In this new Just FACT blog series ‘Food Justice – reshaping the narrative around food insecurity‘ – Hussina Raja, Just FACT Mobiliser speaks with people working in cafes across Walthamstow, Hackney and Tower Hamlets to learn more about the food scene and hospitality sector as well as finding out how accessible these spaces are to the local community.
Ollie Launay is a chef who has worked in some of London’s top restaurants. He now works in Tower Hamlets exploring ways to provide healthy, affordable food to local people and heads up Bow Brew, a café situated in St Paul’s Way Community Centre run by Poplar Harca Housing Association.
I was introduced to Ollie Launay as part of my research on the impact of cafe business models on areas undergoing regeneration and my mission to find out whether cafes can ever be truly affordable for everyone.
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO WORK AT BOW BREW HAVING WORKED FOR EXPENSIVE RESTAURANTS?
The main demographic coming into Bow Brew are teachers. We’re near loads of schools. Our most regular customers who are here every day at 9am are working-class families dropping their kids off at school. We get some builders, some of the Bangladeshi and Eastern European communities, some Poplar Harca staff and people working on their computers. I’d like to think we’re mixed.
WHAT MAKES BOW BREW DIFFERENT?
Bow Brew’s tag lines are ‘healthy affordable food’ or ‘fresh food fast’, it’s ideally inclusive and representative of the local demographic. Our main aim is to stay cheap. I like Wetherspoons because it’s cheap. You see all kinds of people in there. It can’t be accused of being a gentrifier. Affordable makes it inclusive.
Our staff are paid more than the London Living Wage and have very good contracts and conditions. We hire people who are hopefully good at cooking and making coffee and are nice.
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR MENU AND WHAT IS MEANT BY AFFORDABLE?
Affordable is an individual thing. To me, in very real terms there’s something on the menu for £1 and you can get lunch for under £5. There’s nothing over £5. You can get a cup of tea and toast for £1 each so it’s not putting too much pressure on your finances. Our veggie special of the day is £4 and the meat special is £5. What I like is that it’s a whole meal – lasagna and salad. If you go to a restaurant you have to order four things before you have a meal.
Organic and seasonal produce feels quite exclusive because it’s expensive, does Bow Brew use organic produce?
Bow Brew uses a nice supplier called Food Point. We buy lots of vegetables, lentils and some meat. Basically, the same thing you get in supermarkets. Some of it will be from the UK, Holland and Spain. It’s not organic, seasonal or local because it would be double the cost. I’d love to keep doing what we’re doing and connect with a supplier running an organic veg box scheme, so we can make soup of the day which tends to be a profit margin that isn’t too difficult to achieve. Then we would have an organic option.
What are the justifications for increases in the cost of food?
That’s just inflation. It’s real. We’ve not increased our prices since 2020, which is not very smart from a business perspective, but people can come into Bow Brew and enjoy a lasagna for £5 and that’s lovely. It would be nice to open for an early dinner for a post-school club from 5pm-7pm, but until we’re able to prove some sort of financial viability on this scale, we can’t scale up.
How do you make a profit and sustain yourself?
We’re not paying any rent, so we don’t need to worry about that. We have 250 customers on a good day, 200 normally with an average spending of £4.50 – £5. We’re focused on long term sustainability. The best way for us to achieve that is to make sure we have a product that customers want at a price they can afford regularly. We then try and work as efficiently as possible. “Fresh, Food Fast” is a mantra we try and work to. We’ve seen consistent growth over the last couple of years, but it is still a challenge to maintain quality, affordability and profitability.
IF YOU WANTED TO INCREASE PROFITS, HOW WOULD YOU DO THAT WITH THE RISE IN FOOD COSTS?
It helps when you’re busy because you have different levers to pull that will produce profit. The problem with pulling those levers is you may kill the business. If you have volume, you could bring the food costs down by 10%, buy cheaper ingredients, make smaller portions and that’s 10% profit.
Why does Bow Brew choose to operate in this way, when you have cafes around the corner that don’t?
We at Bow Brew are in the luxury position of being attached to a larger organisation that can look at the whole thing holistically. So, us by ourselves, that doesn’t make sense, but as part of a larger organisation we can deal with losing money, and we’ll get it to break even. As part of a broader societal consciousness it works, but as an individual business, you’re more out on your own.
How do food business models work and how do they influence our behaviour?
Part of what makes the private sector efficient is that businesses fail. If a business doesn’t offer goods and services that people want, then it will fail and someone else will come and have a go. You see this cycle a lot with food and beverage sites. For example, you’ll see two or three cafe operators appear as the area changes. They’ll have a go, try out an idea, fail. Everyone’s losing money in the process. But then someone comes along and gets it right and they’ll make money. One problem with that is sometimes the person who comes along and makes money is the one who aims at the wealthiest people locally. In my experience, personal and professional, there’s a tier of wealth where you just spend money in a different way. Whereas if you don’t have money, you’ll look at £3, not sure of spending it.
What other costs influence the way food spaces operate?
The UK is largely a service sector. Food businesses pay 20% VAT on everything they sell, that’s quite a big chunk of their income. If you took that off you could give that back to the customer, but the government loses that tax revenue and then there are cuts made to other sectors like the NHS. The other is capital costs like rent. The rental market dictated by market competition. Sadly, this means the more affluent areas will attract the food businesses, where they can charge a high price point to cover their costs. That’s why in areas like Stoke Newington, which is increasingly affluent, you will see a lot of wine bars. If you go out there it’s hard to spend less than £40, or more per person. That can be good for a special occasion, or if you have sufficient expendable income but I would like to see more places where you can get good quality affordable food.
With the structure of this city pushing people on the lowest incomes further out, London feels like a place catering for the wealthy – what are your thoughts?
When I first moved to London, I did breakfast shifts and night shifts. At 4 am you’re sitting amongst commuters who are cleaners travelling in from Dagenham, spending 4 hours a day commuting and the only place they can afford to live is way out. It’s not good. People should be able to live and work close together. Commuting is a terrible thing. Wages should represent the living costs, and rent should be capped by wages. Everyone should be able to afford to live where they’re working.
Do you think there’s a sustainable way of running a business that is profitable and accessible for everyone?
The best-case scenario is that we have a big, local place where food is available at cost price which is run by the public sector. Almost like the Felix Project with loads of tables and chairs and a nice vibe and music. However, there is a risk if you put it in the public sector that it feels institutionalised.
Thank you for speaking with me Ollie
My conversation with Ollie gave me a lot of insight into how nuanced the food issue is when it comes to how food and beverage sites operate. It’s not as simple as catering only for the wealthiest, there is a choice based on business interests, and food pricing affects how accessible food spaces are, which in turn is dictated by rents charged by commercial landlords for profit generation. Bow Brew doesn’t have the pressure of answering to a commercial landlord, but it’s clear how hard it is to survive and thrive as an independent food business, especially one interested in providing a service to local communities on low incomes.
It’s also obvious that depending on your wealth bracket, people respond differently to spending based on what their priorities are. If you’re living in zone 4-6 on a very basic salary, your choice of spending your hard-earned money on a nice meal is unlikely when high rents in a big city limit your lifestyle choices, which are determined by several social issues that intersect with one another; income, housing, health and well-being. These are systemic issues that trickle up to a government policy and legislation level.
Knowing all this, restaurants and cafes can find ways of being inclusive by simply having one item on the menu that is cheap, like a cup of tea for £1 or a soup of the day for £5. Prices that won’t damage profit margins while feeling accessible and welcoming for everyone.
Hussina Raja, Just FACT Mobiliser
Hussina is a multidisciplinary artist with a background in social justice. She is passionate about working with local community groups and young people. She especially enjoys bringing people together over food.
As part of her work on the Just FACT programme, Hussina is interested in exploring the role of cafe business models, their social responsibility and their existence as spaces for socialising and gathering, particularly in areas undergoing mass regeneration. How accessible food is in spaces of hospitality, especially for the local community, old residents and new arrivals, is a pertinent issue she wants to understand from the perspective of both the cafe and the consumer.