A black day for the Runaway

UPDATE: On 15 January, Barny Clevely from The Flying Coffee Bean withdrew his tender for the Runaway cafe. On 16 January Southern decided to renew Jacqueline Elsey’s lease. What a brilliant result! Thank you to Southern and the Flying Coffee Bean for listening to public opinion and taking appropriate action, and to all the people who wrote, blogged and tweeted to help save the Runaway.

The following text is my article as of 11 January 2013:

In February Lewes will sadly lose its independent and utterly one-off station café, the Runaway. Southern Railway has sold the lease to The Flying Coffee Bean, which is owned by DP The Drinks People. It’s quite a way to say thank you to Director Jacqueline Elsey, who has run a successful business from here since 1988. “I’ve given my whole life to here,” she tells me over a cup of tea today, “trying to contemplate anything else, at this moment, is just too much.”

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The Flying Coffee Bean, meanwhile, is ‘delighted’ to have the opportunity to take over the premises. On their website and posters they say, “The Runaway is part of Lewes’ heritage and it will continue to provide a great sense of well-being. The name will not change and the essence and soul of the Runaway will remain. We are planning to provide you with everything that the Runaway was to you with a little bit more… The music in The Runaway Café will continue to play.”

Their wording represents an insult to Jacqueline, who was unable to match the competitive tender offered by the chain, in spite of having a petition with over 5000 signatures in support of her tenancy. “It’s a black day for us,” says Jacqueline, “and to add insult to injury they’re putting posters up right under our noses to tell everybody that everything is going to be the same. Of course it isn’t.”

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When I asked Southern Rail for more detail, they said in an email, “Passengers told us they did not want a national coffee chain for the site, and so the Flying Coffee Bean fits the bill perfectly.” In an open statement, the MD of The Flying Coffee Bean, Barny Clevely says he is ‘fiercely protective’ of The Runaway. He intends “To enhance everything that is great about the Runaway including the name, the music, the leaf teas… but to also invest.”

The Flying Coffee Bean has outlets in Brighton, Guildford, Woking, and soon Haywards Heath. Their owner DP The Drinks People supplies mobile bars to events nationally. This company isn’t an independent business in the way Jacqueline’s is. In fact, now ‘small and local’ is such positive PR, I wonder whether the term ‘independent business’ needs to be subcategorised?

The Runaway I know: with its quirkiness, cleanliness, familiar smell, and soft, precision-cut sandwiches with symmetrical fillings, is the sort of place a visitor to Lewes can recall years after they have returned home. The reclaimed furniture and floorboards promised by The Flying Coffee Bean sound nice, but the wood is just old: it is not infused with personality, or eccentricity.

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Jacqueline tells me that when she and her husband Vic first opened they “wanted to give people something that most railway buffets did not have.” They set out to offer, “A selection of speciality teas, coffees and homemade food: freshly-made food, on the premises, in small batches, all day long. And we serve it in china, because people do like to have a nice cup of tea – real leaf tea, not teabags – in a china cup.”

It’s a business plan unmatched by any of the speedy espresso joints that populate stations up and down the country now, or even back then. The Runaway, with its classical music and well-stocked liquor shelf, is as Jacqueline says, “all things of bygone days,” but it has remained popular, “people really appreciate it.”

The Flying Coffee Bean make a fine cup of coffee, I’ve tasted it and have no complaint, but they cannot match the character or atmosphere that Jacqueline and Vic have created and nurtured in the Runaway. It is insensitive of them to suggest that they can, particularly when Jacqueline is facing the loss of her business, and her staff, their jobs.

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To support Jacqueline and the Runaway, email Southern.

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About Chloe King

I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.

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7 comments on “A black day for the Runaway

  1. January 12, 2013 at 12:18 am

    An excellent piece that highlights the flaw in the DP/ FCB plan. People who intend to boycott Flying Coffee Bean should take note of where their outlets are located and make the boycott nation-wide. It is hoped that we can spread the message to others in these areas. Put-upon commuters in these other locations might like to show solidarity with their Lewes kin.

    A poster campaign is already in the mix – designs are being reviewed this weekend – so that commuters at Lewes station can be in no doubt as to what is happening to their beloved cafe, and what the people behind this most hostile of take-overs are really like.

    Two local independent Lewes coffee sellers have expressed interest in setting up an alternative mobile unit, to be located close to the station. One has already identified a suitable vehicle that will take little time to fit out.

    The owners of the Flying Coffee Bean have insulted our intelligence. The statements issued have not assuaged fears, they have fuelled the fire of our indignation and our determination.

    We wunt be Druv.

  2. January 12, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Yes, this is very sad and a bad decision. The likes of the ‘Flying Coffee Bean’ offer a fake ‘independent local natural…….lalala’ image as part of a marketing strategy in the same way that Tesco Metro’s pretend to be local grocers while destroying all competition.

    Southern Rail only care about maximum profit, not customers and this is shown by their exorbitant fares and increasingly erratic service – what another power failure!

  3. January 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    I thought I should post this comment from an articulate letter to Barny Clevely from Tony at the Snowdrop. Tony’s full reply, and rest of the thread, can be found here: http://www.lewes.co.uk/forum/post/Runaway_/116307#Lewes

    On Fri at 09:13 Tony@thesnowdrop wrote:

    Generally speaking, if you want to take on an independent business that you admire, you approach the business owner, you make them an offer that covers the physical aspects of the business and, just as importantly, the goodwill resulting from their years of hard work, ideas, relationships, creativity, personality and all the other intangibles that make up the real value of the ongoing business. That’s the nice, civilised way of doing things.

  4. January 14, 2013 at 9:38 am

    So sad, and horrible to feel helpless under the juggernauts of big business.

  5. January 14, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Here’s the Southern Railways UK case study from Travel Point Trading. TPT are the commerical investment company employed by Southern to review tenders and to ‘maximise revenue opportunities’ for the rail franchise operator

    http://www.travelpointtrading.com/case-studies/southern-railway/

  6. January 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    IMPORTANT UPDATE: Barny Clevely from The Flying Coffee Bean has made the following statement on Facebook, withdrawing his tender for the Runaway cafe:

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/DP-The-Drinks-People/181994658534777

    To The Residents of Lewes,

    “It is with great regret that my company ‘The Flying Coffee Bean’ is announcing its withdrawal from the Tender at Lewes Station to take on The Runaway Café.

    There appears to be a small but very vocal minority who have made it clear of their intentions to mount a broad attack on our business activities outside of Lewes. It is too much to ask of my loyal and incredibly hard working team, who have helped me build my business, to deal with this contingent whose activities have verged on direct intimidation. There has been a consistent and sustained misrepresentation of who we are as an entity and what our intentions are with the Runaway. The Runaway would have been in very safe hands under our stewardship with our published intention of retaining all that is great about it. I am truly disappointed and sorry that we will not be able to deliver that for the people of Lewes.

    On a personal note, I would like to thank many of the residents of Lewes for their encouragement and Southern Railway and their colleagues for the sensitive handling of this situation through out the entire Tender process and for their understanding of my difficult decision to withdraw”.

    Barny Clevely
    Managing Director

  7. January 17, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Delighted at this news. Thank you Chloe for highlighting the issue along with bloggers and social media users in Lewes. A victory for common sense in a crazy world.

    I popped into the Runaway today. The management and staff are ecstatic and incredibly grateful to everyone for their ‘overwhelming’ support. By way of thanks they are listening to comments regarding quality of coffee, need for wifi etc. I understand there will be a suggestion box and/ or a detailed customer survey to help deliver the services and supplies that Lewes commuters want to see.

    I really do love this town.

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