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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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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