At the weekend Big Smoke met up with Caroline Allen and Emma Dixon, two Green Party members and users of Hackney’s Clissold Cafe, to discuss what kind of cafe the community really needs.

Clissold Park on a Saturday is dog utopia. Full to the brim of dogs charging, full tilt, in all directions, weaving in and out of the joggers and families building snowmen. It’s a genuinely joyous place to be.

If the pleasure of open air and freedom is not enough there is even a small animal sanctuary with goats, exotic birds, deer and the like to peer at.

With such delights its no wonder that Clissold Park has become a hub for the community where many local residents are happy to take time to enjoy, walk the dog and go to with the children.

That means there is a weight of expectation on the Clissold House Cafe (that Ian Visits has recently admired) to be able to serve the community that it’s in the heart of. This partly explains why Hackney Council recently renovated the House that was in desperate need of repair, and have now re-opened the cafe.

However, all has not been well with the private contractors that the Council called in to run the cafe, once a cheap and cheerful venue that served the community. While headlines like Class War Over Couscous may be a touch over blown, if fun, as we’ve mentioned before there are real issues here.

Even from the beginning when organising the bidding for the contracts the Council, by imposing a £1 million per annum turnover minimum, had ensured only particular kinds of business could apply. Indeed while the council has some excellent “growing communities” schemes that promote local food projects this seemed like a missed opportunity to create a cafe that drew on the local community rather than came from the outside without really understanding it’s needs.

Many have complained about the prices but the first thing I noticed about the menu when I went in it had the kind of food designed to annoy many local residents. While most of us have a reasonable couscous/cumin/organic threshold items that consist of ten such terms rounded off with a “bit too much” price tag do more to keep people out than draw them in.

For example, while we were there we didn’t see a single ethnic minority user, this in the middle of Hackney! That alone indicates something is not quite right.

Caroline Allen (right) told me that the council could have used that contracting process to feed into those local growing projects giving extra support to the Growing Estates initiative. That process could also have been used to promote local business and ensure that local black and Turkish communities, for example, felt welcome.

She said that “This would not be such a problem if there were more places round here that catered for poorer communities, but there aren’t.”

Emma Dixon, left, was concerned that too little thought had gone into who should take the contract and what services they should be asked to provide. “It’s not that scientific, if you put the prices up less little old ladies will come in for a cup of tea.”

Even as Emma described their first “really disastrous visit here” we were getting  glimpse of how consistently bad the service is. On just this one visit the cafe managed to get our order wrong and tried  to charge one of us ten pounds for a cup of tea. I know their prices are high, but that was taking the mickey.

Emma continued that “I wrote them a polite email and got a perfectly nice reply saying that this was still a work in progress. Well, this place looks beautiful but that just doesn’t wash.”

Emma told me that “We’ve had various contractors over the years. What we need is standard cafe fair, sandwiches, jacket potatoes, cheap and cheerful lines. During the refurbishment we had this van  outside which was utterly brilliant. Proper nice sausages, gorgeous chicken wraps, all reasonably priced even though it did have the fancy things that some people want round here too.”

She continued that the “Council has failed in its duties to consider the equality implications of their actions. The elderly can’t afford to come here now, it’s all white, middle class people.”

Caroline Allen commented that “the council say they want to get rid of poverty in Hackney. All they are really  doing is excluding people and then saying ‘It’s great! It’s regenerating!’ We need to get people involved.”

She concluded that “Even if it’s too late to change this contract it should be a lesson for Hackney Council on other contracts that they award that they need to accommodate the needs of the local community, and the impact on equality”.

It does seem like a wasted opportunity in an area that lacks good places to go that are affordable that the council have given the contract to suppliers who have clearly bitten off more than they can chew. With consistently unreliable service and over-priced food that only one section of the area might conceivably want to eat the Clissold Park Cafe is, well, a little disappointing.


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  1. Pam I says:

    My highlighted memories of this place are from when it was run as a co-op, by Christine – ? – who went on to run the Rio. The food was excellent, cheap, all veggy though no-one noticed, service was fast and friendly. They were open every day including christmas day, and as a result were always busy. We were there one xmas day when two cars arrived from Stokey police station, several police got out and left with an armful of cakes to take back to the nick. Happy days. It all crashed when LBH got into some silly dispute about ownership and rates. It was then upgraded, with uncomfortable artisan furniture and lots of meat, and unwilling uniformed LBH staffers who did not understand food. Will the new regime be able to be part of ‘the community’, recognising that parks are a service, not commercial?

  2. I’m put off going in by the dogs running riot on the front lawn despite the park bylaw sign attached to the railing saying that they need to be on a lead. Some people take this too literally though and attach their lead to the railing and then go in to the cafe to have a nice quiet coffee while their dogs howl outside.

    It is a bit expensive but generally if you get to order and get what you ordered then the food is not bad.

    Coffee is a bit expensive though and not always good.

  3. Andrew Boff says:

    Think a subtle point has been missed here. Hackney weren’t just insensitive to the bids of small businesses, they specifically excluded them with ludicrous turnover requirements.
    They did the same at the recently reopened CLR James Library in Dalston which has brought Starbucks Coffee to one of the last places in London where you were able to escape from the chains.
    This is at the same time as spending taxpayers money on banners stating that Hackney supports local shops. Hackney’s Council are in awe of anyone with cash.

    • Jim Jepps says:

      I do agree Andrew, I did allude to this in the piece when I said “Even from the beginning when organising the bidding for the contracts the Council, by imposing a £1 million per annum turnover minimum, had ensured only particular kinds of business could apply.” but it’s certainly worth making more of because this is probably where a lot of he problem comes from.

  4. Caroline Allen says:

    Hi Andrew, in my blog I mention the turnover requirement among other things:
    Hackney Council seem to get away far too often with saying one thing and yet acting in a completely contradictory way.

  5. nicola woodham says:

    One spring day, a few years ago, I found myself stretched out on the grass, quite near the pond in Clissold park, I felt at home. I decided then and there that I wanted to live in Clissold. Why was this, why did I feel so at home? Maybe it was because I could walk around the park and feel like I could have a chat with anyone, whether it was the stoner who hung around at 5, dusk about to fall, the ranger ready to close up, or the woman with mental health problems, her dog, her jokes and observations, passing the time, or my neighbour, on his only walk out of the day, braving the world, avoiding the pull of the routine of his medication, resting his eyes for a moment on the sun, in the middle of winter, just visible from the seats outside the old cafe. You know in deep winter, the last of the sun, around 3.30pm is only visible from the terrace of the House. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I don’t mind so much the people who want froth on their coffee, or long to be part of a community that pre existed before their presence. But the reality is that the smallest thing, like changing a park cafe, can have enormous repercussions. A park cafe to some is a leisure activity, for others it is their right. It’s a day centre, a moment of comfort at the end of a day of deliberation and discomfort. The park cafe, should be affordable, but it should also be comfortable, it should also be anonymous for people who want that. Remember, parks and recreation are paid for by the council, and the council is paid for by council tax payers, whether these are people who pay from their own wage or by those who are, by law, entitled to the benefit that is used to pay this tax. Parks are Public places, public includes everyone. The park cafe as it is in its new form creates an exclusion zone, I want to walk around it, I miss seeing people from all walks of life. where are they, they become like ghosts.

    • Jim Jepps says:

      Hi Nicola,

      thanks so much for this lovely contribution. I know exactly what you mean.

      Mind you I hope I’m not saying that I want to abolish frothy coffee or stuff with cumin in – only that these can’t be the only things available.

  6. Tommy says:

    the dalston library caff is being run by a local turkish business man who is using starbucks coffee so it;s not a starbucks really

    see the clissold caff is doing full english breakfasts now – good to see and looks like they’re changing the offer – a way to go still but encouraging

  7. Sophie says:

    I have a day off work today and a friend visiting from abroad so I thought “I know, the Clissold cafe is open again!” And it’s a beautiful crisp day, perfect for the park. And on trying to find the cafe menu online…. instead I find numerous blogs and articles and a very very sad missed opportunity.
    One of the many things I love about Hackney is the amazing foods we have from around the world – my Jewish ancestors brought over the beigel, the families I grew up with brought some of my favourite foods – jerk chicken from Jamaica, borek from Turkey, pho from Vietnam and the old East End favourites can still be found. We’re a borough rich in culinary tradition and Hackney residents, and the many Londoners who travel to enjoy our cuisine, know you can get good, tasty food without breaking the bank. So, it should come as no surprise to Hackney Council that we can’t be duped.

    If the current contract can’t be broken and the council don’t do the sensible thing and create a space for locals to sell their wares, then you can continue to support our local businesses: pick up a delicious spinach and feta borak from Stoke Newington High Street and spread out a blanket on the grass. You can enjoy the sites of Clissold House without paying for overpriced coffee and bad service. We’re an enterprising community, it won’t be long before the icecream vans will be back to offer minimilks and normal priced cartons of juice.

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