Four and a half years ago Lucy and Simon Wright bought The Old Dairy in Box, the beautiful historic village that lies on the A4 between Bath and Chippenham. Like many in-comers to village life find when they swap urban life for rural dwelling, meeting new people was challenging. Lucy thought that there was nowhere for people to come together over good food and drink. Rather than driving all the way to Bath she discussed with her husband, who works in Human Resources in Swindon, the idea of opening a coffee shop in her unused garage-shed at the side of her house.
“When I first started thinking about the project I did not have a child, nor a dog, and I felt that socialising was quite difficult, so surely all the other ladies my age in the village must have thought the same thing. I have been working for Virgin Airlines as an air stewardess and I have travelled the world, getting ideas about styles and designs. So I created a mood board of what I wanted to achieve and our building company then turned that mood board into reality.”
One of Lucy’s great friends is the owner of The Makery sewing, knitting and crafting workshops in Bath and she helped Lucy bring together her ideas constructively.
And the result could not seem more surreal. You walk down a normal gravel driveway in a residential enclave away from the main road, and into “Toast Coffee House”. As you enter through the glass door you are in quite a small, beautifully furnished, warm, wooden room. There are old American kitchen signs and larder products for sale, wooden tables, mismatching china crockery and chairs, multi-coloured egg cups, old wooden crates filled with fresh bread from the Thoughful Bread Bakery in Bath, a rack for toys, games and colouring-in pencils and vintage pictures on the walls.
Different people from the village and passers-by sit on communal tables enjoying coffees, teas, brunches, milkshakes, cakes and pastries, as a little toy train winds its way around a narrow track fixed on a shelf round the perimeter of the wall, just beneath the ceiling.
All the baking is done in Lucy’s kitchen inside the house, and her inspiration is wide-ranging:
“I love the books of Rachel Allen as well as “Amy’s Bread” in New York and the blog Smitten Kitchen. I used to live in North Carolina in America, where my father was an engineer in the truck industry. It’s from there that I got the ideas for marshmallow fluff, peanut butter and chocolate spreads and all-day brunches.”
In the corner of the café there is a re-sprayed 1950’s kitchen, on the counter there is a recycled coffee machine bought on e-bay and also a very old till whose drawer springs open to reveal a money box. Receipts are hand written by the staff. Lucy has sourced carefully from the internet and junk shops because she had to watch the budget carefully as she went along. She is, above all, very happy with the people who have joined her little enterprise.
“The whole project has been such a success because I have been so lucky in finding the staff, I have to say. Holly, the waitress, is the daughter of the electrician who did the wiring for the Café and Milo, who cooks, is the son of the village Lollipop Lady who walks the children across the road from school. It’s all been a question of word-of-mouth and personal recommendation.”
And word of mouth is exactly how Lucy has established the whole business: she is only just now in the throws of getting a website up and running, and so initially there was no marketing campaign or brochure, just the old-fashioned (and still the best) method of one customer telling another and so the business grew. She tells me she wishes she had set up the website immediately, however, and again she has been fortunate in finding the right people to help her locally.
The Café has only been opened since June 2011 and over six days a week (8am – 5pm from Tuesdays-Fridays, 9am-5pm on Saturdays and 9am-2pm on Sundays) they serve simple, seasonal food that can be cooked on the moment in a tiny, open plan kitchen.
Some people have brought their computer and are sitting having a business meeting in casual clothes whilst some of the customers are very well dressed mothers from the school, using Toast Café as a meeting point for chats and gossip. Because the tables are big and communal, four in number seating a maximum of 20, it almost obliges strangers to strike up a conversation and make the effort of introducing one another.
The most important challenge for Lucy was to find a really good coffee, and she came across Jose Melim of Easy Jose Coffee in Bath.
“I am really happy with the coffee supplier and I think that some people don’t want to go into the big town or city centres anymore because the huge coffee houses are unappealing. I also wanted to have a few evening events here, so I asked Ottavia Mazzoni, a wonderful, local mum who teaches and cooks Italian and Indian food as well as Sara Shawwa (of Sara’s Kitchen), another local Box mother who teaches and cooks Lebanese food. I hope to do more evening events in future”
As we sit and talk, little baby Harriet starts crying from her pushchair. She was just six weeks old when the Café opened and Lucy has had to juggle motherhood and a new business at the same time. Surprisingly, she tells me, there have been no moments of panic or crisis and she manages to bake when Harriet is asleep.
There were not many problems in obtaining planning permission either, because during the 1950’s and 1960’s there was a coffee-tea-room in Box and so the council were persuaded that, in fact, the couple were just putting back into the community something which had existed historically.
As I sit here eating delicious scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast and toasted tea cakes with jam, drinking an ice-cream milk shake out of a straw, gentle music in the background, looking out on Lucy’s garden, it is hard not to be impressed by the chutzpah and determination it has taken to create such a delightful community hub. Even in villages similar to Box, which boasts a population of 2000, there are many tales of pubs, post offices, schools and shops shutting down in the recession and behind closed doors and tall hedges residents often live lonely, solitary lives. Village life is not always the cheery, welcoming place one dreams of when leaving the city. How fortunate that Toast Coffee House is here and how courageous the heart and hands that created that mood board.
Toast Coffee House:
Follow Lucy on Twitter: @Toast_Coffee