A late Victorian terrace shop, 12 Mill Road is rumoured to have started life as a Fishmongers.
Arjuna pretty much as we know it today though began in 1970 when 21-year-old architecture graduate Patrick Boase moved in with friends Sarah Eno and Andrew Moffat and decided to open Cambridge’s first wholefood shop. After considering `Fodder’ and `Cornucopia’ as names for their radical business idea they finally settled upon 'Arjuna', inspired by Pat’s shadow puppet of the Hindu prince.
Starting to Trade
Testing the waters with a stall on Cambridge market, the trio opened a combined shop and restaurant on Mill Road, and despite having hardly any experience of running either kind of business, all were highly motivated by a mixture of idealism and a determination to have fun.
Arjuna was to provide an outlet for both of these ideals, and soon like-minded people were offering their services as staff.
Recalling the restaurant, one customer remembers, "you waited a long time - and then some very strange food arrived".
A Successful Business
Quickly establishing itself as a modestly successful business and unique feature of Cambridge life, 12 Mill Road became a focus for groups interested in new social, political or spiritual paths and hosted Cambridge’s first Women’s Lib meetings and early meetings of the Strawberry Fair committee.
Formation of the Co-op
Almost from the beginning, ways of giving all workers a full share in the ownership and control of the business were explored. Partners and staff received equal wages and were collectively involved in decision making, despite no existing legal framework for the organisation Arjuna wished to evolve into.
A new constitutional model developed by the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) provided the solution, and in 1976 the workers registered themselves under the new act and Arjuna the co-operative was born.
The transition was in many ways a smooth one, and numerous aspects of the running of the business proceeded exactly as before. One of the first members of the co-op describes the atmosphere at this time as “folksy, slow, and calm.”
Paradoxically the shop was intimidating to others, with wholefoods and vegetarianism still minority movements seen as cranky or 'hippyish', an image that would not change significantly until the 1980s when wholefoods made a long slow move into the mainstream and Arjuna’s customer base widened.
By the late 1970s it was clear that Arjuna’s storage and packing space was woefully inadequate. The search for a warehouse began and in 1984 Arjuna moved operations to a unit in Dale’s Brewery, enabling the shop to be extended into the old packing room and goods to be bought in greater bulk at lower prices. The warehouse also provided an opportunity to expand Arjuna’s wholesaling to colleges, restaurants and village shops.
In 1987 a small but welcoming Cafe took root in the newly built extension, fulfilling a need on Mill Road and attracting a small but loyal clientele with a selection of teas, snacks and homemade soup.
While the cafe didn’t last, two new projects were born from it: Arjuna recognised a demand for its famous lunches previously only available to workers, and the cafe inspired the formation of a new vegetarian catering collective and the original Cambridge `pop up’ Wild Thyme.
The Health Centre
The co-op’s next experiment would be a sister co-operative comprised of qualified members of Arjuna wishing to practice complementary therapies and alternative medicine. The 90s saw the top floor transformed into two treatment rooms leased to therapists, who were joined by others inspired by the rooms and the prospect of practising in a co-operative environment.
While the Health Centre closed in 2014, many therapists and patients benefited from its existence.
Celebrating 50 years (2020)
So here we are. After half a century of trading Arjuna is stronger than ever, and continues to meet an ever-increasing demand for well-sourced sustainable food, and provide an alternative shopping experience to the supermarkets.
We are here because of, and for, our customers, some of whom have been with us since the beginning.
The full story, including evocative photos from our archive can be discovered in our book 'Wholefood Heroes', available in store.