Growing Ideas: The supermarket as a social hub

These stores carry more than just groceries

Entrepreneur Monique Ravenstijn has transformed a supermarket into a meeting space, workplace and shop for sustainable local products. What’s next in her vision of the grocery store as a social connector?

Her great-great-grandmother had a cheese shop “at a time when women couldn’t even be authorized signatories in a business,” says Monique Ravenstijn. Swimming against the current runs in the blood of this fifth-generation grocer and manager of two Jumbo supermarkets in the Netherlands.

Space to experiment

Ravenstijn, who prefers to be called by her first name (she also calls her supermarkets Jumbo Monique), started with a small Spar convenient store. Then two supermarkets followed on the Dutch island of Texel. A few years ago, she made the leap to the mainland, opening two new Jumbos, both at the tip of the province of Noord Holland. “We started with zero euros in sales there,” she says. “We really had to fight for that market.”

The fact that Monique entered the community as a newcomer gave her the space to try out new things. Moreover, she had reached a point in her life where she wondered, “What was I actually doing it all for? I made money in my first fifteen years as an entrepreneur. Now, I don’t think making money is bad. But I wanted to do something for society.”

The supermarket of the future

Monique thought that the supermarket of the future could take the place that the church once filled. Not in terms of religion, but as a place for people to meet and connect. Out of that idea came Jeelink, a concept in which “vitality, social care and circular entrepreneurship” help people to connect with each other.

For the ‘vitality’ component of Jeelink, in her Jumbo franchises, Monique works with about twenty local entrepreneurs to support and stimulate the local economy. They range from cauliflower and strawberry growers from the village, to the makers of chutney, mustard and peanut butter, produced at the local ‘care farm’ (a farm that combines social care with farming).

”I find roles for people who have been out of the labor market”

- Monique Ravenstijn, Jeelink

Monique points to the meeting-point square in her supermarkets as an example of social care. Here, local residents can enjoy conversation or a cup of coffee. There’s also a food bank. Caring for the community also manifests itself in the type of employee Monique hires. “I have six people who have been totally out of the labor market,” she says. “I try not to push them into a function. I turn that around: I look at where their qualities lie, and we find suitable work for them.”

Monique incorporates circular principles by reusing organic waste. One of her supermarkets has a composting machine. Customers can buy a bucket for one and a half euro, which they can then use to provide unlimited soil for their gardens. “Some of this soil is also used by local growers,” points out Monique. “Their products then come to our store. That’s how we work in a circular way.”

Incremental change

Monique does not expect to change the Unilevers of this world. But she does believe that an initiative like Jeelink can lead to incremental changes. “By offering local products, you make people think about where their food comes from,” she says. “By offering employees perspective and working in an environment that adapts to them instead of the other way around, you increase employee satisfaction. The food bank and composting machine create awareness about waste.”

For Monique, the beauty of Jeelink is that it kills two birds with one stone. The sustainable initiatives ensure greater visibility for the new stores, and regular customers like to return to a supermarket they have created a bond with. She sees a strong business case for the supermarkets; the stores’ survival is the basis for sustainable entrepreneurship.

A societal shift

Monique hopes that Jeelink will expand considerably in the future. She would like to see others embrace the philosophy as though it were their own. People can interpret it in their own way, she says. There are already life coaches who use the Jumbo as a starting point for a walking and discovery club. Jeelink will soon launch a magazine, including recipes, that will also be understandable for people who have a limited command of the Dutch language.

According to Monique, all the signals are green: “There’s a shift happening in society,” she says. “And that’s necessary, too. Jeelink is about you and me, about all of us. It’s about ensuring our future.”

”This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in the sector.