August 4, 2020
Big Chat: Ellie Andrews
Cafe 164's Ellie Andrews on family history, evolving ideas, and adaptation through positivity in the face of the pandemic
Ellie Andrews is the owner of Cafe 164, an amazing cafe and events space situated in Munro House, just south of Leeds’ bus station. They serve up amazing homemade focaccia and ciabatta sarnies daily, as well as cakes and the best coffee from local roasteries. We catch up with Ellie to chat family history, evolving ideas, and adaptation through positivity in the face of the pandemic.
Ellie has a foodie heritage in Leeds. Her dad owns university favourite Bakery 164, right opposite the University’s Parkinson Steps. Stellar Bakery 164 is patronised by doting students, who happily queue up for their focaccias, filled chockablock to satisfy those student stomachs.
Ellie initially left Leeds to study Theatre Design in London. “It was a creative and fun period”; Ellie recalls, “it set me up for hard graft and helped me develop a strong work ethic.” You might think theatre design differs completely from her final career choice, launching an independent cafe, but Ellie disagrees. “My university course was very full on and physically very practical, and I’m still using most of the problem solving skills I learned then today.”
“It was difficult to get regular freelance paid work as a theatre designer back then (I’m not sure what it’s like now)”, Ellie comments. “Whilst I enjoyed the job, my heart wasn’t really in it. I’d already started to move on from theatre work and think about other projects I could do that were still creative,” she recalls, “when an opportunity came about to work for my dad.”
So Ellie headed back Northwards to Leeds.
“Moving back meant regular paid work, obviously lower living costs, but also the space and time to be able to explore other creative projects that I had in mind, without the added pressure of working all the hours to pay my London rent.”
She hadn’t intended the move to be permanent. “At the time, it felt very much like a temporary option”, she remembers. “I’d always planned to go back down after a year or so. It’s still a running joke with my friends down South, that they are still waiting for me to move back…”
Bakery Beginnings to Cafe Career
The Bakery only opened “when I was about 12”, Ellie recalls; it had been the ever-popular with students Theo’s Charcoal Grill before that. “I actually gave it the new name of Bakery 164”, she states – based on its address, at 164 Woodhouse Lane. “My father is Greek-Cypriot”, Ellie tells me, “so food played a big role in my life.”
“The biggest impact of the Bakery on me growing up was seeing how people reacted to the food my dad made. I’d never seen anything like it. People were so passionate about the sandwiches, it was crazy!”
“They absolutely loved it”, Ellie recalls, “and the whole conviviality around the shop, it was such a cult thing for the students.” It was definitely a family affair. “It made me feel very proud to be from the family that created it”, she professes.
Even though her parents never implied she should enter the family business, the freedom to choose came full circle she ended up with her sibling business, Cafe 164.
“I was always encouraged by both my parents to follow my own path, and luckily I never felt pressure from them to work at the Bakery and be part of the ‘family business’. We are quite an artistic family, so a creative career for me was an equally valid option too. Although it didn’t initially occur to me to run my own shop, having parents who were self employed and running their own businesses meant that setting up my own business was very much an available option.”
She had time and space for creativity moving back up to Leeds. “I’d been running a lot of creative projects since moving back to Leeds”, Ellie confirms, “and I’d always wanted to have some kind of event or arts element to whatever I ended up doing, so when we found the unit at Munro House, I was able to pull all of that in and utilise the main skill I had learned at University – to create space for people.”
Munro House is indubitably an unusual space; beautifully industrial, and expansive, yet bathed with light and welcoming. “When we found the unit in Munro House, we were able to see the scope of what we could actually do creatively”, Ellie recalls.
Although different in many ways, food and theatre are both very experiential; experiences focussed around gifting a great time to a paying customer. For Ellie, Cafe 164 ticks some of the same boxes as her theatre design background did too. “It has informed how we interpret and deliver our customer service”, she says, “and it is a very big part of our offer to our guests. I personally get a lot of pleasure out of creating an environment and space that enhances and enriches people’s experiences.”
Cafe 164’s ethics have been strong since the get-go; they serve quality ingredients, they give to the homeless, they host amazing exhibitions…I asked Ellie which of these is the most important? “Keeping the product excellent and the business sustainable and viable”, she responds. “We can’t do all of those other nice things like support the homeless and do great exhibitions if our infrastructure and core operations aren’t functioning properly.” This is a business with solid foundations and self-knowledge.
Finally, I get to the moment at hand, and the pandemic which has hit the food and drink industry really hard. Ellie’s response is balanced. “It has undoubtedly been the most significant thing to happen to us”, she admits. “I’m saying significant, rather than ‘worst’, as I’m trying very hard to use this time as an opportunity to make things better for our business.
“It is very easy right now to disappear down a wormhole of despair so every day is about being practical, looking forwards and keeping a positive mindset.”
“We shut for 15 weeks on 23rd March.” The impact of such a period on an independent business must hit heavily. “We did some deliveries throughout that period which didn’t even come close to cover costs, but was to keep us in our customers’ minds.”
“Now that we have opened again,” she continues, “we have a clearer picture of what the recovery will look like. Around 90% of our customers are the local workers and students – the students are gone now, and with skeleton staff in the surrounding offices and organisations, and little to no passing trade, plus the general feeling of unease about going back into public spaces, we can see it won’t be quick for us. I am however, keeping my chin up.”
Ellie exudes positivity at a time when it’s all too easy to let more than a note of despair in. I draw on her positive responses to ask her, finally, whether she’s learnt or experienced anything positive through lockdown. “Yes, plenty!” she laughs, “I don’t have enough space to write it all here!” Mindset is everything, it seems. “I always try to focus on the opportunity, rather than the loss”, she explains. “I find that using that way of thinking always unlocks an idea, or something that can help you take the next step in whatever journey you are on.”
Speaking of journeys being undertaken, Ellie is just about to set sail into a new one. Keep your eyes peeled for an exciting Cafe 164 update coming imminently…