle class. Indeed, price perceptions, long-engrained habits as well as cultural differences have meant that the ushering of a new era of enlightenment in food consumption has, for the moment, mostly been a luxury only enjoyed by the better-off pockets of the population, a fact not lost on the founders of a local supermarket nestled in the heart of Brussels’ historically Congolese-heavy neighbourhood of Matonge. “Right from the beginning, we’ve wanted to engage with the Congolose community that surrounds us. We’d love to do an afternoon of Congolose stories for children and are looking into ways of getting the Congolose bread sold in store. I also notice some of the women come in for our hemp oil, which they use for their hair, but there’s no doubt that we’d love to do more. I also think that the better our prices will become, the more they’ll have real incentives to shop with us. Fact is, for basic products we’re not as competitive as, say, a Delhaize or Carrefour. But on their Bio products as well as dry foods, we are. So what we’re noticing at the moment is people shopping at both, getting their basics from the traditional supermarket chains and getting their fruit and vegetables or rye rice from us,” she explains. This willingness to engage and nurture is also evident in the BelgoMarkt’s approach to hiring. It works with Actiris, the Brussels Region’s employment agency, in finding people who, in spite of not having completed high school, are taken on as paid interns at first. “We’ve had two great experiences. First we started with Zach, who’s currently training to become our store manager, then we found Adam, whom we also took on as a paid intern and will, I think, stay on. The people we work with would have never been our typical customer because they don’t have that kind of spending power and don’t live in the neighbourhood so it’s been great to witness this sense of awakening in them. Humanly it’s a very enriching experience.”

Something needs to change, and there’s little doubt that concepts such as BelgoMarkt do their part in suggesting sustainable solutions.

Looking to the future, a lot remains to be done. “I’ve learned so much in two years it’s insane. At the very beginning, things were a bit out of control. We had received so much press coverage that our shop looked empty after a few days which I think disappointed a lot of first-time customers. We weren’t prepared for that level of initial success, and our stock couldn’t sustain it. Working with hundreds of small producers, who all have their own production constraints, we couldn’t simply ask a distributor to make another delivery. But that’s something we’ve now resolved, and the renovation of our stock that Steph is overseeing will also help. We’re also going to work on our communication – especially our social media strategies – as well as our internal processes, and we’re slowly starting to look into online shopping, as it’s a service customers increasingly expect. Then there’s the opening of our kitchen and restaurant,” she reminds herself in the typical fashion of an entrepreneur a tad overwhelmed by the sheer thought of the work that remains to be done.

No one in his or her right mind disputes the urgent need to radically rethink the way we grow, produce, market, distribute, consume and dispose of food in the 21st century. Spin it anyway you want, eating mangoes in Belgium in December simply makes no sense, just as fishing shrimps off the Belgian coast, shipping them off to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh to be peeled then hauling them back to Belgium for sale is so completely twisted it’s a farce. Something – heck, a lot – needs to change, and there’s little doubt that concepts such as BelgoMarkt do their part in suggesting sustainable solutions. Not only do they reinvigorate the local economy, disrupting entrenched models and methods, they also unite the local community around a common cause, incentivising and encouraging it to rethink it’s habits and contradictions and drawing fervent loyalty because of it. Case in point, the last time I was in the shop, I bumped into an old acquaintance, the director of a non-profit art center here in Ixelles who lived in the neighbourhood. After the usual catching up, she told me she was about to move. “We’ve found a house in Forest, it’s a lovely neighbourhood. We’ll really miss this though,” she confides, gesturing at the rest of the store.

Rue de Dublinstraat 19 (1050)
Open everyday (10h to 19h) except Sundays (10h to 16h) and Mondays (closed)