Who’s behind the door at the Umbrella cafe?

There’s three people behind this door, Jo, Caroline and Jenny who offer a warm welcome, ‘down the path and through the garden’ at Whistable’s only community centre café.

Why did you choose to set up in Whitstable/Tankerton Jo – It was accidental opportunity in a way. I was fascinated with the building and had always wanted to run a community café. After being in Whitstable for six months the tender came up to take over the café so I applied. Caroline was born in Whitstable had also put forward her name in the tender so we were brought together by the trustees. After meeting we realised we had the same ideas and ethos, so opened the café together in 2015 and Jenny joined later.

Caroline – there was a gap in the market in Whitstable for a space that was big enough for pushchairs and wheelchairs with a warm welcome to come in and relax.

What do you love about your business and working here?
Caroline – The flexibility of the job and the social interaction with the customers and helping people, I feel like that is in my nature. I feel like I’ve found my niche really!

Jo – Everything we do is two-way, there is a community link between us and the customers, relationships between us and other community groups and individuals.

Are there any funny anecdotes that you can share?
When we were opening, we needed so much furniture and kitchenware so we cheekily approached local celebrity potter Keith Brymer Jones who gave us 40 mugs for free. He still supplies us at a heavily reduced price today!

Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall have also liked our tweets, and that was really exciting.

What is special about your products?
Without sounding too sentimental, the food is made with love and goodwill. We like to bring together people meeting over food and drink. We are not for profit and we are proud to be the only Community Interest Company (CIC) on Whitstable High Street. We are passionate about no waste and manage to achieve that. We get Fareshare hampers and share food with the community via this and our pay it forward scheme. And if we get fruit and veg from the local greengrocer, we get to work on chutneys and jams – we use everything!

Who inspired you?
On the food side, anyone that cooks with that real love, someone like the zero-waste chef and the ethos behind food not being fancy, just wholesome. We also like the Wallflower in Herne Bay and what they do. We try to find cafes and restaurants with our similar ethos when we go out to eat with our families.

How do you take your coffee?
Jo – it’s an oat flat white for me

Caroline – a good cuppa for me, made with loose leaf tea that we get from Chai Wallah Margate.

What do your customers say about you?
Jo shares some postcards with comments on that customers have left for them:
“Lovely food, excellent help and service”
“Accessible for wheelchairs, lovely staff, unique cakes, what a welcoming place and I always enjoy a great atmosphere and good food.”
“Delicious food and coffee, friendly and efficient staff and beautiful garden.”
“Love the huffkins and homely feel.”

Why do you think shopping local is important?
It is the economy of the town, if you don’t shop local then the High Street will disappear. Lots of people live and shop in the town and we support each other. If you spend money in the town, most of it stays in the town.

What has been your proudest moment or biggest achievement?
Jo – That we achieved CIC status in 2018 that we are recognised as benefitting the community.
Caroline – I’m proud when someone can wheel themselves into the café and order for themselves, seeing that independence that they can’t always get anywhere else, due to accessibility constraints.

What is your biggest selling item?
A mug of loose-leaf tea, cake and pay it forward donations.

What other shops in Whitstable or Tankerton would you recommend to your customers?
Caroline – Veronica at Tea & Times – she is the guru of coffee shops.

Jo – It’s not a shop open to the public, but our baker Tobi owns SlowBread which is based along Middle Wall, opposite Thai Orchid, but you can buy his wonderful bread from The Cheese Box and the farmers market.

Editor’s note: During the interview I was soaking up the mouth-watering aroma of a Bengalese curry cooking in the background. I couldn’t resist a portion for dinner that evening– it was delicious. I’m also definitely coming back to try the Redbush Chai Wallah loose leaf tea!
Caroline and Jo also run the coworking space together called Hive based at the centre – a tempting place to work next to such good tea, coffee and food.