BThe Onnie Cafe in St George, Bristol, was something of an institution. Serving fries from breakfast to dinner and what one reviewer described as “BS5’s strongest cup of tea” since 1996. But it was no longer breaking even. A few weeks ago it reopened as a Mediterranean cafe and restaurant.
Its owner, Suat “Sam” Tezgel, blames the change in eating habits and gentrification. âWhen I came to the UK in 1996, I had never heard of gluten-free or vegan foods,â he said. âIt was a question of frying. I’m a chef and wanted to make a living, so that’s what I did. But especially for two years, the district has been changing. I noticed different types of customers coming in. They were asking for healthier foods like fresh fish and halloumi.
Bonnie is not alone. This is just one of many “fat spoons” that have been completely sealed or reused in recent times. In the capital The Shepherdess on City Road, Hoxton. was a staple for four decades, with a celebrity clientele including All Saints and Jamie Oliver. But it eventually became unsustainable amid rent increases last year. Even the UK’s most famous fictional iteration, Kathy’s Cafe of EastEnders fame recently had contact with threatening developers.
Hotel industry expert James Hacon estimates that the number of grease scoops that have closed in recent years “is in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.”
âOver the past two decades we’ve seen the boom in brand name pubs, fast food outlets and coffee shops – think of JD Wetherspoon, Pret and Costa,â he said. âThese brands offer good value for money with an emphasis on consistency, often over multiple meal times – pulling straight from the custom of traditional coffee or the greasy spoon. Even gas station forecourts and convenience stores consider food on the go big business. There have been other pressures too, with traditional coffee offerings perhaps seen as outdated by young consumers – millennials have long been caricatured as fans of crushed avocado – and processed pork products linked to the cancer and obesity.
But that newspaper’s food critic Jay Rayner believes the decline is more a result of social change than a dietary fad. “The indicator was that these places generally had fun opening hours – usually 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. – and the reason was that they were all aimed at providing high calorie food to people who needed it as they worked. physically very hard in manual labor. And the reality is that there are a lot fewer people in those jobs now. “
Rayner added: âMany cafes have been founded by first generation immigrants whose children or grandchildren don’t want to work sixteen hours a day to maintain the family business when they can instead work in a profession. But there is a social cost when they leave.
In Wales, these migrant founders were often Italians. One of the last survivors, Station Cafe in Treorchy had been around for 84 years when it closed in May 2019. Its owner, Dom Balestrazzi, had long been ready for retirement and his children were unwilling to assume it. “It was especially sad for my husband, because he had spent most of his life there,” said his wife, Virginia, who has helped run it for more than 40 years. “But it was also sad for the community at large. We had no idea how strong the feelings were until the last few days when so many came into contact.”
Writer and photographer Adrian Maddox documented many of the country’s archetypal cafes in his 2003 book Classic coffees.
âI became obsessed with a particular type of cafe – the signage, the Formica tables, the menu fonts, the windows, the counters, those giant silver tea urns,â he said. âAnd I spent years documenting them. But as I finished the project, I realized that I had also sounded the death knell.
âMost of the places I photographed have since disappeared – it’s depressing to hear each new closure. “
Another who has chronicled the demise of the traditional cafe is filmmaker Bruce Gill, who made an award-winning documentary about the Caledonian in Huddersfield before it closed just before its 50th anniversary in 2018. It is now a pizzeria.
âYou can’t get full English and a cup of tea for Â£ 4 anymore,â said Gill. âA bit of Huddersfield’s soul was lost. It’s so sad. It was a tremendous asset to the city.
In Margate, Kent, the Dalby had been in place since 1946 but only gained national attention three years ago, when rock star Pete Doherty managed to eat all of his “mega breakfast – a local challenge “. Owner Mark Ezekiel said: ‘We are depressed about Londoners who miss a fry because their premises have closed. But even with big numbers, it’s hard to make money when costs rise, from wages to utilities and ingredients. The best thing that can happen to our business is a reduction in VAT. “
Yet even in this difficult climate, there are signs of hope for the future. The handle listed in Classic coffees who got hooked record a recovery. Places like Pellicci in Bethnal Green, east London, and the Workers cafe in Islington are full of young hipsters. The Pimlico Regency is on âalternative tourismâ trails.
There are even new places that are opening up by reusing the coffee tradition. The Breakfast Club, which offers both avocado, eggs and bacon, offers its full English iteration for a sizable Â£ 14 – but there are always queues outside its dozens of branches.
A tip from Jay Rayner: Norman’s in Tufnell Park celebrated its first anniversary last week serving reasonably priced classics like ham, eggs and fries (Â£ 7.00), but with refinements like a menu of wines. Founder Richie Hayes said, âWe grew up eating in these kinds of places and always wanted to open our own cafe serving the classics. We are well.
It was with reluctance that Sam Tezgel decided to close Bonnie’s. But, for him at least, a restyling like Laila, without any trace of greasy spoon, can be more profitable. âPeople don’t want fries anymore,â he said. âSomething had to change.