Nestled in an area undergoing vast regeneration and gentrification, Ridley Road market in Dalston, East London has served an ever-changing and lively community since the 1880s. A diverse mix of traders sell fresh produce shipped from all over the world, and the market even served as inspiration for the infamous British television soap opera, Eastenders.
During the summer of 2011, Hackney-based multidisciplinary collective The Decorators (in collaboration with Atelier ChanChan) transformed a vacant plot within the market into a temporary restaurant named ‘Ridley’s’. Visitors were encouraged to check the day’s shopping list on the blackboard and purchase the raw ingredients on the market. These could then be exchanged for a cooked lunch as part of a food-for-food mechanism. Those dining in the evening would be asked to pay £15 towards their meal, which included a £5 food voucher for use on the market.
The produce collected at lunch was used to cook dinner, the money made at dinner was then used to get ingredients for the following day’s lunch, and the voucher given with the dinner brought people back to the market long after the restaurant had ended. Suzanne O’Connell, one quarter of The Decorators, was kind enough to answer a few questions on this unique program.
What was the market trader’s reaction to the scheme? Did they see it as a positive addition to the market?
“Initially the market traders were dubious about our arrival. Ridley Rd market has many artist and designers taking pictures,using the street as a film set so they thought we were just some other ‘arty farty’ designers passing through. However, these were our most vital participants, providing us with the history and information of the market and most importantly supplies for the kitchen so it was important that they accepted us on the market. We spent 3 months getting to know the traders and slowly introduced the project. It wasn’t until we started the build and they saw the restaurant in action that the traders began to understand what we were about. By the second week of the project, the traders began to eat at Ridleys (we did a special Ridley’s breakfast) and were happy about the extra trade we brought to the market. By the end, the traders didn’t want us to leave!”
Could the self-sufficient Food for Food organism could be applied to other products and services?
“Yes for sure, there is a wonderful initiative, Timebank which has a presence in Hackney where trade & skills are traded – ‘For every hour’s help a member gives another (e.g. Spanish lesson, guttering mending, web design) they receive one time credit which they can then spend on receiving help from another member’. This credit could also be exchanged for a meal or other products. We are hoping to do another project in the area which will use this initiative and expand on the food for food initiative.”
Could you describe the consumer reaction to the project? A lot of the pedestrian thoroughfare on Ridley Road is to the large supermarket(s), did this intervention divert some of those sales to the market traders?
“We hope so- that was the aim of the voucher system where we hoped that by introducing the customers to the traders by name, that we might set up new relationships. Even if this was only a few over the course of the project, at least changing the behaviour of some people would be great! By demonstrating the amazing meals that could be made from Ridley Rd market produce, we wanted to demonstrate how cheap it can be to eat well.”
Ridley’s was always designed to be a temporary structure, but did it result in anything permanent, like improved trade? or future plans for the market?
“We heard from traders that there was an improvement in trade around the time of the project and for a few months after. However, we are not sure if that has lasted. It is important to continue working on the market and we would like to do another project there but will need to get funding. We are working on a project around the corner this summer at Dalston Square so hope to link back in with the market. We are just about to publish The Ridley Rd Recipe for Temporary Architecture book which we think will bring attention back to the market and perhaps more customers. The project was supported by Hackney Council and Design for London and helped remind them of the necessity to continue to invest in ways to bring vitality to the market.”
If you were to do it all again, what would differ?
“I think it is difficult to answer this as we learnt so much along the way and our slight naivety is what brought many of the successes of the project (plug into electricity and water for example)..I suppose if we were to do it again, we would like to find a way to continue the project for longer and find a way for Ridley Rd market to take on the management of the restaurant so they could perhaps find a way to continue to bring new customers to the market.”