This post was written with Alec Snelling & Kevin Greenham from the Waiting Room, a vegan café on 134 Deptford High Street.
When the Waiting Room announced its relocation in spring 2018, they did it with a Kickstarter campaign to raise £12,500 to help them cover the relocation costs. They’d been in the tiny premises of 142 Deptford High Street for 7 years, experiencing difficult working conditions (mainly heat and lack of space), leaks and structural issues, and difficulties with the landlord. They had seriously considered packing it in but when Nightingale Pharmacy moved to the former HSBC building and offered the premises at 134 Deptford High Street for a reasonable price, the guys at the Waiting Room saw an opportunity to move to bigger and better premises, only 3 doors down from their former shop. This was important as the Waiting Room isn’t just a coffee shop but is part of the community on this bit of the High Street with close connections to Kids Love Ink, Rag ‘n Bone and SWAG CITY. However, they could not afford the move without financial help which is why they started the Kickstarter campaign. The link to the campaign was shared all over social media and their plight even made it into Time Out Magazine, and within no time, they raised more than they had asked for. Information about the campaign spread like wildfire, with locals very keen to save the much-loved Waiting Room. Interestingly, when the link to the campaign was shared on Facebook, I noticed one comment: “Why don’t they just take out a bank loan?” one woman asked. Little did she know about the Waiting Room, its origins and the people who run it. Alec and Kevin were aware that the history of the Waiting Room wasn’t commonly known when they wrote on top of the campaign page: “Many of our hardcore regulars don’t even know the history of how the Waiting Room came to be in existence.” They tell the story of what happened:
“Back in November 2010 we found ourselves with the keys to a fully stocked Off Licence. We had been looking for someone to take over the lease of what had been Kids Love Ink Tattoo Studio, which moved to bigger premises next door. The Newsagent, which used to be located at the old station building, was happy to take over the lease but shortly after they had set up and stocked the place, they decided at the final hour before signing that they didn’t want to commit. The guy handed us back the keys and waved goodbye. The shop was fully kitted out with racks on the walls full of sweets and household stuff and fridges full of beers. They took the cigarettes and high-end liquor but left all the other booze behind. It was crazy.
First a Tattoo Studio, then a fully stocked Off Licence, and finally the cafe. Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room
We had a choice. We either had to try and find someone else to take over the lease or do something ourselves with the space. After much deliberating and looking at what the High Street was lacking, we realised it desperately needed a place that served good coffee and a veggie/vegan menu so we decided to set up just that. Vegan food was not really in the public conscience then as it is now and after some research, we’re pretty sure we were one of the first vegan place in south-east London.”
Neither of them had ever served coffee or food before – Kevin was working as an assistant in operating theatres handing surgical instruments to surgeons, and Alec was the piercer in Kids Love Ink next door. But something had to be done – they couldn’t afford to pay the rent and as leaving the shop empty and not paying rent would have meant going to court, they decided to give a coffee shop a go. Both left their previous jobs and got lots of advice and training on how to make good coffee. They simply took the plunge. But first, they had to get rid of all the booze and make the shop fit for purpose. They explain how they did this:
“We had no money at all! Doing everything by ourselves was the only way to go. So we set about selling everything in the shop… and I mean EVERYTHING! Local hero Terry took the home goods, chocolates, crisps and what else he could sell. At Kids Love Ink we hosted an exhibition by Fos, founder of Heroin Skateboards and New Cross skating legend, where we offloaded most of the booze; the remainder of which went to a local punk venue in Battersea. Even the long gone Shital’s Off Licence took all the racking from the walls. The only money we had was the money we gained from selling the stuff.
Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room
After many long, tiresome days but few short weeks of renovations, the Waiting Room began to shape. Using near entire back catalogues of Scorpions, Rush, Iron Maiden and AC/DC as our musical motivation we got pallets from Resolution Way, stripped them down and used them for the counter, found paint and all sorts from Freecycle, and travelled to Southend for a sofa. At one point we had 2 sofas in the coffee shop but we soon ran out of space and replaced them with tables and chairs. For next to nothing we were lucky to get our hands on our first grinder and Espresso machine, our trusty old Rancillio Epoca. Much like your first car, it was terrible but you loved it unconditionally. We still can’t express enough thanks for the help that Camilla from Union Hand Roasted gave us from way before day 1; the training and support, helping us through choosing coffees and giving a serious MOT to the Rancillio. Splinters, blood, sweat and many beers, on April 1st 2011 we opened the doors, where we held a benefit for those who suffered and lost their lives in the 2011 Tsunami.”
Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room
The Waiting Room was well received from the outset, with many locals happy it wasn’t another bookie, but it was very quiet to start with. Alec recently found old till receipts, a reminder that on some days they made approximately £25. Some days it was so quiet, Kevin and Alec would watch a whole film at the back before another customer came in. The first time they made around £100 on a Saturday they felt ecstatic – they couldn’t believe it. Humble beginnings indeed. Actually, it could have all gone terribly wrong and it took some time to build up a customer base, but local artists, mainly from Utrophia, local squatters and property guardians soon became their regular customers. Kevin and Alec were working non-stop, 8am starts, 7pm finishes, 6 days a week then falling asleep over pints at the Birds Nest. Although friends came in to help out every now and then, in the end they needed a third person just to give them a day off. As time went on and it got busier, they started to take on more staff. “The list is long but for a coffee shop in London, the staff turnover is small and all members have been awesome (and mostly from Laban). It was these people who truly made the Waiting Room what it was and what it still is today.”
According to Kevin and Alec, Deptford has changed a lot since they set up in 2011. “Anyone who knows Deptford now no doubt heard about how much it’s changed from its shady past, but even back in 2011, it was a completely different place to what it is now. This is not to say that we don’t like the new changes – no-one wants to walk around a place that’s falling apart. We like the mix of the old and the new and there is still enough of the old that we still want to be here. We still love Deptford, it’s a great place to be and as long as this is the case, we’re happy to be here. But there is no denying that some things have changed. When we set up in 2011, there were lots of places with cheap rent, artist studios or buildings with property guardians, so there were a lot of skint artists and musicians around because it was still a very cheap place to live. A lot of them have gone now and there’s definitely a different clientele with all the new developments around – people with a bit more money and less time, and some people with that kind of busy lifestyle, who come in with a level of arrogance and expect a certain service they have grown accustomed to elsewhere. But we also get a lot of locals now who’ve lived here ages and probably wouldn’t have come into a place like this, people from housing estates, the Bird’s Nest or like the Millwall supporter who came in today and said: ‘It took me a while to take to your place and you guys but now I love it!’ A coffee shop with vegan food and bar staff tattooed all over is just not part of their lives, but over time, people starting coming in.”
How much local people have grown to love the Waiting Room became clear during the Kickstarter Campaign. Over the last 7 years, the people working at the Waiting Room have become an integral part of the community. As Alec says: “Deptford is our home, especially the High Street, and we were desperate to stay. It really would be a shame and break our hearts if the Waiting Room were to close. We really care about our community and there’s also a wonderful community among shopkeepers here.” Being a business owner, Alec is clear that he likes to see change in Deptford, that he is keen to see new people coming into the area as it’s good for his own business too but he’s also clear that it’s important to care for the area and the local community and that it’s important for businesses to integrate and communicate with others. “It’s important to show respect to each other and respect the local character of an area!” He is especially critical of big developers with big money who show little respect for the character of an area. An example of this is when Deptford Market Yard painted over the Lipton Ice Tea sign that had been there for decades. “At what point would anyone look at that and think ‘that’s a really annoying sign that’s been here for over a hundred years, we’re gonna put a massive thing over it to advertise our shops’? How they got planning permission for that I don’t know. It was just treated with no respect at all.”
Small individual businesses clearly have to save long and hard just to be able to do any renovation work and it is hard to keep up with big corporations that can pay huge rent prices. An all too common occurrence these days, the landlord of 142 Deptford High Street was not looking to renew the lease so he could develop the property and probably charge much higher rent in the future, Alec and Kevin tell me. Issues began when recurring leaks, unfixed damage and an uncooperative landlord, were making it difficult to run the coffee shop, causing frustration for the staff and customers. By 2017, they had been working without a new lease agreement for a year, risking the danger of being kicked out any time. The Airbnb run upstairs called Greenwich Park Apartments (the irony!), which was full of mould, some mice and dodgy plumbing that couldn’t deal with the constant stream of people, added to the frustrations. The lack of space also made it difficult for the staff to do their work – when more than 2 staff members were on, they were in each other’s way, the heat in the summer was unbearable, food and cups had to be stored in the tattoo shop for lack of storage space, and any time work needed to be done, the shop had to be shut, losing business. They had wanted to move for a while but couldn’t find suitable or affordable premises until 134 Deptford High Street suddenly came up. Kevin jokingly says that at some point they considered, not seriously, the empty flower shop next to the Funeral Parlour, calling the place ‘Coffee Mourning’. “I don’t think that would have gone down too well”, he laughs. “Then the people from the pharmacy just came in one day and said: ‘We’re moving, do you want to take over our premises?’ We went there, had a look and just grabbed the opportunity straight away. The fact that it’s just 3 doors down was a huge bonus as we didn’t feel we’d have to start all over again. Being anywhere else on the High Street wouldn’t feel the same. The imminent move took us by surprise though. We have had no way of saving up for this eventuality! Financially, we weren’t doing great – we managed to pay all bills and wages but that was it, so it literally was a case of ‘Save The Waiting Room’ as we had been on the verge of closing for good.”
After raising more than £15,500 and doing lots of work on the new coffee shop, they moved in autumn 2018. “The new landlords are incredibly helpful and kind – they seem to understand what we’re about – and the move was smooth.” The idea is to keep the original ‘image’ of the Waiting Room just in a larger form, and as in the premises before, the look and wall decoration will change all the time for a while, until they are settled in properly. They were excited at the prospect of having more space – more space for staff to move about, more space for cooking and preparing drinks and more space for customers. “Customers will hopefully be able to stay rather than having to go somewhere else because there is no space”, Kevin said when I interviewed them in summer 2018. In the meantime, with the Waiting Room being so popular, it has become difficult again to get a seat but having recently created a seating area in the back garden, this ‘problem’ should be solved.