Pass through the small North Yorkshire market town of Easingwold on a Sunday morning and chances are you'll be met with the sight of a smartly painted blue Citroen van parked up in the market square. More often than not there will be a group of people gathered beside the van, chatting while they wait to buy coffee, croissants or a slice of freshly baked cake. Jean Claude, the vintage Citroen H van, is the latest addition to the foodie world of TeaHee!, Easingwold's cheesemonger and espresso bar. And on Sunday mornings Jean Claude opens to sell cake and coffee to locals as they come into town to buy the Sunday papers, and to visitors taking a stroll around the sleepy market place.
Jean Claude has joined the growing range of cafes and delicatessens that have opened in Easingwold over the last few years, all helping to build the town's reputation as a place where good food is taken seriously. In addition to a weekly market, food shoppers can visit the monthly farmers’ market that fills the square in the centre of town with stalls selling seasonal vegetables, freshly baked bread and locally produced honey. Jean Claude's owner, Sophie Smith, is one of the leading figures in this growing food scene. Passionate about good local food, in 2003 she opened TeaHee! in a small shop at one corner of the market square.
In fact, since opening for business TeaHee! has become much more than just a cheesemonger and espresso bar. While it fills all the usual roles of a coffee shop - serving coffee, indulgent cakes, lunches and pots of tea - it is also a meeting place for the residents of Easingwold and the surrounding villages. "We have people coming in after visiting the estate agents shop next door" says Sophie, "While they sit and have a coffee there can be conversations going on between customers sitting at five or six tables. I like to think this gives them a sense of the community we have in Easingwold, and maybe encourages them to view some of the houses they've just picked up the details for!" Some of these coffee-drinking house hunters have gone on to become regular customers.
As well as a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, over the years TeaHee! has developed a reputation for great food. Bowls of soup are served with thick slices of locally made bread, and the slices of freshly baked quiche – thin, crispy pastry shells with seasonal fillings - come with a salad or with crisps and dips. Much of the food used in the TeaHee! kitchen is sourced locally. The bread comes from the two bakeries in the town, vegetables from the greengrocer and meat from the butcher's shop – all just a short walk from the cafe door.
But the main attractions for many customers are the range of teas, freshly ground coffee and the cakes that are all baked in the kitchen upstairs. Walking through the door at TeaHee! the first thing you see is the display of cakes – Tunisian orange cake, carrot cake, rich chocolate brownies and seeded flapjacks. A favourite on Saturdays is the courgette and lime cake which has been known to sell out in less than an hour.
After a couple of years in business, TeaHee! outgrew it's original shop. Rather than move, Sophie took on the lease of the adjacent shop and knocked through one of the walls. The extra space allowed her to add more tables and develop a take-away food side to the business. The next step was to create a kitchen upstairs so that the cakes and pastries could be baked on site, and requests for outside catering could be accommodated.
With the shop and outside catering side of the business established, earlier this year TeaHee! took to the road, visiting parties, festivals and weddings with Jean Claude. The idea of buying a van to sell from was born when Sophie was at a party last year. A friend of hers had borrowed a Citroen van and set it up as a cocktail bar for guests. "I was introduced to the man who had refitted the van for another restaurant. When he saw how much I loved the idea he offered to source one for TeaHee!" says Sophie.
A suitable 1971 Citroen H van was soon found in France and brought over to Yorkshire. When it arrived with all its original paperwork, it turned out there had been just one previous owner – Jean Claude, after whom the van is now named. Jean Claude (the van) was re-sprayed a handsome shade of blue, the interior decorated with posters and fitted out with a coffee machine. As the weather warmed up in the spring, Jean Claude began a new life as a coffee van and cocktail bar. As well as the regular Sunday morning pitch in the centre of Easingwold, over the summer Jean Claude has visited local festivals and farmers markets, and has been to parties, weddings and a school prom. Coffees, teas and home baked cakes are always popular, but Jean Claude is versatile and works just as well as a cocktail or champagne bar, decked out in bunting, and has even served ice creams to the guests at a wedding while the photos were being taken.
Now that the van has been on the road for a few months Sophie has a better idea of what works well and how the business can develop. There's a Jean Claude website being created by a friend which will be up and running soon, and lots of ideas for new food adventures next year.
Follow Sophie Smith and Jean Claude on Twitter: @teahee