All change for Nico

Covid affected Tahir “Nico” Ali in ways he could never imagined – and he says it’s made him a better retailer and a true pillar of the community

Nico Ali (L) and his brother Taz with Asian Trader Award

Tahir Ali, or Nico as he is known to his local community in Scotch Estate, Jarrow, where he runs his Premier Top Shop store with brother Taz, is one of the two winners of the 2020 Spirit of the Community Award at the Asian Trader Awards. A true unsung hero and the bedrock of his community during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, Nico provided food parcels and hampers to hospital staff, supplied food banks and even drove hundreds of miles to ensure his customers could get essential supplies of pasta, hand sanitiser and toilet rolls when there were shortages.

However, what sets him apart is the transformative impact the pandemic had on him, changing even the reason for being a retailer, 30 years into his career. “We’ve always helped out a little bit here and there. But as a retailer, I think, it’s opened my eyes,” he says. “I’ve done a very big journey. And it made me think that I need to support more people out there. Being a retailer, I changed my role a bit.”

Nico was, in fact, jolted into action, when he was waiting at the cash and carry and couldn’t get any bread as panic buying gripped the nation in the run-up to the first pandemic lockdown last year.

“After these 30 years, we still go cash and carry; it’s just an excuse to get out of bed early and go and get your bread. We can get it delivered if you want, but we just go to the cash and carry, so we get all our jobs done,” he explains.

“But on that day, I never knew what was going on. We got no bread, nothing, not half of the things. So what I decided when I came back to the shop, if I’m struggling to get the bakery, bread and anything, how others in my community going to get it. I just thought, it’s for me to give the support back to the community.”

So, he went to a local baker’s, Baker Stonehouse in Team Valley, and placed an order with them. Then he built his rounds with the community. He started to give out bread and milk free, with rounds of 50, which then grew to 100 and then to about 150. He made pallets of bread freely available outside the store so that people can take what they need even without entering the store, and he started free deliveries as people were scared to come out.

“And it really never stopped,” he says. “I can just keep talking about this because I’ve got a diary here, March 2020. And I used to write every day, what am I going to do to support my community? How can I help them? Can I pick subscriptions up for them? Can I do other things for them? So I basically made a map where I needed to support them.”

At the same time, the shop was struggling to get stock as well, so he made a journey all the way to Glasgow, to pick up whatever he could get his hands on. He would bring in hand sanitizer and give them away, along with essentials like bread and milk. And, gradually, while doing these things, he realised that people needed more help.

“When I was knocking on the doors, people wanted more of my support. It became like a family then for me. When they call me at the shop, they talked about the problems and because of this, it made me closer and I started to realise more people need more help out there,” he says.

So he started to deliver birthday cakes, pizzas and signed footballs and even funded haircuts for his elderly neighbours when restrictions were lifted. “I delivered pizzas in my area with the local MP [Kate Osborne]. She came out one day and helped me. It just went on and on. I even did entertainment,” he says.

It soon became a full-time operation, as he extended his helping hand to local hospitals and food banks. He started a round with four hospitals in the area. He would pick up flavored water from cash and carries and deliver pallets. “I don’t mean like two cases, I mean 100 cases,” he says. “I started to go to food banks, people who needed support. I started to deliver there. I started to get well known in the area because they started to know this guy is helping out.”

As he kept going to the hospitals, the journey became really emotional. “You used to sit with the nurses outside. They knew I was coming because I told them I’m coming back next week with some more things. You used to sit there, because, you know, when somebody is passed away, like a nurse, and they used to tell me that we’re all down. So I tend to build up strength from going back and support as much as I can,” he says.

It wasn’t just at the hospitals; Nico made sure the spirits were always up in his community over the last 18 months, reaching out to them regularly. He got his mate and former Premier League footballer Pascal Chimbonda – Nico is also football coach – to sign about 200 footballs, and both bought out over 25 drums of sweets for the kids during the second lockdown, at Hallowe’en. He organised a Santa Claus to come with him around Christmas, giving out 120 presents to the vulnerable people living on his estate. Santa also visited his shop to give out presents to the children. The list goes on.

He even a wrote a book, The Extra Mile, published in July last year, looking back at his journey over the first four months, and he is planning for a second edition. But, Nico says, the journey has taken its toll emotionally.

“You know what it was? People will just think how much did I do, but the thing is, I was having sleepless nights,” he reveals. “Now it’s calmed down a little bit, but it’s hard to get back in, if you know what I mean. So I still go to the community, I still help out. I still do the free deliveries. I still help people out whoever needs help, because we all were in that same boat.”

Whatever he has spent, he spent from the business. Many offered support, but he was determined that if he is going to do it, he will be doing it by his heart. “Anybody can do like, give £10,000 and that’s it and they walk away. But you know, when you deliver physically, and you do it out of your heart, you get that passion,” he says. “The customers come in and they appreciate it. I’ve got the hospital guys ringing me, ‘Nico, you okay, if you ever need anything, we’re always there.’”

The attitude of the shoppers has seen a remarkable shift for the better, he notes. “It’s like things have changed. And to be honest about it, they’ve become a bit closer, you know, people who weren’t even talking to each other, they all started to talk. So, it’s like bringing the community back together.”

What makes his out-of-pocket efforts significant is that he got stiff competition right in his shopping parade, a Londis in the top corner and a McColl’s on the other.

“We’ve always had a lot of competition in that block. I just get on with whatever I need to do,” he says. “Obviously with the lockdown going on, we got much busier because people were realising that we are giving more support to our community.”

Sales are “average” at the moment, he says, as the restrictions end and people get back to their pre-Covid routines. “The customers are still coming in, the regulars are coming in, and new customers are coming in. They’re still spending whatever they need to spend. So we are still okay at the moment,” he adds.

And he got some exclusives like the cake box, sourced from the local Baker Stonehouse who helped him during the start of the pandemic, to stand out. “Without him, I wouldn’t have delivered that, I’ll be honest,” he says of the baker. “He didn’t let me down once.” And, he believes in a complementary approach when it comes to tailoring his offer at the store. They have f’real, Tango Ice Blast and fwip machines as part of their food-to-go offer, but they don’t do burgers and things like that. “We don’t need to sell that, because there’s a chip shop out there,” Nico says.

He adds that brother Taz and their staff also deserve credit as they managed the shop while Nico was out on mercy errands. “My brother was really running the shop. There’s only one of us could go out there and I have it all in my mind that I want to do it.”

They had two other members of staff who were there all the way through. “Even when we needed to pack the delivery of the bread and milk in the morning and do our rounds three times a week, they were always there. One of them used to go out and help me. Just for one person going around 100 houses is a lot. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he adds.

One of the staff looks after the Facebook page, which they use for their delivery service, which is free without any minimum order amount. But most of their orders come over the phone as Nico took extra care to include those who were not quite digitally adept.

“We did a leaflet drop with our name and the phone numbers and the promotions we have on, so they have got our phone numbers there. That was very handy, because there are these people, the older vulnerable people we need to look after because they don’t really go on Facebook. They just use basic phones. So we had a lot of people ringing on the landline alone, on our mobile as well, to have deliveries. That’s how I tackled that problem,” he explains.

Availability of stock is again becoming a crucial issue, with driver shortages and all, and Nico fears that this would affect the footfall in the store. “Obviously shelves are going a little bit empty in the shop. The shortage is really bad because if you haven’t got flavored water in the shop, the customer will go. He may not even come back. If you don’t have four or five of their items, they won’t come back,” he says.

“When we go to cash or carry in the morning, if I go to Booker now and they haven’t got it, that makes my journey harder. Then I have to go to the next one, then to the next one. So really I’m going around three cash and carries and wasting more time. The way this thing is going, it is difficult. I’ll be honest, it’s very difficult out there,” he says.

Nico and Taz took over the responsibility of the shop, the family’s first, from their father. (They have other properties which have been rented out.) When you work at a shop for 30 years, you get used to your customers and develop a relationship with them. Still, the pandemic redefined all that, and in the process, Nico says, made him a stronger person.

“I really want to still help out people out there. And still keep doing what I need to do if there was another lockdown tomorrow or in the next hour, do the same journey again. I will still go out there and help. That’s the way I’ve always been. But it’s made me a stronger person, as a retailer,” he says.

And, he would like all retailers to back their customers up. “As a retailer, I think everybody should do their fair share. You really need to build a relationship with the customers, with the regulars. Because this is our game, and I’ve been in this game for 30 years. Just show them that we’re giving it back to you. So it’s not all about us. It’s about both of us.”