There are big plans afoot for a pioneering co-operative food store on a mission to create community, stimulate local business and promote sustainability…
Named after the Irish Gaelic word for happiness, Sonas Co-op in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, is the city’s first zero waste loose food refill store, café and event space.
Opening in Spring 2023, Sonas was the brainchild of a group of local people with a clear vision – to create a go-to destination for sustainable local shopping, food and friendship.
“Our aim to is to be a place of welcome, learning and growing where anyone can engage with food,” said co-founder Julie Hoey.
“People are becoming more interested in where food comes from and Sonas will give them the chance to engage with local food producers, understand food production and fix the links that have been broken between food producers and consumers.
“We are focused on being a significant part of the local community. Being a part of our place matters to us and having directors who are committed to Lisburn and wanting it to flourish is important.
“It’s a shared endeavour and we also recognise that each person brings different skills to the mix, and each should be recompensed for that contribution.”
Creating community, stimulating local business and promoting sustainability are also central to the Sonas mission. To that end, the co-op’s seven founder members are planning to use their event space for a range of activities.
“It will be available for different groups in the community to use,” Julie explained. “We’ve got quite a lot of people who can teach sustainable ways of living, how to make good food from scratch, mend clothes and up-cycle textiles.
“We have other plans for hosting a repair café and allowing people the opportunity to swap things instead of throwing them away or buying new. All those things will be part of the shop strategy once we get up and running.”
For Julie and her colleagues, setting up Sonas as a co-operative was the natural choice from the start. “We knew we wanted to be a co-op. It is very much part of the founding principle of the shop. It’s a different way of doing business,” she said.
“We are about trying to connect people who eat food with people who produce food and there’s a strong co-operative focus in that.”
Julie and her colleagues set up Sonas thanks to help from Business Support for Co-ops, delivered by Co-operatives UK in partnership with The Co-operative Bank.
“Realising that existed was just really good. When you start a business, you have to learn to ask for the help you need. We were delighted when we got accepted on the programme.”
Their support came in the form of expert consultancy from co-operative advisor Tiziana O’Hara. “We were grateful for her friendly, professional advice,” said Julie.
“She advised us on the structure of our co-op – and helped us write our rules. She helped us, as potential directors, to understand the implications and responsibilities of that.
“Tiziana also gave us a very strong sense of being supported and encouraged in the process. She cheered us on and helped us take each new step. She is responsive and we’ve been able to ask questions, have honest conversations and have access to useful resources that help us know what to do.”
Now, even before opening, Sonas is looking to support and collaborate with other co-ops. “We’ve reached out to a greengrocer co-operative that’s in the early stages of setting up in Carrickfergus. We want to explore if we could buy wholesale together,” said Julie.
“I’m really inspired by businesses lifting up other business and creating a buzz in a city centre. We aim to create a place where people want to come, and to animate the city centre to open up opportunities for other businesses. We want to be a positive and hopeful presence on the high street.”