Sabine as a shopkeeper
Every crisis is an opportunity. Sabien Windels understands this better than most. When the coronavirus crisis struck Belgium in mid-March, the founder of Roof Food seized the situation to launch a new concept. The roof shop is Roof Food’s vegetable garden shop where urban vegetable gardeners can indulge themselves.
March 13th was the first day of lockdown, and was a day that didn’t come a moment too soon for Sabien. She had just made the difficult decision to put an end to the catering part of Roof Food and had let her staff go, and she was looking for a new direction for the Roof Food story. “I felt a bit lost, as if the ground under my feet had been cut away. I had no idea which way to go and felt pressure from the board of directors to come up with a new plan as a leader. The peace and quiet that the coronavirus crisis brought was exactly what I needed to catch my breath and come up with a new strategy.”
The roof shop
Sabien did not have to think for long. The pandemic provided the answer all by itself. In a time of uncertainty and fear, people generally start looking for control and safety, especially when it comes to food. Increasingly more people buy locally and try to be self-sufficient. “That fits in perfectly with our short chain principle. The chain starts from your own vegetable garden and goes right to your plate. It doesn’t get any shorter,” smiles Sabien. “After the crisis forced us to close our rooftop restaurant, we were forced to find another destination for the plants that our roof farmer, Jonathan, had already grown. That’s how Jonathan and I came up with the idea of opening a vegetable garden shop. The roof shop was opened just a few weeks later.”
“I’m still exploring my role. I wouldn’t want to run a shop all year round, that’s for sure.”
Doing business in a crisis
Roof Food’s Executive Board initially reacted less enthusiastically than Sabien had hoped. “The board members shocked me with their doubts and critical questions, such as ‘How are you going to expand the store?’, ‘When will the store be open?’, ‘Will it be for the whole year or just temporarily?’, ‘Will you be able to make it profitable?’ and ‘What is the relationship between you and Jonathan?’ I was briefly disappointed by their reaction. In my head, the vegetable garden shop was a logical step. As an entrepreneur in a crisis situation, you can only move forward, can’t you?”
Sabien took the council’s comments to heart and now regards the roof shop as an experiment. “We will start as a pop-up and will decide later whether or not the shop is permanent. The idea is that people order their plants through the web-shop and then collect them on the roof at a set time.” It is still uncertain which role Sabien will play in the vegetable garden shop. “I’m still exploring my role. I know for sure that I don’t want to run a shop all year round, even though I do like it a lot. It gives me a lot of energy. I’m looking forward to getting to know the products better, meeting customers, preparing orders and working with Jonathan! For the first few months, I will focus most of my energy on the launch of the roof shop and further optimisation. Once something becomes a routine, it’s not really my thing. Mind you, I don’t usually find routine boring; I just can’t predict how much I’m going to enjoy it, or for how long. I actually saw myself mainly as a consultant in rooftop vegetable gardens, even though I also like to roll up my sleeves. Putting things and concepts together is fantastic.
“It can still go in any direction and that feels liberating.”
The beginning and the end
Sabien particularly likes projects with a beginning and a clear end. “I get nervous otherwise,” she laughs. “I’m future-oriented. I’m creative in my head and make links all the time. When I run out of room to seize opportunities, I die a little. What’s really important for me is not to get stuck in ideas, but to manifest them. Realising something very practical is the nicest thing about doing business. The roof shop is a manifestation of both our vision and our mission, and it is also fully in line with my personal mission.”
Emotions and dynamics
It is still unclear what the future holds for the roof shop. “I’m a little scared of taking on more staff besides Jonathan. I don’t think I want that. On the other hand, if you want to build something, it’s difficult to stop. Is it because catering wasn’t my passion that personnel management was so difficult? This is a question I ask myself. That’s why I’m so comfortable just experimenting at the moment. I would recommend that to everyone! I’m doing things in practice that arouse my emotions and bring dynamism. They are all things that you can’t predict. I don’t doubt the commercial success of the shop at all. However, I don’t yet know if it is what I want to do permanently. It can still go in any direction and that feels liberating.”
This story was created with the support of Circular Flanders, the Flemish policy-making organisation for a circular economy.