Tue. Feb 20th, 2024

In the early years of the post-Windrush era, Black British presence was most obviously marked by people; those “willing hands” who toiled in factories and mines and hospitals while making their dogged way through the often unwelcoming vastness of the so-called mother country. But in a smaller yet no less significant way the UK’s nascent Caribbean community announced itself on grocery stand displays and corner shop shelves. From Ridley Road to Moss Side, the lasting impact of the 1948 arrival could be glimpsed in the specialist purveyors of yellow yams, Jamaican water crackers and tinned breadfruit; it could be traced in precariously stacked aisles of red beans and callaloo, and plump, warm loaves of hard dough bread. As the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon wryly notes in his 1956 Windrush novel The Lonely Londoners: “Before Jamaicans start to invade Brit’n, it was a hell of a thing to pick up a piece of saltfish anywhere.”

Initially operated by savvy white English or south Asian businesspeople – and then by enterprising West Indians selling shipped produce out of vans – by the early 1960s, Black-owned Caribbean food shops dotted Britain’s major cities, and had emerged as vital points of cultural connection and congregation. “They were significant because they were among the first public displays of Caribbean life, besides music, that people from outside the community would have interacted with,” notes Riaz Phillips, author of Belly Full and chronicler of Caribbean diaspora food in the UK. “For those within the community, bakeries, mini markets and restaurants were more like social hubs than just places to buy food. They were places to see familiar faces and to organise – be that a party or a protest.”

Now, even as generations have passed, recessions have bitten and migration from the Caribbean has dwindled in relative terms, many of these original businesses and their spiritual descendants continue to flourish. Some are time-warp family endeavours with links to specific farms or bakeries back in Jamaica or elsewhere. Others are slick, strip-lit operations that seek to modernise the formula with deli counters and vegan options. All of them, in their own way, are monuments to the complexities of British-Caribbean food culture and the fortitude of that postwar generation of migrants. Here, just before the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s 1948 arrival, five shopkeepers talk produce, community pride and life behind the counter.

‘I still love the smell of freshly baked buns, bread and cake

Joanne Thompson outside the Old Trafford Bakery.
Joanne Thompson outside the Old Trafford Bakery. Photograph: Sean Hansford/MEN

Joanne ‘Mrs T’ Thompson
The Old Trafford Bakery, Manchester
Established in 1960, this tiny, neighbourhood business is perhaps the oldest Caribbean bakery in Britain. Founded by Jamaican-born, second-generation baker Winston Reid, it has been run by his relatives, the Thompson family, since the early 2000s.

“I was 18 when I came here from Jamaica to do nursing and I’m 70-plus now, so I’ve lived here much longer than I ever lived there. It was February 1964 and my first impression was: ‘My God, what is this cold?’ The snow was hip-high and I couldn’t get used to it. There was a lot of ignorance as well. As a visiting midwife, my sister would be offered a cushion for ‘her tail’; a West Indian friend from work was asked: ‘How does it feel to be wearing clothes?’ They really thought we were jumping from tree limb to tree limb with nothing on before we got here.

Mr Reid was the first owner of the bakery, and he was family. He had run a bakery back in Jamaica and so he would do it in his house when I first arrived – he’d make bread, patties, spice buns, bullah [molasses-enriched round cakes] and all the usual things that we’d get in bakeries in Jamaica but couldn’t find here. Later, he got this shop. When he retired about 20 years ago, we took over. It’s my son Paul, who started working for Mr Reid when he was still at school, who is the head baker and main man. It’s very, very hard work; you’re the first to come in and the last one to leave. But he has just flourished. Baking is his love, really, and if we ever try to get involved with it he seems to just drive us out of the kitchen. I’d say that what we make is not just close to the taste back home – it’s better. We give Paul the raw materials and he turns it into gold.

It’s the fruit buns, breads and patties that are still our most popular items. People who have moved from the area, to Birmingham and beyond, they come back because they say there’s nothing like our patties. And the secret to our hard dough bread is that it’s not too sweet and that it’s handmade. Our massive dough mixer – a big, globe-looking thing that we call Sputnik – is almost 100 years old and German-made. It’s a collector’s item, completely ancient, and it sometimes breaks down but they don’t make them like that any more. If we can get parts we always try to fix it.

Paul is ready to carry it all on and I’m almost ready to retire. But we feel blessed to be doing a worthwhile job and serving the community. We love what we do and we’re not going anywhere. You could never get sick of the smell of freshly baked buns, bread and cake. It is awesome. And I still love it after all this time.”

‘I used to sell mangoes at the end of dances’

Wentworth ‘Wenty’ Newland
Wenty’s Tropical Foods, Forest Gate, London
Having started as a door-to-door business, this corner greengrocer was officially established by chef, businessman and community fixture Newland in 1986

“The only reason I’ve had any success in this business is that when I see the good stuff, I know the good stuff. My family used to farm in Jamaica and so I learned it from my parents. If someone buys a vegetable or piece of fruit and someone has told them it’s good, I can look at it and tell them if it’s rubbish. With avocado pears especially you have to know what you’re doing; you can find one that looks very nice from the outside but inside it will be bad because the cold has got into it.

Wenty photographed in the shops’ early days
Wenty photographed at his shop in the 1990s.

I came to England in 1967, at nine years old, and the first thing I remember thinking about London was that it all looked like it was in black and white instead of colour. At that time the only place that you could really go to get West Indian food was Dalston. It was in the 1970s that I started to get fruit and veg and try to sell it to other people who were missing that taste of home. At first I would import sugar cane and go from door to door in east London, but I would do festivals and pull up to car garages where people worked. When they saw what I was selling was good, then next week they’d come again. For a while I’d even go in my van when they’d have dances at night. I used to sell mangoes at the end because that was mostly what people would want. There was never any trouble when I parked my van; I would just sell anywhere and nobody would move me on.

Another big moment was in the 1980s when I went to buy a mobile phone so people could call me to make orders. The thing was a lot of money, and so big and heavy, but it was worth it. After that I opened the shop and I would sell hot food in here; let people come in and play cards. There are customers I have from the first day who still come to see me, but there’s a lot more interest in Caribbean fruits and vegetables now. Things like yellow yam and jelly coconut. Everyone wants soursop or jackfruit but, with some types, in every 100 you find you’ll only get one good one.

I’m 72 now, so I’m slowing down and only work on Sundays; though I still jerk chicken for carnivals and events. My children look after most things now, but I still have to stop by to make sure that they buy the good stuff. People can say we’re part of Black history or Caribbean history. I don’t really take much notice. This has been like a calling – so I just do what I’ve got to do.”

‘For years I wanted a shop that would put a smile on your face’

Darren Richards of Montego’s, Bedford.
Darren Richards of Montego’s, Bedford. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

Darren Richards
Montego’s Market, Bedford
Launched in June 2021 and housed in a former bank, this Caribbean-influenced supermarket has links to Lee & Sons – a longstanding business that previously had outposts in Luton, Bedfordshire and Harrow.

“I’m a north Londoner of Vincentian heritage, so I remember being dragged down to food markets as a youngster and along to shops that weren’t necessarily owned by people in the community. A lot of these places, as I recall them, weren’t very appealing. There was no customer service to speak of, they weren’t enlightening environments – they were just people who had identified a niche and were driving it home. One of my friends, my junior partner in the business now and almost a mentor, had a dad who started out visiting people’s homes with a van and had been involved in the sector for 40-odd years. My background is in finance but, for at least a decade, I had wondered if we could create a version of one of these shops where it would be a nice place to visit, the customer service would be bang on, and it would put a smile on your face. Bad products, occasional rudeness – the plan was to flip that on its head.

Covid was a catalyst in that it created an opportunity at a location in Bedford – a place with a longstanding, knowledgable Caribbean community and where the void for a shop of this kind hadn’t been filled since my friend’s family left town 20 years ago. We took over what was the RBS bank and, really, what I’ve tried to do is bring professionalism and discipline to a kind of business that is normally quite an unstructured, one-man-band affair. We’re like Pandora’s box. We’ve got our own butchery, all the fresh produce you can imagine, 200 lines of products, hair and beauty, pre-seasoned curry goat meat with recipe cards, a loyalty scheme and a food-to-go area.

I’d say our demographic is about 65% Black African and Caribbean and then 35% white European and everything else. We get lots of people who are either fully engaged with the community because they’ve married someone of that heritage, or they’re just curious and want to know how to cook this stuff. We’ve also noticed that there’s a lot of crossover with a Latin demographic who love their cassava and plantain.

The plan, ultimately, is to open more shops with the same theme and really drive this movement. Because, I think, building on the work of those pioneers who sold produce out of vans, we’re bringing something worthwhile. There’s nothing like seeing someone leave with a smile on their face and a full bag. As long as that continues, I’ll be happy.”

‘When people come through the door they feel like they’re back home’

Colin Mitchell, outside Mitchell’s Supermarket in Nottingham
Colin Mitchell inside Mitchell’s Supermarket in Nottingham. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

Colin Mitchell
Mitchell’s Supermarket, Radford, Nottingham
Operational in some form since 1959, this shop was one of a number of businesses established by Jamaican entrepreneur Clifton Mitchell. Now run by his son, it has stood on this site since 1999.

“My father’s family has a history in this business that goes back to the early 1950s. In Jamaica, they had their own farm and a corner shop where they sold all the produce. My dad left Jamaica when he was about 18 and, after some farm work in the US, and an unhappy time bending and crawling in a mine, he opened a shop in a part of Nottingham called Lenton. That was his first one and in those days they were even selling live chickens out in the back yard.

My father was a man of vision, though; he was the first person to bring Excelsior brand Jamaican crackers to the UK, and by the early 1960s he was getting customers to write out their orders in little red books so we could pack up what they wanted and deliver it to them. He was ahead of his time and could see changes and challenges before they happened.

By the mid-1970s, we had stores in two different locations, including this one, and I had been working in the business full-time since I left school. Then, in 1978, my father said that I could pay him in instalments for half of the stock we had in this shop and take on the business. It was an opportunity, and I was so excited and motivated that I paid him off within six months.

After that, it was an initial five years of work with no days off, no holidays, no nothing. Deep down I wanted to be like my father; he was a gentle giant, well-known and liked in the community. But I’ve learned to try to keep family life away from business. I don’t want to have my family all working here and then I go home and I’m seeing the family again. That was where my mother and father went wrong and it put a strain on their relationship.

The business has changed over the years. We’ve had recessions and I’d say that 25% of our stock is now West African ingredients like pounded yam, fufu and gari [fermented cassava flour] that compete with the Caribbean ones. That means I’ve had to learn and be alive to it as the community has changed; it’s a way of connecting with those deeper African roots we Caribbeans have.

Ultimately, this is a community space. When people come through the door they feel like they’re back home and sometimes they spend so much time talking that they forget what they came in for. They’re not behaving themselves like they would in Aldi or Sainsbury’s or Asda. They let their hair down, start laughing, joking and questioning our prices. But they’re a help. It’s like a family.

The business has been going for 64 years now and I’ll have to retire at some point. My kids have seen the amount of work I’ve had to do and they’ve made it categorically clear that they are not going to take it on. So it could be coming to the end of an era. But it’s not just a job. As long as I’m in the community I can’t really stop work because I always have people coming up to me, asking me things and saying hello. It’s like being a police officer. I’m never off duty.”

Even though we get up early, it doesn’t feel like work’

Kiera-Lorelle and Lewis Rhomes at Cinnamon Leaf in Tottenham.
Kiera-Lorelle and Lewis Rhomes at Cinnamon Leaf in Tottenham. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

Kiera-Lorelle Rhomes
Cinnamon Leaf Food Hall, Tottenham, London
Opened in January 2020 by the Rhomes family, this north London shop combines Caribbean and West African-themed produce with health foods, a coffee shop and a fusion deli counter.

“I grew up in Tottenham with Ghanaian-Sierra Leonean heritage on my mum’s side and Jamaican-Cuban heritage on my dad’s. So, especially in the foods we’d eat, there’s always been a very strong Caribbean and West African presence. I have really comforting memories of coming out of church on a Sunday and being wheeled to Ridley Road market in the pram so my mum could get hair products, pick out vegetables and fruits. That fake grass around the meat displays at the butchers always seemed so cool to me.

Mum had always wanted to have a store that stocked Caribbean and African products – it was one of those lifelong dreams. And, at the same time, I had turned vegan: Through that, I had to go to health food shops to get specific things; independent places, markets and big chains like Planet Organic and Whole Foods. So when the opportunity for this place came up, we thought: why don’t we make it not just one thing? When my generation run Caribbean- or African-inspired businesses we try to marry tradition with that more western feeling we’ve grown up with.

We opened just before Covid so we had to seriously roll with the punches. There were a lot of suppliers lined up, but when the pandemic hit we were told they’d have to prioritise their main clients – that was just the biggest knockback. Lots of people would come in and say: “What a lovely shop. Why is there nothing in it?” That was one battle we were fighting. Another was that people thought we were a front, not for illegal activity, but for an owner who wasn’t Black. It was a very big thing: Instagram comments, online rumours and people coming in to ask, “Are you really Black-owned?” It really hurt, but maybe the feeling was that it was too good to be true. After a while people saw that it was the same faces working here and we were hardly ever shutting, and it became more: “Wow, these people clearly own it and they’re working really hard.” Me, my mum, my auntie and my two brothers would all be here almost 24/7 in the beginning; now we’ve realised we need that work-life balance.

The biggest challenge is that the economy has been very tricky since Brexit. We’ve tried to avoid raising prices, and there’s already a stigma that we’re expensive because we’re independent, but it got to the point where we couldn’t help but raise them. Plantain is a contentious one, but we don’t make any profit on it because we keep it at the lowest price possible to keep customers happy. It’s a balance between that and keeping the lights on.

Still, even though it’s very hard and we’re getting up early, it doesn’t feel like work. There’s so much human interaction – I’ve made friends who I now think of as my big sisters. And it’s just nice to walk into a place we can call our own. It gives people a sense of fulfilment and connects them to their culture. It’s much more than just a shop.”

Settlers: Journeys Through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London by Jimi Famurewa is published in paperback by Bloomsbury on 6 July, £10.99.


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