Consumerism: Not even chains can survive

November 24, 2016 23:22

Everyone's grandmother has a moment when they realise their grandchild is a rare and extraordinary genius. Mine enjoyed this epiphany in The Refreshment House, better known as the Golders Hill Park Café.

The story goes that I had requested that she go to the Café and buy me a "yellow ice-cream". She dutifully obliged and returned some moments later with a cornet dripping with home-made lemon sorbet.

"No grandma!" exclaimed her precocious young grandson after his first lick. "That is not yellow and, what's more, it's sorbet! I wanted banana ice cream!" I still do not quite know what impressed her so much. It may have been the discernment of my palate at such a tender age.

Perhaps it was that I differentiated between pale white and bright yellow, despite being colour-blind. It may have been the single-minded ungratefulness that she assumed was indicative of a successful business career. Whichever, she was overjoyed and told the story to successive bridge partners for years to come.

Many readers will have their own memories of the place, or places like it. When the sun comes out, North London heads to Golders Hill Park, or to Parliament Hill Fields, or to the Heath. Memories of the cafés - like the one in Golders Hill Park owned by the Pazienti family for 43 years - unspool in our adult minds like an old cine-reel, flicking through images of toddlers shovelling in home-made spaghetti, faces smeared with ice-cream, kids running off to feed the ducks and pointing animatedly at the deer.

Until last week, however, such memories were under threat. After nearly half-a-century of running their café, the Pazientis were told that the City of London had decided not to renew their lease, diverting it to the sandwich chain, Benugo. A similar decision affected the café at Parliament Hill, run by the D'Auria family for 33 years, and another charming café in Highgate Wood.

It was as close to a local outrage as you can get in NW3. Not because we're all sandal-wearing hippies. But because the consumers of 2016 are craving authenticity again. The turn of the century gave us the growth of consumer brands and they had their benefits. They offered choice and cleanliness and gave reassurance. Who needs a menu in Pizza Express? But it also produced identical town centres with identical stores selling identical products and many independents were driven out.

Now, our values are shifting. Not only do we care for good food but we care for the people who make it. Costa Coffee may pack a punch, but we fear for the corner deli that cannot compete. We know that sandwiches prepared while you wait may be a touch old-fashioned (even unhygienic) but the homely taste of a tuna mix from a silver dish is a welcome relief from starchy, starry Pret.

But the reason why the City of London's decision was so egregious was that the cafés in question were all in parks. The convenience of the chain can be a necessity in busy working lives. This is not the case in places that are, at their very heart, places for families to play and relax. The park café is the essence of the local, the heart of communal recreation. It is the kind of place where we want to know the people making our lunches and ice-creams, to support their endeavours and enjoy an atmosphere away from corporates.

This all accounts for the extraordinary success of the campaign to save the cafés. A petition attracted 24,000 signatories. At a public meeting, the City of London's chairman was forced to admit that consultation had not taken into account the feelings of users. Communities evidently do still have the ability to effect significant change when they speak with one voice and do so powerfully.

Ironically, the hero of this tale is Benugo itself. Rather than insisting upon its strict rights in the face of the public protest, the chain tweeted it was "stepping aside". Its founder, Ben Warner, said he was a local park user and it was the "right thing to do". He may have feared for his brand's image, but regardless, he listened to the community more carefully than did the City of London.

Assuming they re-bid for their leases successfully, we can now enjoy many more years of the Pazientis' home-made ice-creams. Families can make more memories in places which, for all their imperfections, are run by people with personality and love. And it's fertile ground for a new generation to show grandparents their latent culinary genius.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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