Richard McComb gets a flavour of Birmingham’s thriving independent cafes.
Where once there was a corporate coffee wasteland, there is hope.
Small, independent cafes are fighting back in Birmingham, going head to head with the marketing muscle of the multi-nationals.
Privately-run venues, some of them highly speculative, are selling bespoke coffee cocktails, cup cakes, sweet pastries and wholesome salads, catering for a new breed of city customer who has tired with the one-latte-fits-all approach of the high street chains.
Their clientele is a little leftfield, educated, bohemian or aspirationally so, digitally and socially aware, with a smattering of pinstriped espresso-nistas. They have tired of Starbucks and Costa and hanker for independently-minded hits of caffeine.
Holding back the tide against the sea of mocha mediocrity are young entrepreneurs like university graduates Chris Davis and Tara Sundramoorthi. The couple gave themselves 90 days to make a go of their homespun city centre cafe in the Great Western Arcade and thus was born the idea of The 90 Day Cafe.
Chris, aged 24, and 23-year-old Tara have signed an extension to their original short-term lease and the contrast between their cafe concept and an anonymous chain outlet is striking.
Downstairs, in a small take-out service area, there are arty knick-knacks to buy alongside the display of cookies ’n’ cream, banoffee and chocolate banana cupcakes. The mother-of-all cup cakes, the size of a football, dazzles in the shop window like a prop from Hansel and Gretel.
But it is upstairs where Chris and Tara’s idiosyncratic vision really takes hold. As you get to the top of the second flight of stairs it feels like walking into someone’s slightly odd home.
There are suburban sofas and comfy chairs, wooden schools desks scattered with sticks of coloured chalk and potted chilli plants, a 1950s sideboard housing sauce bottles and cutlery, glass jars filled with Love Heart sweets, kitsch white plastic stools.
A glass-fronted wooden cabinet is stacked with books (Le Carré, Moll Flanders), which you are welcome to borrow, and glossy magazines (Tatler, Grazia, Hello!). An old teddy bear sits on a shelf, peering down above a photograph of a glorious double set of ladies’ buttocks.
Most of the furniture was picked up for nothing, via the website freecycle.org, which encourages people to donate their cast-offs to grateful new homes. Other pieces were snapped up on eBay. The old desks came from a local school that was chucking them out.
Tara, who is preparing for the lunch in the open-plan upstairs kitchen, says: “People say it is like being in their own living room. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”
Chris, who grew up in Lee Bank, Birmingham, and met Tara at Bath University, adds: “I always thought there was a market in Birmingham for this sort of thing. There are so many chain cafes in the centre of town. Over the last few years there has been a surge in independent cafes. There is an interest in something different to the clinical Starbucks feel. We want a homely feel – with an element of kitsch.”
The couple’s only experience of catering was running a cake and coffee stall outside the university library but they are enthusiastic, innovative and new media savvy.
Information on the daily specials (Vietnamese chicken noodle salad, chilli soy salmon, couscous with herbs and chickpeas, falafel and houmous wraps) are emailed to customers. There are old-fashioned favourites, such as dry cured bacon sarnies, and an all-day breakfast is served on Saturdays, whether your taste is hangover-nursing eggy bread or smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.
Chris and Tara wanted their menu to appeal across the board, to meat-eaters, veggies and vegans alike. Cupcakes are the big draw though, all baked on site by “super speedy” Tara who can knock out 24 to order in an hour.
The cakes are complemented by a blend of coffee (from Honduras, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia) which is triple certified for organic, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance friendliness.
Elsewhere, Sophie Highfield runs Café Blend just a Louboutins’ throw from the Mailbox. She’s a poster girl for the new face of Brum’s cafe culture – young, driven and cool.
Aged 25, she has launched her first business in the Orion Building, Navigation Street, naming it Café Blend because it blends influences she has gathered on her travels around the world’s coffee houses.
Undaunted as a lone female traveller, she visited more than 100 cafes in 22 states of North America before drinking her way through the coffee shops of Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. “I went to 30 cafes in New York alone in five days,” says Sophie, who is originally from Walsall.
“I found some really quirky ones in strange areas. I would get lost and I used to come across these hidden gems.
“Some of the American places make really crazy coffees. I used to write them down in a book. I am addicted to coffee and had about five cups a day. When I got up in the morning, my first mission was to find a coffee shop.”
It was while she was in America that Sophie started thinking seriously about setting up her own independent cafe. “In Birmingham, there are lots of Costa Coffee and Starbucks but not lots of independents, which are a little slower paced and a little more friendly,” she says.
Sophie, a former manager at All Bar One, in Newhall Street, set up Café Blend with financial support from boyfriend Jonathan Aspinall, who she met at Edgbaston Hockey Club.
She wanted to create a Parisian-style café and there is a black and white tiled floor and white tiles in the counter where the baristas knock up flat whites, ginger snap macchiatos and classic espressos on an Italian La Spaziale espresso maker.
There are bright pictures by a local artist and the cafe runs acoustic music sessions and reading nights. The look and feel is very different to CostaBucks.
There is table service (as well as a “to go” counter for busy commuters) because Sophie wants customers to feel like people, not numbers on a till receipt. Don’t mistake the individuality for naivety though.
Sophie has visions of a Café Blend in every city, which may present one of the architects of the new wave indie cafe movement with a branding dichotomy. How do you retain a spirit of independence in a multi-outlet business?
For now though there is plenty of work to be done spreading the Café Blend message, which Sophie does with the help of some exotic coffee cocktails.
On the “Sweet Blends” list there is The Summer Sun and After Late Mocha from Tennessee. Among the “Cool Blends”, the cherry-on-the-top Coffee Float was inspired by a traditional diner in San Diego; the Heavenly Blend – a indulgence of Amaretto syrup, chocolate syrup, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream – comes from Hawaii. Say “Aloha” to belt-loosening.
Café Blend is also licensed and serves cockle-warming alcoholic coffees, such as Jamaica Good (dark rum) and Cafe Royale (brandy), which should prove particularly popular during the winter.
Each coffee is ground to order to ensure maximum flavour from a blend of arabica beans sourced from El Salvador, Brazil and India. There are teas, too, 16 of them, including popcorn, chocolate flake, creme caramel and, for traditionalists, Earl Grey.
On the other side of town at Urban Coffee Company, manager Hannah Wolsey presents me with a flat white bearing a neat fern-like pattern on the top. It’s great coffee, streets ahead of anything I’ve ever tasted in a chain.
“The main thing about us is the passion behind coffee,” says Hannah. “Our motto is happy staff equals happy customers equals profit.”
The cafe is in Church Street, near Hotel du Vin, and opened in August last year. The setting is contemporary and uncluttered – exposed metal, painted brickwork, unmasked reinforced steel supports.
Hannah, who is 24, says: “I think there is plenty of room for lots of coffee places around here. We have had to turn people away sometimes because we are so busy.”
The clientele is split between corporate workers and the twitter crowd. While I chat to Hannah, I am aware of suited gents convening for meetings while lone customers get in some laptop time.
Urban Coffee is digitally savvy, offering special promotions and coffee prizes via twitter. The cafe has free wi-fi and has gone as far as setting up its own iPhone app so regulars can pre-order macchiatos and Americanos. It’s two shots as standard.
Hannah is convinced customers are prepared to seek out good coffee. “People are definitely making choices about where they drink their coffee. I could never go to Starbucks now unless it was for market research. It is not that I am against what they do but I think in the city centre you have got to support local businesses.”
The newest kid on the block is actually the oldest – and he’s only 34. Trained chef Simon Manton, who has worked for Rick Stein, has opened Manton's in Newhall Street.
Everything sold in his bright, high design cafe is made on site, from the pecan pie, giant gingerbread men and monster jammy dodgers to the peaches and cream cupcakes and savoury dishes such as roast potato, maple syrup and pecan salad and classic quiches.
Simon, an ex-car parts worker, retrained as a chef at Birmingham College of Food, now BCU, and launched his idea for Manton’s after googling “business plan.” He has big plans to expand both the pastries and the light lunch dishes, sandwiches and salads.
“I think we offer something different with me being a chef and having a baking background. We have a slightly different slant,” says Simon.
He takes a bit of pride in the fact that his independent cafe replaced a former Coffee Republic. Simon insists he didn’t want his place to be another bland cafe clone with different shades of brown.
He’s definitely gone to town on the interior, with striped colour wallpaper features, multi-coloured tiles behind the serving area and a groovy chandelier made of milk bottles.
Simon says: “We try to keep our customers interested in what we do and make and get to know them. I think it is nice that people can see the chef who works here and talk to him. We don’t want to make Manton’s a faceless chain.”
Back at The 90 Day Cafe, Chris and Tara are working on new ideas for muffins, including a bacon and maple syrup special, and making plans for Christmas.
Tara is keen on producing a mince pie cupcake.
“Can you make a mince pie cupcake?” I ask.
She smiles and says: “Anything’s possible.”