By Morwenna Kearns
When I arrived at The Clean Kilo a little after 12pm on Saturday, there was quite a queue of wind-battered people waiting outside. Was this a bad sign? Had something gone wrong? Had the newest addition to the UK's growing network of zero-packaging shops, scheduled officially open at noon in Birmingham, been blighted with teething troubles and been forced to delay its first day of business?
Nope. It was just incredibly busy. So busy that the shop, housed in a gorgeous red-brick Victorian building in the city's creative area of Digbeth, had to operate a one-in-one-out policy which maintained a wait of around 45 minutes. The queue waited patiently with their jute tote bags filled with Tupperware and jars, ready to fill.
Jeanette Wong, who founded The Clean Kilo with her partner Tom Pell, was greeting shoppers at the door, apologising for the wait and giving some background about the zero-waste supermarket idea. Tom – or Dr Pell – was working as a PhD chemist at a university in Melbourne, Australia where he discovered shops where people could bring their own containers to fill with the groceries on sale rather than buying them pre-packaged. It reduces both packaging, especially plastic, and food waste, as customers only buy what they need. Tom was looking for a way to make a positive impact, having been discouraged from his plan to work in the green chemistry sector, and so The Clean Kilo was born. It took a few months of crowdfunding but the market was ready for the concept of packaging-free shopping to be revived for the 21st century.
First, you take your containers and bags to the first weighing station, where they're weighed and labelled with a barcode with its empty weight information. Then, you're free to roam.
The place is beautiful. Jeanette mentioned that the shelves are made from authentic vintage floorboards reclaimed from a building being renovated, a theme that continues outside: the exterior sign is made from Canadian redwood joists from a demolished building, with the individual letters cut out by a local carpentry business. It's industrial chic, done in a clean and welcoming way.
In the centre of the room a small display of local produce – including some pay-what-you-feel rhubarb, grown in the city – draws the eye, but there's plenty to see – and buy. There's a machine freshly squeezing orange juice and another one swirling around homemade plant milks, ice cream freezers, bread baskets and a water station for customers to refill their drinks bottles for free. There's a selection of oils and vinegars, loose coffee and tea, steel drums of household products like cleaning products and a display of toiletries such as Mooncups and deodorants in plastic-free packaging.
But it's the dry food dispensers that are at the core of the zero-waste concept. Essentially a grown-up pick 'n' mix, there are cereals, baking ingredients, dried fruits, nuts, grains, pasta, rice, legumes and more in gravity dispensers and bins, from which you fill your own reusable containers, the glass jars available to purchase or the paper bags provided. There's also a gorgeous array of spices in lovely big jars, just as they should be. Allergy information, best before dates and the price per 100g or 10g is displayed on each product's container, and some kitchen scales are supplied so you can weigh as you go along (although I'm not sure how easy it is to return surplus produce back to the dispensers if you go a bit OTT).
Once you've filled up, you take your purchases to a second weigh station, this time self-service. Choose your products from a digital menu, weigh them, scan the barcode from your first label to tare them (that is, extract the weight of the empty containers), calculate the cost and receive another barcode sticker with the final weight and price to pay. I was advised not to stick this label over the first, as keeping the empty, taring weight label on your containers means you can use them again next time without having to go to the first set of scales. To be honest, I'm not sure what the point was of this second weighing-and-labelling station, as you then have to queue up again to pay at the till. If it's possible to pay at this second point, it'd make a lot more sense.
And what of the cost? Affordability is among the key intentions of The Clean Kilo, but the costs varied. I possibly bought the most expensive product in the place – ginger covered in raw, organic, vegan chocolate at £4.40/100g, meaning my only half-filled reclaimed takeaway curry container came in at over a fiver – but my organic dried figs were priced more as a snack than a gift (£1 for a decent couple of handfuls). It's surely the dry ingredients where you can make a saving, especially if you're an adventurous cook who wants to try new flavours without buying more than you need. For example, ground cumin is 21p per 10g, perfect for a recipe that only calls for a couple of teaspoons. There's no meat that I could see – happily, for the obvious vegan contingent queuing out the door – but there are eggs, which you can buy singly. The opening hours are convenient for the office and shop workers of the local area – 8am to 2pm, then 4pm till 7pm on weekdays, plus weekend opening hours – and it's simply a nice place to shop.
There's a small window-side table for shoppers to sit – the addition of hot coffee and tea would be perfect, along with more of the homemade cakes available – and rumour has it that a section for frozen food might be planned for the future. Apparently the queues had dissipated by the following day, but I expect The Clean Kilo won't be short of willing customers.