Something very exciting happened in Bow yesterday. We got a supermarket.
It's not like there was nowhere to buy food before. The E3 postcode has a few minor supermarkets, plus a big Tesco over in the corner in Bromley-by-Bow. But the area around Roman Road has been appallingly served by decent sized food stores ever since Safeway (beside the library) closed about 10 years ago. The chain had been bought up by Morrisons, who promptly decided this store was surplus to their portfolio and shut it down. The building was demolished and the large adjacent car park lost, leaving local residents to make do with only small independent stores (or a long walk). What should have happened is that the site was promptly redeveloped and a new supermarket opened, but progress stalled due to planning issues and council shenanigans (morehere), and bugger all happened for years. Eventually a new grocery company stepped in, intent on delivering a newbuild store with stacks of apartments on top, and opening was definitely pencilled in for 2013, no 2014, no April 2015. And whereas residents moved into their flats some time back, only yesterday did the sliding doors on the ground floor finally swish open to the public. Shame it's a Tesco.
For reasons I've never fully understood, E3 has always felt like Tesco territory. The only big superstore in E3 (at Three Mills) is one of theirs, and when Bow Road got a crappy minimart under a hideous block of flats in 2009, that was a Tesco too. Venture up to Hackney and they have a big Tesco, while two small ones recently opened on the roads to Poplar and Stratford. I once dreamed of a Sainsbury to provide a bit of competition and variety, but when they did finally arrive it was a miserably-stocked 'Local' beside Bromley-by-Bow station. Asda? Isle of Dogs. Morrisons? Wrong side of Stratford. Lidl? More sort of Limehouse. Waitrose? Opposite ends of the DLR. And yes, I know those places I've mentioned aren't ridiculously far away by national standards, but when you want to go food shopping and don't have a car, you need somewhere within convenient toddling distance. [my E3 local supermarket map]
Tens of thousands of people between Bow Road and Victoria Park now have a large supermarket within convenient toddling distance. It lies just off Roman Road, which you might think was bad news for local traders who already have a tough enough time spinning out a living. Certainly the two pharmacies closest to the new Tesco may not be delighted to have cheaper toothpaste and lotions for sale across the road, and the Iceland in the former Woolworths may be concerned by a relatively upmarket bank of chiller cabinets moving into the area. But it's generally accepted that Roman Road has been suffering these past ten years without an anchor supermarket, as local residents have taken their credit cards elsewhere for lack of any major reason to visit. Fingers crossed that a proper Tesco encourages more to shop locally, especially the gentrified incomers, and that their spending money necessarily dribbles into cafes, bakeries, clothes shops, market stalls and everything nearby.
But blimey, don't the days of low-rise supermarkets seem a very long time ago. In common with almost every other supermarket shoehorned into inner London of late, this one sits at the bottom of a tall block of flats, this rising up to ten storeys. In fact this is more an apartment cluster, additionally covering the previous car park, and with ground floor flats along one edge of the site. Whilst not excessively tall - there's a much higher council block close by - the area definitely now feels more congestedly overlooked than before. Modern retail development clearly understands the simple rule 'floor space multiplied by height equals profit'. Development money has paid for a small linear playground in one corner, and also a rather enjoyable series of plinths wiggling along the alleyway depicting starmaps throughout the year. I tried to make sense of the indentations for the autumn equinox but failed, because a) it wasn't dark b) it never gets dark in inner London c) even if it did get dark the flats above Tesco block out most of the sky.
I popped round on Day One to enjoy the Bow Has An Actual Supermarket experience for myself. I don't know if I was expecting anything special, and maybe there was around opening time, but by early evening the only sign of novelty was an arch of balloons in the window and a positively beaming security guard by the front door. Not much was happening at the kiosk, but the aisles were fairly busy from the fruit and vegetables onwards. And so many aisles! Not a lot by superstore standards, probably only about ten, but for downsized Bow a revelation. From frozen foods to baby and bath, with dairy and World Foods inbetween, there was actually a decent choice for once. Mini versions of major supermarkets tend to serve up very limited options, usually aimed at snacking and reheating rather than cooking, but this Metro could fill up your larder and fridge rather more creatively. All those kinds of mince, and fresh bread, and all the ingredients you need for baking... a tipping point had been crossed.
It being Day One a number of senior staff were wandering around pointing at things. The chiller cabinets looked the part, apparently, but the light bulbs weren't as neat as they should have been (which is what happens when you allow customers into a pristine store). They also nodded favourably at presentation along the racks of compact discs, which must be the first time popular music has been sold legitimately on Roman Road since Woolworths closed. I spotted one junior member of staff wearing an "I'm new on this team" badge, which was odd, because by rights I'd have thought everyone should have been wearing one. Customers didn't quite know where to find things, for obvious reasons, and one resident spent ages hunting for fillet steak. He'd hunted in vain, as a nearby member of staff confirmed, but she went on to offer to order some in for him, which is not generally what happens in my local Co-Op.
Good news, even in 2015 new supermarkets still have proper tills. Even better, while the drones shuffled through self service I walked straight up to a queueless staffed checkout where I was served and packed in one pleasant minute. Polite and smiley while half your stuff goes into bags before you've even finished loading the conveyor, that's my kind of service. The store does do click and collect for those of you modern types who insist on shopping online, and there's even a free car park in a gloomy concrete cavern out back, which is novel on Roman Road of late. The store feels rather sterile, and I'd still rather it wasn't another Tesco, and not everyone is pleased to see it here. But I spotted a Tower Hamlets market official wandering out with four packed plastic bags, no doubt equally pleased by the sudden explosion of choice, so I think Bow's got a winner.