Flying the independent flag in hospitality

02 September 2022, 08:13 AM
  • Local cafés are more valuable to their communities than ever, finds Samantha Priestley
Flying the independent flag in hospitality

For an event that kept us apart, the pandemic has done a great job of bringing us all together. And after not being able to meet for so long, it’s natural that we should now want to be more sociable and more community-based. Cafés are tapping into this need by providing spaces we want to spend time in and places we want to be together.

Independent cafés are giving customers exactly what they want, but with the big coffee chains having more resources and deeper pockets, it’s not always easy.

“We’re competing with the buying power, infrastructure and supply chains of companies that have hundreds of outlets,” says Robert Hunningher, owner of Molly’s in London. “This means we need to be nimble and creative and deliver a different, more personal and ultimately better experience for our customers. If that means we need to be at the fruit and veg market at 4am to choose the best punnet – we’ll be there. We’re far more involved and right at the coal face at all times, so we all feel the highs, as well as the lows.”

It’s something Meggy Yip from Bridges Café in Cambridge knows well. After spending 25 years feeding locals the same healthy snacks she fed her own children, Meggy has built up a loyal local following. But Bridges has never been tempted to follow trends or try to be more like the chains. Being different is essential to Meggy, even if it does have its challenges.

“The most difficult part of standing out from the chains is the resources,” Meggy says. “We have limited manpower, limited resources. Our financial set-up is tiny and the smaller scale of production means we have to be conscious of costs.

“Instead of producing 1,000 portions, we need the same creative idea and similar time to produce 10 portions of a new dish. We can’t compete on prices as costs are higher for us. It’s important we don’t outsource everything and that means we have to do our own marketing and behind-the-scenes details. That involves very long hours of work.”

For Robert one of the ways to work around this issue is to invest in staff. And that doesn’t just mean a financial investment.

“Our next step is to focus more on the wellbeing of our staff. They are part of the Molly’s family and we ensure all are treated with the utmost respect, rewarded well and looked after at all times.”

A modern family
It’s this focus on the business as a ‘family’ that seems to be working the most for independent cafes in this post-pandemic world. Staff and customers are all inhabiting this space and all need to feel at home. The idea of the local café as the hub of the community has taken over from the old presumption of the meeting place of any town or village being the pub. The café is now the meeting place, the ‘local’, and so much more.

“There’s a huge sense of community,” says Catrin MacDonnell, co-owner of Papadeli in Bristol. “Our children went to local schools and we invite pupils in for work experience. We welcome local producers – our local beekeeper brings in jars sporadically when the bees have been busy. We can stock small lines and do our best to pay a proper price. We value every customer and producer.”

The fact is these community hub cafés can offer an experience the chains can’t, and they have to, but indies are indies for a reason and not many indies want to be like the chains anyway. Meggy Yip has made a point of standing out at Bridges café. Being indie, after all, means being something different.

“We are very passionate about handmade and homemade items,” Meggy says. “We made our own furniture from the scaffolding board which built our own house. Sitting on this perfectly imperfect bench in our window, customers can watch the world go by. On the wall, we have local artists’ work. Some are painted by local professional artists and some from local art students who want to show off their work.”

This time it’s personal
The personal touch is evident in local cafés. Knowing the regulars and what they like is important, but indies can also offer the community extra touches like coffee-tasting events and workshops. The indie cafés of 2022 sell bags of beans and have knowledgeable staff who can offer advice based on a customer’s coffee preferences. Indies provide a place where conversations matter, and for Robert Hunningher it’s a two-way street between staff and customers. The ‘family’ can include everyone in the area.

“As a team, we are incredibly proud of how we have fully immersed ourselves into the community to create a safe and welcome space for all,” Robert says. “We focus on employing locals to ensure we are always giving back to the community and, at the same time, we constantly strive to listen to the locals’ and regulars’ feedback and make the desired changes wherever possible.”

Robert Hunningher also sees his staff as leading members of this family. He feels his staff are the people who make the idea of the community café a reality, so his focus now is on giving them the tools they need to take their conversations to the customers and to Robert.

“Looking ahead we’ll focus on further empowerment,” Robert says. “Our staff are customer-facing and they know the regulars and ultimately know what they need.

“We want to encourage them to feel armed and confident enough to put forward ideas and initiatives with us taking them on and giving them a go. An example is our chef Oscar and his idea to launch our Tapas Kitchen, which is set to launch in mid-August. He had the idea to bring a taste of Spain to Hoxton and to serve across lunch and dinner. It’s the first time we have explored actual dishes being available from the café and we are excited for future ideas to be shared from other team members.”

A community for the future
The future is a sunny place for independent cafés. As the pandemic has shifted our focus more onto buying local and staying local, we value this now more than ever. But with a cost-of-living crisis following a pandemic, indies are also very aware of how things can change quickly and this has made some wary of making big plans. For Meggy Yip, it’s a balancing act, but the community is the safety net.

“We can’t plan too far ahead, but over the next two years we will be focusing on collaborating more with local suppliers, local artists and local businesses. It doesn’t need to be foodies, but food connects people. It’s important we open our door to welcome various engagements in supporting others. It’s like a circle, it will go around. We’ll get to know people and people get to know us.”

For Meggy, being indie goes beyond her own particular business and extends to all indie businesses in her community.

“Most importantly, it’s about being able to support each other in this community. We are a member of Indie Cambridge which promotes local independent small businesses. We meet monthly to connect with others and get to know lots of lovely people. We know who to call when our glass was broken. We send our catering customers to fellow café while we are on holidays. Our window is currently decorated by local small plants owners.”

Just like any family, indie cafés and their communities keep growing. What indie cafés might lack in financial investment, they gain massively in innovation and a desire to work with their local community. And as conversations continue to change, that’s priceless.

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing