Roman Road’s SimplyFresh is much more than just a convenience store. We talk to owner Mehmet Guzel, known as Mem, about his plans to bring health foods and local products to Roman Road.
When you walk through the doors of SimplyFresh, you leave the hustle and bustle of Roman Road and enter a foodie oasis. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with fresh fruit and vegetables and gourmet foods presented beautifully on wooden shelves and in wicker panniers. The deli at the back of the store sells specialist cheeses, olives and meaty cold cuts.
Guzel’s family has been trading on Roman Road since 2002. Originally, the family ran the very popular Turkish convenience store, Can Supermarket, located just two doors down from where it is today.
Guzel’s father opened Can Supermarket in 2002, then in 2013 he opened a second shop, in an old bike shop, where SimplyFresh stands today. The Guzel family no longer own the original store and now 34-year old Guzel, along with his two brothers, Ilkay and Kenan Guzel focus on the expansion of this store and other stores throughout London.
SimplyFresh is known as being one of the only suppliers of organic and health foods in the area, and although fruit and veg are their fastest-selling products, they are an important part of sales. Guzel keeps up with the newest health food trends in industry publications, Twitter and Instagram, and decides what to stock through trial and error.
‘A brand that sells really well is Nomnom. Their chocolate is delicious and I just love their vibe and creativity – they’re just a bunch of teenagers having fun’ explains Guzel.
The delicious sourdough bread you will find at SimplyFresh comes from the Little Bread Pedlar in nearby Bermondsey. The bottles of olive oil come from the Guzel family’s olive grove in Datça, a town on the Aegean coast of Turkey. They harvest the olives in late autumn and drive the oil back to the UK when they return from their holiday.
As more and more of his customers care about plastic use and tell him that they care, he can start to change his stock to suit this. ‘At the moment, I’m trialling some glass water and milk bottles as well as plastic, and they seem to be going down pretty well. The Borough Wine and Ecover have been a hit since day one and we want to build on this responsible retailing’ says Guzel.
A few years ago, when the charge on plastic bags first came in, Guzel trialled this in the shop. At the time, lots of people objected to it, and so he took it away. ‘Now, I think I’ll bring it back, people have had more time to get used to it, and I want to donate the money to various charities.’
Over the years, Guzel has developed relationships with suppliers from across the country. A lot of his product comes from local suppliers as well as health food wholesalers, and he has relationships with organic farmers in Wales and Kent and a fishing Co-Op in Cornwall. ‘We go to New Spitalfields Market six times a week for the fruit and veg’ he explains.
Sourcing produce from the market regularly is the only way to maintain the right levels and highest quality of fresh produce, explains Guzel. ‘It can be tricky though, as the price they charge us can vary hugely, and as we don’t like to change our prices too much, sometimes the size of our margin changes a lot.’
Although SimplyFresh is strongly associated with Roman Road, the Guzel family originally lived in Hackney. ‘Roman Road was close enough, and it was a good opportunity’ explains Guzel.
Guzel says his relationships with his customers are what made that possible. ‘My brothers and I worked hard to build a rapport with our customers, and many people moved from one shop to the other with us.’
As he says this, two girls that he has known since school walk past, and Guzel greets them and their babies warmly and by name – although he grew up in Hackney, he is a part of the Roman.
‘Knowing my customers that well is great’ he laughs. ‘It means they can tell me what they want, what they don’t want, and what they want more of.’
It isn’t only the customers that care about Guzel, he cares deeply about his customers, and the area they live in. Guzel moved to Globe Town a few years ago and now lives just off Roman Road with his wife, daughter Esme and miniature dachshund Penny.
As well as living, working and shopping on Roman Road, Guzel is fighting to improve it. He is part of the Globe Town Steering Committee, a coalition of local businesses, residents and community groups working in partnership with Roman Road Trust and the local authority to help improve the local high street.
‘I know that gentrification is tricky, and comes with its own set of issues, but Globe Town needs the money that it brings. I think it is a good thing for all types of people to live together.’
Guzel spends a lot of time on the Roman, and you will often see him at SNAP, or Bamboo & Bee picking up a gift or two, at Recharge having a coffee. ‘The coffees at Recharge are the best around’ says Guzel.
His love of the local community is backed up by a fierce love of the high street and a well-founded fear of corporations that in the future could threaten to put him out of business.
‘Online deliveries scare me’ he explains. ‘When you could only get food delivered one or two days after making the order, I knew we were fine, but now Amazon can deliver food an hour or two later and you can get a delicious and cheap meal from Deliveroo? I’m not so sure’ Guzel trails off.
‘On the high street, we support each other. Even though Peckover Butchers and I sell some of the same products, I know that if someone goes into his store, it is a bonus for me, because they will probably come into mine afterwards for something else.’
What does he have planned for the future? Watch this space, because not only is there a new store in north-west London, but we hear that there soon might be another new store just round the corner.
An expansion into 205 Roman Road is also underway. This space used to be home to Magris, a famous East End pet shop, but Guzel plans to use it for a bigger space for the deli counter, and a kitchen to make homemade treats.
Pop in to see Mem and his miniature dachshund Penny from 7am to 11pm every day. ‘At the end of the day we’re a convenience store, so we have to be convenient for people at all times.’ Mehmet, we love you.
Find SimplyFresh at 201-203 Roman Road, E2 0QY and keep up with them on Instagram.
If you enjoyed reading about Mem, you might find our piece on Cafe East also interesting.