EpiLibre, a new, free-wheeling grocery store on campus

Julie Allémann, Simon Perrelet, Mirko Indumi, Adrien Simon, Laura Sacher, Luca Frei. © A. Herzog/EPFL

Julie Allémann, Simon Perrelet, Mirko Indumi, Adrien Simon, Laura Sacher, Luca Frei. © A. Herzog/EPFL

Get ready to stock your pantry! Starting on 22 September, EpiLibre, a new on-campus grocery store, will sell bulk items such as lentils, oatmeal, chickpeas and dried fruit. The store was the brainchild of the Student Kreativity and Innovation Lab (SKIL) at the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), with financial support provided by the Act for Change LAB.

At first glance, Epilibre looks like a mysterious wooden box on wheels. Since its two halves fold in on each other, its contents remain hidden while it’s being moved. Once opened, however, its precious cargo is visible to eager shoppers.

Starting this fall, this new nomadic grocery store will sell bulk dried food and basic staples on campus. Every item – grains, pasta, lentils, chickpeas, flour, dried fruit, biscuits, as well as household and personal care products – will be organic and produced by local farmers and craftspeople. “EpiLibre aims to provide a sustainable alternative to what is currently available on campus. The idea of a cupboard on wheels won us over, because it doesn’t need a room of its own and storing it doesn’t require much space,” says Gianluca Paglia, the head of Act for Change LAB, an EPFL Sustainability initiative that gives students and staff the opportunity to design, develop and implement a sustainable idea, project or initiative.

EpiLibre’s original concept won the Act for Change LAB’s May 2019 competition. It was submitted by Adrien Simon, a mechanical engineering student, and Suzanne Dubsky, an EPFL employee. Master’s students from the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC) then stepped in as part of an ENAC semester project at the Student Kreativity and Innovation Lab (SKIL).

Each participant made a specific contribution based on his or her studies. Simon Perrelet, an environmental engineering student, carried out a life cycle assessment of the cupboard, while Sarah Voirin, who is studying civil engineering, made sure that it was both solid and stable and developed an app for the payment system. Future architects Laura Sacher and Julie Allémann handled the marketing study and overall project management. “This real-world project provided a lot of motivation for my other studies,” says Perrelet. “It was a real pleasure to go to the SKIL workshop and help build this cupboard with my own two hands.”

The logo of the new grocery store. © 2020 / EPFL

A pilot phase

A pilot phase will start on 22 September in the Life Sciences building. EpiLibre will be open Mondays from 12:15pm and 1pm and Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 5:15pm to 6:45pm, a schedule that was established following a campus survey. Volunteers will work the cash register during opening hours and restock the shelves.

If it’s a success, the cupboard will move from the Life Sciences building to the Esplanade during the week, in order to be accessible to as many people as possible. “A lot of students like the idea of buying in bulk, but don’t actually do so, because such shops are often far from where they live,” says Perrelet. “We hope Epilibre will help make bulk products more available.” As further incentive, the cupboard’s prices will be as competitive as possible with their organic equivalents in local supermarkets such as Migros and Denner.

A drawing of the project made during the Semester project. © 2020 / EPFL

Looking to the future

If EpiLibre catches on, it could have a bright future. “We could take this in various directions,” says Paglia. “For example, we could build more cupboards, make EpiLibre part of EPFL’s Food Strategy 2030 or use our products to prepare meals for association get-togethers on campus.” To reduce waste, Paglia says, unsold Epilibre products could also be used in meals prepared by the “Castor Freegan” association, a student-run cafeteria that uses unsold products from the Migros supermarket chain.

The students involved see Epilibre potentially expanding to offer more than just food: “Mobile cupboards could sell books and second-hand clothes on campus,” says Laura Sacher. “We could even reuse discarded EPFL shelving to build them, which would reduce their carbon footprint. There’s still a lot to do and develop, and we hope the project will stay alive even after we’ve graduated.”

  • Opening hours: Mondays from 12:15pm to 1pm, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 5:15pm to 6:45pm