Aren’t life’s little coincidences odd? I was just about to post this when I realised that my first blog was around this time last year. So I went back and had a look (read it here, if you like. It’s not particularly riveting, mind you). In the final paragraph, I wrote:
“From here on out I intend to be blogging and blawging about current affairs, Things That Piss Me Off, Things That Didn’t Piss Me Off Quite As Much, probably my nan, very definitely shoes, love, friendship, homesickness and maybe about some coffee.”
And would you believe it: today’s post is about coffee.
So, dearest readers, without further ado, this is The Unconventional Hustle: The One About The Coffee.
… Except it’s not, not really. It’s about more than that.
Everybody hates Birmingham. Everybody hates the accent (understandable), the seemingly dull pace of life and the fact that half the population is now featured on some godawful reality TV programme or other. Everybody that grows up here has designs on a move to London or another more ‘vibrant’ city where perceptions of cultural identity haven’t been trashed by Fox News.
I don’t. I love this city, and I think that if you look past the Bullring and Rainbow and all those hideously overhyped places, there’s actually a movement going on. Birmingham is growing, evolving, and importing a whole load more coffee beans than it used to.
The characters behind that movement are exactly that: they’re behind it, building up some really great and long-lasting concepts that actually give something back to the community for the love of it all, and not for the publicity. Well, excuse me if I’m disturbing the peace here but I’m about to attempt to give them – at least one of them in any case – some exposure.
I drive through Harborne every day on my way to Uni. For those that don’t know the area, Harborne is a fairly affluent suburb of Birmingham where everybody seems to be loaded, but at the same time never work; the array of coffee shops, restaurants and cakeries (new word alert?!) are forever full of that type of family that looks fresh out of a Hugh Grant film where nobody does anything outside of admiring everyone else’s floppy hair. The vast majority of these eateries are independently run, and the result is that they’re home to a very chilled-out vibe. The liberty that that independence provides really comes through in all the decor, the menus and most importantly, the people. You don’t at all get the impression that they’re trying to be anything, which is often the case with a lot of ‘hipster’ areas where there’s a pressure to be the MVP. It’s like Shoreditch off crack.
There are a couple of places here that I find myself in on a weekly basis, but my favourite has to be Boo Boo Coffee. Nestled just off the High Street, Boo Boo has provided a little community hub on the edge of the town. I can take my work, my hungry stomach or my in-need-of-caffeine brain and find a spot where I’m not asked to move until the shutters come down. Breakfast is served all day (!!!!!!), and involves more or less anything you could ask for, from bacon to bran flakes to avocado to bacon. Did I mention bacon?
I love what the owner, Keon, has been able to create within a relatively small space using elementary materials, graffiti-style murals (courtesy of a local artist Keon met at the Birmingham Festival of Colour) and an arguably banging taste in music. So one day, dictaphone in hand, I sat down with him and had a chat about where he’s come from and what prompted him to become a part of what’s become known as Independent Birmingham.
Lemar’s on in the background. The shop’s busy but, far from feeling like a crowded High Street joint, I just get the impression I’m in a familial living room. The tables and chairs are mismatched, the vases are empty glass Coke bottles with a couple of cute yet unimposing stems sticking innocently out of them, and there are classic board games stacked in the corner. Out of the large front windows, Harborne goes about its business of picking up the kids from school and squinting up at the sky as more fecking snow makes its way down to Earth. We just drink coffee, and observe.
Keon’s 29 and, in his former life, was a builder. He’s not out of the habit of getting up at the crack of dawn though; he tells me about A Day in the Life of a Coffee Shop Owner, which invariably involves getting to the shop at half past six to “bake off some scones”. This tickles me; whilst I’ve always noticed him being very hands-on (which is great to see – so many owners just let their businesses run themselves), baking cakes is the last thing I can imagine him doing. I’m eating humble pie though; Keon does more or less everything himself, including making sure as much of the produce that Boo Boo sells is locally-sourced or baked in-house, with the help of a couple of staff and family members.
Speaking of family, the shop gets its name from Keon’s niece, affectionately nicknamed Boo Boo. He tells me that he thinks this is why the place is popular with local families (there’s actually a small play area, complete with blackboard walls and proper toys (I’m Team Stop Giving Babies iPads)). Like I said, you get the impression of being in a home – a home which does not appreciate foul-mouthedness, as I was quickly taught by way of a yellow card handed to me on my first visit!
Despite this relaxed vibe, Keon’s got some serious business common sense. Whilst he tells me of the importance of letting a business breathe and having a strong team you can trust, he’s steadily planning the long term for his 10-month old venture. Summer will bring a new direction for Boo Boo; an alcohol licence is on its way, meaning warm lazy evenings accompanied by cool tapas-style menus and cocktails.
Whilst this is all grand, there are lessons to be learnt when you take the weight of an entire business on your shoulders; lessons about trust, about mistakes and about sacrifices. Getting to the shop before even the sun shows its face will always present a strain on your social life, especially for someone as young as Keon that dedicates 7 days a week to the business. It also takes a lot to place trust in others when you’ve created something successful. Confidence in those working with you is crucial but oh so delicate when your livelihood is resting on it, and repairing ruptures can be a tortuous struggle.
For me, Boo Boo is the fruits of realising that working for the man is not the end of the line. Keon stepped out of a more-than-convenient employment situation to commit himself to a less-than-certain business venture that couldn’t have been in a more contrasting industry to what he was used to. Less than a year down the line, he and his associates have created something truly special.
As I write, a father and two sons sit opposite me. They talk about what books the boys are reading at school. They eat cake, and drink Coke out of bottles that will inevitably come to hold lavender sprigs some time in the near future. The older boy waves to a friend over the road, and then they leave, content as a family. It’s what Boo Boo’s hustle is about: nurturing values that matter in society, and doing it with a big ole’ slice of cake and a hot chocolate to hand.
Photos are by moi (hence why they’re a bit pants)
For more cakey goodness follow the guys @booboocoffeeco