• Sun. Mar 3rd, 2024

As the cost of living crisis escalates, a beloved George Square business goes up for sale

ByKatherine Coble

Feb 6, 2024

Elaine Mason was a woman with a vision — a vision of soup.

For years she had dreamt of opening a cafe with high-quality homemade soups and accompanying breads. This cafe would be built to serve everyday people who wanted a bit of warmth to get them through the day – people like Elaine herself.

In 2011, Elaine got the chance to make her dream come true. She took voluntary redundancy from her job and found an empty cafe unit on Forrest Road, amidst the bustle of Edinburgh’s South Side and the University. She named her cafe, quite appropriately, Union of Genius. 

Elaine expanded her business over time. She operates a mobile soup van (affectionately called ‘Dumbo’) on George Square, outside of the Chrystal Macmillan Building. Her production kitchen in Leith supplies soup to over thirty local businesses. Elaine’s food has been an integral part of the student experience at the University of Edinburgh for more than a decade.

Yet soon, this beloved staple will be no more. Elaine and her husband Bruce recently confirmed that the cafe and van have been put up for sale.

In a post on the Union of Genius Facebook page, they said that recents years have made it “impossible to sell soup for any kind of price that anyone can afford to pay.” As a result, “rather than compromise on our principles and make lightly flavoured water with some small chunks in it, we have decided to end that part of what we do.”

Yet the question still stands: how could such a popular and iconic local business be in this position?

Elaine told The Student that Union of Genius never fully recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before 2020, Elaine was operating her cafe, Dumbo, and the kitchen in Leith. When the pandemic began, “overnight, all the work for our three locations ceased.” And with staff working from home and students doing online lectures, “even if we had opened the cafe, there were no people around to feed.”

Thus, business was scarce, but the expenses were not. The landlord of their production kitchen demanded complete rent payments throughout the pandemic. A government furlough scheme did not fully cover staff wages, so Elaine paid the 20 per cent shortfall. 

“The pandemic saw us go from having no bank debt at all, to being loaded up with debt to stay in business and keep our staff fully paid,” Elaine said.

The rise of hybrid and remote working has caused Union of Genius’s customer base to shrink. Its footfall still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The cost of living crisis has also taken its toll. Elaine pointed out that students must attempt to make their loans stretch further given inflation and workers struggle to pay rent amidst Edinburgh’s housing emergency. “People are being a lot more careful with their spending,” she remarked. This has often meant spending less on eating out.

At the same time, the cost of running a produce-focused business like Union of Genius has only increased. Fresh vegetables are one of the United Kingdom’s biggest imports from the European Union and Brexit has contributed to their prices rising. Climate change has impacted harvests across the world, leading to fluctuating prices for everything from lentils to olive oil. Elaine said her ingredients costs have more than doubled in recent years.

Operating costs have also gone up. Elaine said her rent has increased by one third. Last year, her utility bills rose from £400 to over £1,000 a month. Elaine strives to be a Living Wage employer, and this commitment has also contributed to rising labour costs. All of these factors compounded upon one another have proven to be too much to bear.

Other businesses around the George Square area echoed Elaine’s concerns.

Stuart Collins, the owner of the Uplands Roast coffee van, confirmed in an interview with The Student that his margins have also gone down as a result of the cost of living crisis.

Stuart said food businesses are especially vulnerable in the current economic climate because the cost of food goods has increased dramatically even in comparison to other commodities. For instance, the price of Uplands Roast’s vegan marshmallows has doubled.

“Small companies have less capital behind them and thus are more sensitive to changes in the market,” he pointed out. In contrast, corporate ventures can swallow these differences in costs and continue operating. The result is a world where smaller businesses are driven out while corporations gain even larger shares of the market.

Stuart remarked that there is very little room for error for businesses like Uplands Roast as a result of these conditions. “We have to constantly be careful and re-assess. It’s very delicate.”

Similarly, Elaine said that running a small business in a city like Edinburgh is “harder, more relentless, and vastly more expensive than customers ever realise.” These relentless challenges have led her to sell Union of Genius.

It’s difficult to feel optimistic about the landscape of George Square without Union of Genius in the picture. Students and staff alike will feel its absence. But Elaine’s service to her community will not be forgotten.

“I wanted Union to cheerfully feed people, to bring a shot of flavour-packed joy to a damp, murky Edinburgh lunchtime,” she recalled to The Student.

“To have done that for twelve years is an absolute privilege.”

Image courtesy of Elaine Mason.

By Katherine Coble

Katherine Coble is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief. She previously worked as the Sport Editor whilst pursuing her masters degree in contemporary history. She loves ice hockey, reading, and people who pay attention to bios.