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Isle Of Dogs: Tiny Tigers offers kids and adults space to play at South Quay Plaza

The cafe and soft play space has been inspired by the principles of Montessori and the owners’ son

Tiny Tigers play area – image by Matt Grayson

By Laura Enfield

An indoor play area filled with things to climb, slide down and play with sounds like every little kid’s fantasy. And three-year-old Nico Reckers-Ng is lucky enough to have parents who have made that dream come true by opening Tiny Tigers Cafe.

Set in South Quay Plaza, the soft play fun zone is inspired by their son’s favourite things and the principles of Montessori, which encourage less noisy gadgets and more open-ended play.

The bright, spacious unit is filled with padded structures to climb and slide down, but also a host of mostly wooden toys and puzzles chosen to foster independent and imaginative play.

“There might be the occasional electronic toy but most of what we put in is supposed to try to create this environment where we switch off from electronics and move towards this organic, natural heuristic play that children learn and develop from,” said mum Elaine Ng.

“There is a sensory mirror and balls, trains, instruments, some books and I play piano for the children, so we have impromptu sing-a-longs.”

Nico gets to run amok in the play area when it is not in use and joins his mum for sessions, which has helped her stick to limited screen time during the pandemic.

Following Montessori ideals, TV is a rare treat and even during lockdown she avoided working in front of him, instead logging on after he went to bed and working until 1am to catch up on various tasks and cafe logistics.

“If I’m on my computer he just wants to climb on my lap and see what I’m doing,” said the former coder, who now works in wealth management for an American bank. “I try not to show him stuff on my phone either, so he doesn’t think it’s this amazing YouTube box.

“It’s tough because sometimes you would love to just throw them in front of the TV but, what I have found is, it’s quite addictive and they will ask for more and, if you try to engage with them, they are not interested. 

“Whereas, when I’m playing with my son, he’s making things up and there’s a much more natural type of development that happens.

“I completely understand why people use TV and there’s no judgement at all, but we didn’t have TV for thousands of years and now when I’m on the tube and everyone is on their screens, I wonder what that means for social interaction and behaviour.

“Social media will have a lot of responsibility for the mental health of our children, things like filters and how quickly they grow up, scare me.”

Nico tries out some of the equipment – image Matt Grayson

Elaine wants Tiny Tigers to help children become interested in the world around them. Classes in baby massage, baby sensory and Frog Prince music sessions have just launched and she is planning special events to celebrate the area’s multiculturalism, such as marking Eid and Black History Month.

Elaine is Malaysian Chinese, her husband, Thomas Reckers, is Czech German and the couple would love to bring their cultures to the cafe through language classes.

“I love London because it is so multicultural,” said Elaine, who grew up between the capital and Malaysia.

“If you move to France you become French whereas in the UK you grow up being British but being aware of your own culture because we celebrate Ramadan, Eid, Diwali, Chinese New Year all these things. When I’m in London it doesn’t matter that I’m not white and I think that’s important for my son. I don’t want him to feel like an outsider.”

She and Thomas both work full time in finance and run the cafe in their spare time. And there have been more than the usual fun-filled ups and downs at the play area. The business was two years in the planning and finally opened last October, only to close again for five months when the second lockdown arrived.

It reopened again on May 17 with sessions limited to eight children and 45 minutes so staff are able to clean the play equipment thoroughly between each use.

“Nothing ever happens overnight is my long lesson after this,” said Elaine. “It’s been a huge learning curve and very hands-on, which we can do because we only wanted to open one place. If we were a big chain we would have just thrown money at it.”

The couple are running the cafe as a passion project rather than a money maker and Elaine said: “We would like it to break even at least, because we have put a lot of money and time into it. But, for us, it was more something that fitted into our philosophy of how we would like to bring up our son.”

Elaine said they wanted to keep costs down to make it as accessible as possible and help address the lack of facilities for the growing number of families on the Isle Of Dogs.

“Pre-maternity leave, I thought I would travel all over London with the baby, because that’s what I did before,” she said. “Actually, about 15 minutes from the flat was my maximum journey time. I was really disappointed by the lack of options on the island.

“In Canary Wharf the businesses are geared towards office workers and there’s not much space for prams, which I understand because they have to make their rent. I think people underestimate the number of families that are in the area and the infrastructure for them isn’t as strong here.”

Finding a suitable unit was a big challenge as the couple wanted to open something locally.

“Prior to Covid, I used to take Nico to central London for the Royal Opera House ballet class and its opera class and we would go to museums, art appreciation sessions and they were brilliant but just so much work,” said Elaine. “It was three hours of planning for a 45-minute session. We just wanted something more local.

“We wanted it to be financially viable, but also for the quality not to be compromised – that’s very important to me. 

“Every time we do something I think: ‘Would I be comfortable doing this with my son?’ If the answer is no, then I don’t want it in my unit.”

Elaine spent two years visiting play areas with Nico – Tiny Tigers encompasses all the elements he enjoys but also thoughtful facilities for adults. Aimed at kids aged up to five, it includes dedicated buggy parking, adult and toddler toilets and a separate changing room with a waist-level counter that has walls on three sides so babies can’t roll off.

Elaine bakes cakes for Tiny Tigers Herself – image Matt Grayson

Adult and child tickets cost £7, with non-crawling siblings allowed in for free. If children are old enough to play independently, parents are encouraged to sit in the cafe area and have a drink and relax. 

It serves Monmouth coffee, pastries from Paul Rhodes Bakery in Greenwich and food cooked fresh daily by the venue’s chef. Elaine bakes the cakes including a sugar-free option for kids and offers a toddler lunchbox for £4.

The volunteer with island-based charity Community Parents remembers struggling to play with her son when he was a baby and hopes the cafe can offer new parents the support she lacked.

“I didn’t know how much interaction to give him,” she said. “I went to Gymboree and just repeated what they did and I used to push him in the pram, talking to him about the weather. I felt like that crazy mum.

“I’m lucky to have a lot of support now, so that does take the pressure off me but I think it’s great when you can really interact with your children and I hope that’s what this place can offer.”

She also hopes it will fulfill their initial dream to give Nico a place to flourish.

“It’s a whole balancing act,” she said. “I don’t want my son to grow up thinking his parents were distracted by this. 

“We built this for him and we go there as much as we can because we love to be involved and I really enjoy talking to the parents. It’s so important to me that he feels loved and knows I’m there for him.”
Go to tinytigers.club for more information or to make a booking

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Isle Of Dogs: La Nina Caffe And Mercato brings Italian flavours to Pepper Street

Monica Olivieri has opened a coffee shop and grocery store complete with tastings and live music

Monica Olivieri has opened La Nina Caffe And Mercato – image Matt Grayson

“It would be amazing – if we could have the right support from Tower Hamlets Council, we could make the Isle Of Dogs a real food district,” said Monica Olivieri. The exuberant owner and creator of La Nina Caffe & Mercato is abuzz with ideas, when we meet to talk about its recent opening.

Located in Pepper Street on the western side of Glengall Bridge, Monica’s shop and cafe is decked out in white furniture and natural wood, completely packed with Italian produce, ready-to-cook meals and savoury and sweet treats to consume on the premises or take elsewhere.

Like the cheery looking sausage dog-shaped draft excluder that holds open La Nina’s door, it’s playful – with art on the walls and an ebullience that matches its owner.

“It was born during the first lockdown,” said Monica. “I’m a marketing and events expert, mainly working in food but with the pandemic I was completely closed. I couldn’t do anything, because I usually work with chefs and restaurants, and they were shut and events were banned.

“So I said: ‘Let’s do something’. I moved to the Isle Of Dogs four years ago and, at home, I have art, good food and good music and I just wanted to take it out and put it along the street for the community.

“I grew up in my grandmother’s shop in the province of Lecce in Italy and I’d always had these feelings to create something similar here on the Island – something authentic, familiar but with my spirit in it.”

UPCOMING GIGS AT LA NINA CAFFE AND MERCATO in 2021

June 4
E&E Acoustic Duo, Guitar and piano

June 11
Mackerel Skies, Guitar and percussion

June 18
Mariska Martina, Guitar and piano

June 25
Cinelli Brothers, Guitar and percussion

With branding drawn from an old family photo of Monica on her grandmother’s hip, the celebration of family is clear, but the logo is also an expression of deeper roots.

“My grandmother Joanna opened her first shop in my home town – a very tiny village in Lecce – just after the Second World War, so I consider her an entrepreneur,” said Monica.

“In Italy you have Joanna, then Joannina and the nickname is Nina, so that’s where the name of my shop comes from.

“My grandmother was a businesswoman. She started selling paper and pencils, because she was living in front of a school and understood the demand.

“Then, after that, she started to sell pasta, vegetables, clothes, everything. I grew up inside that shop and for me it was like a funfair because I could eat everything.

“My grandma was probably the first to have a TV in the village and, every time we were watching, there was advertising going on often for biscuits or chocolate or whatever.

“She’d ask me and my sisters which we wanted to eat and then she’d buy them so we could try and decide whether to stock them. I think that’s where my interest in marketing came from.”

La Nina offers a wide range of produce from across Italy – image by Matt Grayson

Monica’s career has seen her working with numerous chefs and restaurants as well as for big brands such as Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks and Ducati. Islanders may also be familiar with Carbonara Day In London, which saw more than 3,000 people come to Mudchute Park And Farm to enjoy the classic Italian dish in 2019 and is set for a second physical edition this year. 

For now, however, her focus is on establishing La Nina with an energetic   programme of events and a monthly roving spotlight on different Italian regions. 

“In the shop, customers will find cheese, salami, pasta, tomatoes and olive oil,” said Monica. “We pick some products where we know the producers, have visited them, and stock others recommended by friends of friends.

“We want people to try gourmet food and to understand that it is not always expensive – for customers to take advice from us because, for example, you can buy good quality olive oil without spending a fortune.

“Eventually we want people to visit the farms and companies that produce these products so we can say to people: ‘If you like this, here’s a business card, go and stay there and eat there. This is how people gain a proper knowledge of food.

“Italian food is, of course, some thing that comes naturally to me because I eat it every day. When I speak with English people they often say they love Italian cuisine, but this doesn’t mean anything because our food is so varied. 

“Italy has 20 regions, so it’s wrong to say the food is just pasta and pizza. We are rich in vegetables and there are so many varieties of fish and different ways of eating meat.

“As a cuisine, it’s very diverse and very different, so my goal is to tell our customers about food from different parts of Italy, changing the focus each month.

“We’ve already looked at Puglia, Sardinia and Campana and in June we‘ll have Tuscany, with olive oil, wines and some special dishes available at the shop and online.

“We’ll also be launching our Pranzo Con Opera – a set lunch menu available to pre-book on Saturdays and Sundays with a performer from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire  Of Music And Dance. 

“In July we’ll move on to Veneto with a selection of products as well as launching Aperitivo Veneziano, serving spritz cocktails.”

Furnished in part with unwanted chairs and tables found on London’s streets by Monica, the space’s other key function is as a cafe, having opened for outdoor guests in April as lockdown restrictions eased. 

“Mercato, of course means market and caffe, because La Nina is a coffee shop,” said Monica. “We serve Italian coffee and only one size with no syrups or anything like that. 

“If people want to make their coffee sweeter, they can use sugar. It’s been going fantastically – we’ve had queues outside and we really love to invite people in.”

Each month there’s a special focus on a different region of Italy – image Matt Grayson

La Nina has also become a venue for live music, as Monica works to attract more people to a part of Pepper Street that has suffered mixed fortunes in recent years, with a busy programme of events.

“It should be more active,” she said. “I want it to be vivid – an honest food district like Brick Lane or Borough. I want it to come alive.

“In England attention has completely shifted onto food. People really know about the quality and authenticity of Italian food and I’m very happy about that.

“To complement that we have a very rich calendar in June including wine tastings on 10 and 17 and olive oil tastings on 18 and 25. 

“The space also acts as an art gallery and we have artist Stefano Pallara Vernissage introducing his exhibition on June 19. We’re also set to have a jewellery making workshop with glasses of wine for participants, hosted by Isle Of Dogs-based designer Yago on June 12.”

As well as working on the second edition of Carbonara Day In London, Monica’s ambition is to open a second venue – Tavola (table in English), which will have a kitchen to serve Italian food. Until then, watch this space, there’s bound to be something going on. 

La Nina also operates as an online shop with free delivery on the Isle Of Dogs for orders over £35. Ticket inquiries should be made in person at the shop or via its website. 

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