COVID STORIES
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Inspiration for anyone looking to get their work mojo back, from a cafe that sure knows how to shapeshift

Gavin Fernback’s cafe, situated right next to Kentish Town West Overground, has always been ahead of the curve. They ditched the dairy to become one of London’s first 100% vegan establishments, way before the soy and seitan hordes. True to form, the Covid lockdown saw them pivot swiftly into home grocery delivery, and Gavin has plenty more innovative ideas for the months ahead too. 

How has COVID affected your business?
“I was on holiday in Mexico in the first half of February, avidly waking up each morning to see what was happening in Wuhan, but not really with any thought that the virus would spread. It was just a big news story. But then it was found in the UK, and by March we’d noticed sales changing. We thinned out the tables, then we got rid of them, and then we barricaded the shop. The problem was how to make it look welcoming while also saying firmly, ‘you can’t come in’.

When lockdown happened we were still serving takeaway coffee, but it felt awkward if it was encouraging people to leave the house. We could see customers were desperate for groceries though, and as we already had relationships with suppliers for our kitchen, we began putting together home deliveries. Margins were ok, but prices would fluctuate wildly every day. We tried to keep up, but I realised for instance that I’d been making a 30p per kilo loss on butternut squash for six weeks, so it was all quite hit and miss. 

We furloughed the team, leaving me and my head chef Kiki in a mad rush, phone ringing non-stop when nobody could get supermarket delivery. It was exhausting, but I thought it was important to keep the business ticking over, and also to satisfy the need of the community.”

What’s your current offering?
Now the supply chain has returned, grocery orders have really fallen away, but we’ve started doing coffee again. It feels like we can do it safely, or at least as safely as we’re ever going to be able to do it. We’ve also started selling houseplants. They make a great present and also brighten things up when you’re working from home, so they are doing really well. I’m sure coffee sales will pick up, but not like it was, as we won’t have the daily office workers dropping by for a long time. So we’ve applied for a drinks licence, as people will be spending more time at home and will hopefully want to come out for a glass of wine under the arches, especially after a day spent in front of Zoom.

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What have been your greatest concerns?
It’s been sad to realise how dependent we are on consumption as a society. It’s quite a stark thing that if we stop buying stuff all of a sudden, everything basically collapses. We’re all on a treadmill and can’t get off, as everything is built to feed the same machine. We’ve got three leases; one with the arch company who have given us three months free, but the other two (our kitchen and second café in Camden Town) are with the Council who have said going rent-free is simply not on the table. I’m surprised, as friends at places like Camden Market and King’s Cross immediately were told they didn’t have to keep up payments, but the Council is just part of the same machine too.

What’s made you feel optimistic?
“I think people will work closer to where they live if possible. I love the idea, and I’m saying that as someone who lives 40 miles away from where I work. My energy is split between two communities, I think the world would be better if we all put more energy into one place. I’d like to think that that’s a change, to be able to support your local businesses by frequenting them more.

Who would you like to collaborate with?
We’d love to work more closely with the new Camden Town Brewery Bar next door whenever it reopens. They were building a completely new bar when lockdown hit and it’s now finished, but nobody’s been able to go there. I’d also like to see more business networks grow, as we are all working out how to adapt and survive together, and sharing knowledge would be really useful.”

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Go for a great take-out coffee, end up with a houseplant, and chat to Gavin about his plans for what he plans next under the arches. It’s perfect for the COVID-era and sounds super exciting.

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