What happens when you blend art with empty retail space? Free food for starters...

With an honours degree in sculpture and a background teaching visual arts, as well as having work featured in a number of galleries including Govett-Brewster, the Adam Art Gallery and Wellington's City Gallery, Kim Paton decided to venture into new territory a few years ago by opening up two grocery stores—one in Raglan and the other in Hamilton.

“It came out with a passion for independent business,” says Paton of her venture. But very quickly she realised just how inefficient it was to run the stores, saying she was “baffled by the food waste”.

When public art programme ‘Letting Space’ commissioned her to create an art project in an empty retail space—themed around artists exploring the commercial environment—she struck upon an idea that could help utilise this food wastage. 

“I proposed a grocery store for a two week trial period in Wellington that replicated a real grocery store experience,” says Paton. 

Funded by Creative New Zealand, Paton called her community project ‘Free Store’, the first of which was opened for a two week trial in Wellington’s Ghuznee street in June this year. Earlier this week, the store was permanently reopened in Wellington's Left Bank, Cuba Mall. 

The concept (originally founded in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco by The Diggers), brings together community groups, artists, schools, the council and local businesses to help effect change, minimise waste and provide food for no charge to people in the community by redistributing food that would otherwise not be sold. Relying heavily on volunteers, it’s a project Paton describes as unique because it cuts across art, social and economic contexts. 

For Paton, it wasn’t just a place to store and giveaway food—it had to be an aesthetically appealing space too. The interior fitout was largely created through the savvy use of recycled materials—like kitchen cupboard doors and chalkboards—complemented by local art and upcycled furniture. 

“We tried to make it different by keeping it vibrant, colourful and well cared for,” says Paton. 

When the store first opened for business, Paton says a lot of people initially visited out of curiosity. But as this curiosity faded, the more steady customers became apparent—people from council flats, students and pensioners (the latter of which surprised Paton the most).  

For a period of time, Paton estimates the store was receiving an average of 100 customers per day, with big queues winding their way outside the store. 

“The food stock looked empty so much of the time because the demand was so great,” comments Paton. “There’s a massive quantity of people in serious need. A lot of them are people who don’t put themselves in the foodbank category but who are still really struggling.” 

And what of the challenge of getting businesses on board? Paxton comments:  “It was really hard—we were in really dire shape for a while. Many of them couldn’t get their heads around the concept.” 

But with little time to spare, Paton’s project caught a break when Progressive Enterprises came on board in the eleventh hour, giving Paton and her team access to all of its Wellington supermarkets. 

“From then on it snowballed—we got tonnes and tonnes of business.” 

As well as sourcing produce from Progressive’s Countdown and Woolworths, Free Store received bread from Arobake and Brooklyn bakeries, coffee from Supreme and People’s Coffee, and more produce from Caffe Italiano. 

But while Paton managed to successfully secure food stocks in the end, was it as difficult to find a retail spot to lease for free? At a time when the recession was peaking, the answer is perhaps rather surprisingly, no. 

“We developed some very strong relationships with property developers in Wellington who said they were more than happy to provide free rent for the project.” 

Now with plans afoot to open a store in the Auckland suburb of Henderson in February, Paton is currently on the lookout for suppliers and a space to lease.

Paton already has strong backing by way of the Sustainable Business Network, along with members of the arts and community wellbeing team at the new Auckland Council. In fact, the new Auckland Council has proved fortuitous for Paton’s venture in another way. With the merge of the local councils, material from the former Waitakere City Council building is being utilised for the fitout of the new Free Store, like the timber panelling that is being converted into counters and shelving. 

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