How the recent achievements of two of Borough’s ethically-minded entrepreneurs will help them expand their businesses—and embolden the Market’s mission to support innovative start-ups
Words: Ellie Costigan
Portrait (above): Joseph Fox
The term ‘award-winning’ is bandied about so much these days it has almost lost all meaning: without context, for all we know the winner in question was the only one that entered said awards, or it was something given to them by their mum. The recent awards won by Borough Market traders Change Please and nibs etc. are decidedly more global in scope—and legitimately awe-inspiring. Reaching the finals and semi-finals of the WeWork Creator Awards, respectively, meant pitching to an audience of thousands and a stern panel of judges (including Ashton Kutcher, for whose involvement there’s a logical explanation, but to explain it would ruin the fun) and battling off competition from hundreds of creative businesses from across the world.
It’s a thought most would find intimidating to say the least: but these two are veterans. “It was fun—it’s always great telling people about the organisation and showing that there is a way to tackle a problem that we all see on our streets,” says Cemal Ezel, founder of the Change Please social enterprise, which provides homeless Londoners with training and employment through its coffee stands. “I want to do it all again,” agrees Chloe of nibs etc., purveyor of crackers, cakes and granola made from juice pulp, a food industry waste product. Indeed, she’s already done it twice, having been crowned the winner of the WeWork ‘Incubator’ award in 2017.
As overall semi-finalist (and winner of the Business Venture category in the UK) for this year, nibs etc. pocketed £55,000—which has huge implications for the business. “It’s going to enable me to do so many things, but the priorities for me are production and people,” Chloe continues. “I would love ultimately to have my own kitchen space, hire more people—it’s just me and a part-time baker at the moment—and work with other social enterprises such as Luminary Bakery. But first and foremost, I am going to put it towards a manufacturer.”
Scaling up doesn’t mean moving away from nibs etc.’s ethical roots, though: “We’re definitely going for organic growth. I see a lot of food start-ups pitching for several hundred thousand pounds from the get-go and launching into big supermarkets, but that’s not the path I want to go down,” she continues. “It’s important to me that I work with someone small, who believes in our story and ethos. At the moment, I have to give my all just to get things done; I know I could do better. This money will help take it to the next step.”
Cemal too is hoping to expand Change Please’s operations: “We are looking to roll out sites nationwide and also open new sites in New York later this year,” he says. “The ultimate mark of success is the number of people that we can support and, through it, the number of lives we can change.” Cemal’s WeWork accolade came as part of a run of successes for Change Please, having been named “start-up of 2018” by Richard Branson in The Sunday Times, and having recently launched a partnership with the Mayor of London. This new initiative see two new sites open up in the capital as a result of a successful bid for the Mayor’s Rough Sleeping Innovation Fund.
The benefit of these awards goes beyond the much-needed cash injection: it puts these businesses on the world map—and gives the teams behind them a much-deserved morale boost. “You almost get used to what you are doing. You see it as your day-to-day and rarely take a step back and look at it objectively,” says Cemal. “These kinds of things are great to let the team know that we’re actually doing something really amazing.”
The big challenges
It’s these kinds of initiatives—the ones that take the big challenges society is facing and make them their everyday mission to tackle—that the Market actively seeks to support and encourage. “It’s one of the main reasons the Market is here,” says Darren Heneghan, Borough’s managing director. “Our job is to create the backdrop to enable those artisans, innovators and entrepreneurs to create their magic.” Indeed, at the moment the Market remains nibs etc.’s only shop front—and it’s proved a valuable stepping stone in the establishment of the business. “This was my first weekly market and it’s helped me systemise production,” says Chloe. “Having a regular point of sale every week has enabled me to get in front of new audiences and really build a customer base, which is one of the nicest things for us: having locals come back and become regulars. The Market’s also been a really supportive network: as a voice of sustainability, it chimes with what we are trying to promote and in terms of marketing and PR, it’s been very helpful—especially as that’s something start-ups often don’t have the resources to invest in.”
For both businesses, commercial success comes with having the business nous to take products we all know, love, and regularly buy—that is, good coffee and crackers—and utilise that existing market to do some good. “When Cemal started out he had a really, really good idea, but importantly it came at the right time: 20 years ago, it perhaps wouldn’t have resonated so much, as fewer people bought coffee and more people bought the Big Issue,” Darren continues. “Similarly with nibs etc.—people are increasingly concerned about and interested in food waste reduction, therefore it’s a product of the time and fits perfectly with the mood of a lot of customers who come to Borough Market. Ethics are great, but if you want something to really have traction, it must be something that people relate to and want to buy. It’s about putting ethics and commerce together.”
In other words, if the product wasn’t great, it wouldn’t have worked half as well—and for Cemal, a site at Borough has helped prove that. “It is well known that to be in the Market, the quality and provenance of your offering needs to be incredibly rigorous. That has meant that new partners have instantly been happy to work with us,” he says. “Further, the revenue generated from our outpost at the Market has directly led to us being able to fund the opening of new sites and, therefore, support new people. Without Change Please having the support of Borough Market, there is no way we would have grown so quickly.”
It’s these success stories that spurs the Market on—and why it has teamed up with Southbank University to bring even more young and inspiring innovators to join its ranks, with a pitch dedicated to a rotating roster of businesses coming to the Green Market this spring. “It’s going to be really great,” enthuses Darren. “We’re working with a very highly regarded academic institution with fantastically creative people. Our job is to help them make it happen and we will do our bit to offer support. It’s the next step in helping more people bring brilliant, ethical products to the Market.”