Trade Secrets with Lerryn’s Cafe in Peckham

We spent a morning chatting to Lerryn, owner of Lerryn’s Cafe in Peckham, and learning about her past endeavours as well as future aspirations. Lerryn’s Cafe, described in Time Out as a place where you should ‘expect jam jars, artfully crap illustrations and hilariously named sandwiches’, is an intimate little cafe with knock-out coffee and a friendly crowd. Read on to hear about the woman behind it all…

MEET THE LADY HERSELF: LOVELY LERRYN

I went to college in Camberwell, then travelled to Hamburg and New York. It is fun there but for a year I was like I actually love London, London is home, and Hamburg made me realise this.

Why did you go to Hamburg?

Because my boyfriend at the time got a job there, and I wanted to go on this adventure. But then I arrived and was like who am I? What am I doing in Hamburg? You know you’re not in the right place when your playlist in your headphones doesn’t sound as good. If you love a city, your playlist sounds the best, like when I was in New York.

What songs are on your playlist?

Now? I make a playlist for my boyfriend every month. That was his birthday present, a year contract of playlists. I make them as my relaxing thing. There’s a song by Bob Dylan called ‘Time Passes Slowly’ and it’s in the Bootleg Series, Another Self Portrait and it’s so uplifting. It reminds me of autumn in America.

So what were you doing in America?

I lived there in the summer when I was at uni, worked in café’s and did bits of internships, trying to be everywhere. I would just go back and forth, visa hopping.

Did you prefer it to London?

London’s just home. I was born in East London, I grew up in Bath…

Me too!

No way! I was always called out for having a bad attitude at school. I think when I left art school, that’s what pissed me off the most. That’s what made me want to do my own thing, the realisation that I had been institutionalised since I was born and put through education for twenty odd years. I started researching the curriculum, and how they manage to make one single curriculum for a huge body of people, and actually it’s only based on one kind of intelligence. I was feeling like I was failing the whole time in school, except for in art. You get trained into thinking academia is the only way. There’s this preconceived idea of what success is from being in education for so long, which I get, but it’s so narrow.  So I feel like when I left I did all this research into education and tried to challenge that. The first business idea that I tried to do was this art school for kids, doing extracurricular activities outside of school.

The project became really emotional. I started being like ‘I want to change the world!’ – but I didn’t know how, and there was no money. I ran away from it to New York, and was so relieved to be away from the responsibility. And then I came back and still wanted to have ownership of something.

In Year 7, my friend and I had to make a presentation on this dream café – it had bubble chairs, the floor was a trampoline, there was chocolate fountains! I always knew that I would be making something.

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MEET THE CAFE

Is that where Lerryn’s Café came from?

Yeah. It took us a month to set up. We found the property on google. I’d like to give thanks to google! I was living at home in Bath, then moved into another house in Bristol and was thinking ‘what am I doing?’ Then my friend opened a restaurant in Dalston called Ivy’s. Delicious breakfast! And Christina, my sister’s ex-girlfriend who’s kind of like a sister to me and owns the restaurant, I went with her for a drink one day and she said ‘what are you doing? Just come back to London!’ But I was afraid I would just get locked back into that cycle of working in café’s.

But then Christina encouraged me and said she would help me. We googled it and we found this place, booked a viewing. She said I should get it – it was all a bit surreal – we went to Café Viva down the road, she started writing a list of all the things I needed to get (fridges from here, milk from there), and then I made an offer.

Did you envisage what it would look like when you saw the empty space?

I started to. It was a hair salon before. It had been empty for a long time, a bit of a shell when I got it. This garden had rubbish piled all the way up, people had been dumping here for like 10 years. I did start to think about the design of it, but the design was based on how little money I had.

What’s your one delicious product?

Coffee!  Amongst other things. I made everything as simple as possible and as honest as possible. I made the menu from food which I knew how to cook, some of it which I could cook at home. Then the actual look of it, me and my sister worked on. 

I like the colours.

That’s the thing! If you have no money, that’s what you have to do. Be creative, put colour everywhere. If you have ownership of a space, you have to ask yourself ‘how am I going to make this different?’ Rather than, like every other coffee shop – before I didn’t judge it but know it just pisses me off – if I go somewhere and it’s always blackboards, minimalist white, let’s copy some Swedish trend that’s going on! Filament light bulbs! The aesthetic that everyone expects from a coffee shop. It’s a shame for me that that’s what everybody does, but most people are profit driven.

What’s your priorities with this business?

I was thinking about that the other day. To make friends and be a nice place for people to hang out. It’s not profit driven. I know when you’re younger everyone is like ‘I don’t need money!’, but I’ve genuinely now identified that that is not a thing which makes me happy. If I had this business just for the profit and sold everything for like 8 or ten quid, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. That would delete a whole section of my customers who I get a lot of joy from.

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THE PECKHAM COMMUNITY

What is your customer base? Do you think you’re helping to bridge the gap between different communities in Peckham?

I think so. I hope so. To a certain extent I don’t think I have control over that because I am white middle-class, my taste is that, it’s my upbringing. The only thing I can trust is that I am welcoming and everyone else here is as well. I do the best I can.

What do you think of the change that is occurring in Peckham?

It is changing, it’s bound to change. I used to talk about gentrification all the bloody time. But I’m kind of accepting of my responsibility here and being on Rye Lane. Its important to understand your local economy.That’s where you have to be intelligent with it.

CAFE LIVING 

What is the hardest bit about it?

Getting the VAT bill! That’s what I’m thinking about today. The hardest bit for me is if starting out, when you’ve never done something before. Every day, having no idea what’s going to happen. It does get easier…it’s kind of like being a ten year old and being asked to suddenly act like a fifteen year old, like going into a class and thinking ‘I don’t know!’ Then you start to figure it out and it works. The hardest realisation was that all this responsibility lies on me.

Does that keep you up at night?

Yeah, it used to a lot! But then that’s why you have to make sure you know what you’re giving back from it.

Talking about the most difficult aspects, what are the best, most memorable parts?

Ahhh, so many! There was a birthday party the other day, for someone’s who’s a regular customer. A lady called Diane who turned sixty, she’d been planning her party for like 8 months, she said all she wanted was for everybody to have free Baby sham. So it was a great night, all of the people from Ivy Dale house came and we danced all night!

You seem to have a lot of events, like last night you had the pumpkin carving.

Yeah, now I kind of hand it over to other people. There’s Born and Bred Zine, some girls who work and come in here launched it. They had a party here and it was banging. So many people turned up who have lived in Peckham their whole life. Seeing this space not being all white people was good. That’s something that pains me, how divided it is. The only answer in my head is smile and be welcoming.

In regards to the future of the café, what are your plans?

I was thinking about doing a second project… a more slick formula. Well, I’m not a slick person, but from everything I’ve learnt. And to make it a social enterprise from the very beginning. I wouldn’t call it Lerryn’s, it would be good if I could pop it up and then leave it to its own thing. I kind of want to do a late night venue.  But if you only have a late night space then what should I do with it in the daytime? Maybe a community centre. 

How long has the café been open for now?

Around a year and a half! I still have to get my head round loads of stuff, but when that happens I can start thinking of other things. 

Dreams do come true! Poor and happy has to be better than…rich and unhappy?

It’s so true, if you forget your core values then you’re on a path to unhappiness.

Most people do though…

Interview by Alex and Bella

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