Vote With Your Wallet: Why we all need to support independent businesses

Since my little rebrand and refocus on food, travel and Milton Keynes, I realised I didn’t want to work with chain restaurants on my blog anymore. I made the conscious decision to decline any invitations to new openings in the city that were national chains and showcase local businesses and eateries. It was a natural development and it felt right. It is one that I felt quite passionate about sticking to. I didn’t feel like I could truly be someone who celebrated Milton Keynes and what a great place it was if the only places I sent people to eat at were Zizzi or Bella Italia. (Wouldn’t recommend either of them, tbh)

I guess you could say that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about chains and it’s part of the reason why I feel like I’ve got my work cut out changing people’s perceptions about Milton Keynes. When I started university and said I was from Milton Keynes, I would get one of a few answers. When I meet new people now, it’s not really changed. Here are some examples of the responses…

“Isn’t that the place with all the roundabouts?”

“Concrete cows?”

“Eh? Where’s that?”

“Milton Keynes is a sh*thole.”

“Oh cool, there’s not really a lot in MK is there?”

“It’s got no character. Isn’t there like five Nandos?”

Actually, there are six Nando’s. And it’s conveniently located on the London to Birmingham train line, FYI.

I am allowed to call my home town a shithole. Not you, who hasn’t even BEEN to Milton Keynes.

Part of the reason I started writing about MK was that very few people were sticking up for it and showcasing the businesses that make it unique. Not even some of the local publications until recently were actually celebrating the good stuff about Milton Keynes and the passionate individuals behind local businesses. Granted, things are starting to change – CIRCUS magazine is one of the publications that do truly advocate independents. I’m proud to be working with Circus on my own column and as part of the Independent Food & Drink Awards – watch this space!

However, some publications still choose to have corporate, national chains that you can find in Birmingham on the front cover of their magazine. Fair enough, they have the budget. But to me, the true character of a place comes from the local independents. I know MK doesn’t have a traditional high street – but there are restaurants and shops in this city that are run by people who are passionate and who truly encapsulate what Milton Keynes is all about.

I feel pretty strongly about this issue, lol can you tell.

After I saw this post from Brooklyn Pizza in Northampton, I decided I wanted to say something. I needed to say something. You can read the full post for yourself, but it made me pretty sad. The post said how the last weekend of July was their worst trading weekend. On Saturday, they took £75. Over five hours. That’s £15 an hour.

And that £75 has to cover rent, wages, ingredients.

Unfortunately, the story remains the same for some businesses in Milton Keynes too. Craft & Cleaver in The Hub closed this year after just nine months of being open. Gyre & Gimble in Buckingham closed just last week because the footfall no longer justified their rent price. It breaks my heart, because often, these places become an integral part of the local community. Gyre & Gimble had been around for six years.

So I guess the question here is – how do you stop this from happening?

Well, Brooklyn Pizza made a bloody good point in their post. And I’m going to relay it here because I think it will make you think too.

“It’s the councils fault for putting parking costs up or rents are too high, rates are too high, the council should do more to make it cheaper, landlords should make it cheaper. They absolutely are all factors, but this got me thinking, what is the biggest factor. People. Its people who are the biggest factor in this. People decide whether to leave the house and go into town, or order online from Amazon, or Just Eat. People decide whether to go to a big chain restaurant than that local independent. People decide whether to go to Northampton, or Milton Keynes, or even Rushden Lakes. People decide all of these things. Not the council, not the government.”

PEOPLE.

Not the council, not the government.

People. You. You, the consumer.

That makes an awful lot of sense. I’m not saying that rents in Centre:MK being ten times the price of rent in Stony Stratford doesn’t have a huge part to play in it – it definitely does – but customers have the power to vote with their wallets and put their hard-earned cash into the local community, not corporate chains.

I’ve had messages from people saying it’s the fault of places like Centre:MK. And I know it’s partially their fault. My Grandad was one of the first retailers in the shopping centre when it opened. Neal’s Toys was a very widely known toy shop in MK and Bletchley (ask your parents and grandparents) And guess what? He had to close because of the rent. It was an issue over 25 years ago and it’s still a huge issue now. But you guys have the power to make a difference too. Don’t just accept the situation as it is.

You can choose to shop at local businesses. You can choose to eat at independent restaurants. You literally have full control over where you spend your money.

Business owners are passionate. They start businesses because they are passionate about something, whether it’s authentic street food or reworked wood items. So when you spend money with an independent business, your money doesn’t go into the pocket of a corporate fat cat. It goes back into the business and into the community. And there’s proof of that – research shows that £10 spent with a local independent shop means up to an additional £50 goes back into the local economy.

And the service is so personal too – Are you on first name terms with the manager of Pizza Express? Can you drop the manager of Nando’s a quick message to save you a table tomorrow? Probably not. I’m so lucky that my blog has given me the opportunity to meet and befriend people like Safia from Saf’s Kitchen, Franzi from MK Biergarten, the boys behind Blackpit Brewery, the lovely owners of French Affaire, Laurence from Wharf Distillery and so many more. But they are all so key to their local communities too. Saf brings her neighbours together and cooks them Punjabi food every so often and you just don’t get that with big chains.

Milton Keynes is a pretty extreme example of a place overrun by chains – the central business district is pretty much all chains. We’re lucky that the surrounding areas like Stony Stratford, Woburn Sands, Wolverton and Olney remain fairly traditional high streets and breeding grounds for fantastic local independents.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for chain restaurants. I love a Nandos and I’m partial to a Wagamama. But what I love more, is going to a restaurant and having freshly cooked food that is locally sourced and made with love. Not a mass-produced Katsu sauce or peri peri.

When an independent business closes, it’s sad. But don’t be so fast to play the blame game. Blame the rents, blame the council. But unfortunately, with indies, it’s a case of use it or lose it. There aren’t any extra branches to absorb losses or empty seats. We have a responsibility as a local community to support independent businesses if we want to keep them.

All of my MK Food Guides feature independent and small restaurants. I don’t want to promote chains. In fact, I turned down a local campaign just yesterday because it focussed on promoting chain restaurants in CMK. ANd you’ll be pleased to know I won’t be attending the opening party of the second Slug & Lettuce in MK.

If I can make the conscious decision to support these businesses, then you can too – I will always create content that inspires you to shop local, from my newsletters to my blog posts.

RANT OVER. I hope I’ve inspired you to look a bit closer to home and discover some more independent businesses. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you make conscious decisions to shop and eat local as best you can? Is your home town overrun with chains? Let me know!

I appreciate that not everyone can access independent businesses and that sometimes they’re a little bit more expensive than chains – but not always! However, I thought I’d share some quick tips on how you can support independent businesses and show them some love that don’t always require spending money.

💛 Shop and eat local – Next time you eat out or need to grab some groceries, stop and think if there’s an independent alternative or if there’s a local shop nearby that will stock them. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m working on a ‘best of’ post for my MK Food Guides which will help you find alternatives in MK to some of the big chains.

💛 Engage with their social media content – Show your support by liking, commenting and sharing local business’ social media posts. Not every business has the time or budget to invest in social media campaigns so a little like here and there goes a long way – and it might be spotted by someone else!

💛 Read publications that support independent businesses – Cheeky plug here, but by reading more blogs, websites and magazines (like my blog and CIRCUS!) you will find out about local businesses and new openings, making even easier for you to show your support. Plus, the more readers we have the more we can continue to do what we’re doing.

💛 Share the love – Recommend your friends! If you find a restaurant or shop you love, tell all your friends about it. It’s one of the main reasons I love blogging so much – I love recommending great places to eat and events that I know you’ll enjoy. Nearly 10 people have told me in the last two months that they have visited The Greedy Italian on my recommendation – 10!! That means a lot to a small business.

Any more tips for supporting independent businesses? Let me know!

If you want to find out more about local businesses in Milton Keynes you can support, sign up to The Squeeze where I feature an independent business owner every month.

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I'm Sophie, a 20-something Milton Keynes food & travel blogger helping you to discover great eats and adventures in MK, Bucks and beyond.

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1 Comments

  1. Paul Day wrote:

    Absolutely. A great post. Local independent businesses need all our support. I try and promote our town’s local businesses any way I can, so when you’re next planning to do a review in Newport Pagnell, maybe I can join you – Paul (Mayor of Newport Pagnell)

    Posted 11.12.19 Reply

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