The Silverton

Wapping: How Urban Baristas has opened its largest branch with a coffee lab

Brunch cafe offers flat whites and space to work at London Dock’s Gaughing Square

Urban Baristas cafe and coffee lab is now open in Wapping

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“Oat flat white,” is Huw Wardrope’s instant response when asked his preferred coffee order. It’s not a surprise.

The Australian co-founded Urban Baristas in response to the disappointing cafe scene in London that he and his mate from uni in Sydney – Jono Bowman – endured while working in the finance industry.

The plan was to recreate a bit of Aussie hospitality and, crucially, quality, on this side of the world – and it all started in Bounds Green.

“In 2016 it was very difficult to find retail units from landlords who were willing to give space as a startup,” said Huw, who worked for Canary Wharf-based firms HSBC and BGC Partners.

“I had a business plan and everything  – I was sending it out to people. But they wanted Caffe Nero or Pret.

“Then TfL said they had a site in Bounds Green – to be honest I didn’t even know where that was.

“But we went up there and said: ‘Let’s do it’. From day one it was a massive success.

“There was a line out of the door – people were saying that we’d increased their house prices.

“Then we knew we had a good product and that we were onto something.”

Today things are a little easier on the real estate front.

Urban Baristas recently opened its latest branch in Wapping’s Gaughing Square – part of property developer St George’s London Dock scheme.

Urban Baristas co-founger Huw Wardrope

It’s the brand’s 12th location – and also the largest – offering brunch, coffee and even a training space for enthusiasts keen to sharpen their brewing skills or to help staff to develop professionally.

“We’ve expanded over the years and we moved to the Wapping area partly because I live locally,” said Huw, who left finance to open three 24-hour gyms, before co-founding Urban Baristas.

“We have a kiosk at Wapping station, a branch on Wapping High Street, one at Devon House in St Katherine’s Way and one at Thomas More Square.   

“It makes things easy operationally when we can move people around the different sites. Growing a brand is also easier if you’re focused in one area.

“The kiosk model is a good one because the staff costs are low and it’s easy to manage – it’s just coffee and pastries.

“When we opened at Wapping High Street we decided to add a bit more of an Aussie vibe with smashed avos for brunch and things like that on the menu.

“We’ve now decided to focus our food operation at London Dock because it’s a bigger space – 2,000sq ft.

“When you’re talking about that kind of size, I think  you have to offer a little bit more than just coffee and pastries.”

Specifically, that means customers at the newly opened branch can expect the likes of Eggs Benedict (from £12.50), a Full Aussie (£14.50), Parmesan Folded Eggs (£10.95) or Green Goodness – a melange of kale, peas, broccoli, avocado and micro herbs – for £12.50.

There’s also an Avo Bar, offering three types of the ubiquitous bashed up toast topping to choose from, starting at £10.95.

The new branch is Urban Baristas’ largest site

“People will find what we think is the best flat white in London when they visit – it’s a happy place to come and chill out with your friends or maybe work a bit,” said Huw.

“We offer people a little bit of happiness in their day. It’s a tough time at the moment, especially with the economy and the cost of living crisis – but you can still go out and grab a coffee with a mate and have a catch up.

“Our house espresso is from Brazil – which is also where my wife is from.

“I’m lucky because I get to go out quite a bit and source the beans, meet the farmers and check the working conditions to ensure they are producing ethically.

“I’ve just booked a trip in February for two months.

“We also have a rotating series of coffees for the filters and the V60 Drippers  – we have some Colombians and Guatemalans, but they rotate due to the seasons.

“We make sure we buy really special coffees from smaller producers.

“Brazil is the biggest coffee producing nation in the world and, for our shops, we need a steady supply.”

Urban Baristas’ latest branch is about more than just eating and drinking, however. It’s also about education.

Huw said: “The Coffee Lab is a new addition to the brand. I’ve always wanted to have a place to train staff.

“This is the biggest space we’ve taken and I was looking at the design and thinking about what to do with it.

“We hosted our first course just last week and we’re getting quite a bit of interest already – especially from corporates.

“I think companies are looking for alternatives to the pub.

“Not everyone drinks, organisations are looking for activities to do with their teams and I think it’s going to be a good place for that.

“We also have more than 70 staff who constantly need training on our different coffees.

“Eventually we want to be recognised by the SCA – the governing body for the speciality coffee industry – to give professional level classes for clients and our staff as part of their development.

Urban Baristas’ latest site is located at St George’s London Dock scheme in Wapping

“We’ve just started franchising as well, so the lab will also be a training hub for franchisees. That’s really future-proofing the business.

“Participants on our public courses will be learning how to make flat whites, espressos and latte.

“There’s also different brewing methods – V60 Drippers, Aeropress and filter.

“They cover all the basics – quantities of coffee, temperatures and how to do a heart on a latte.

“People should go home with an idea of how to replicate the quality they get at Urban Baristas.”

Huw said that while the coffee business was tough, especially given the pressures of the current labour market, he much preferred working for himself to his career in finance. 

He said: “We’ve made mistakes along the way – there’s been a lot of trial and error, but we think we now know the formula and the positive is you meet great people along the way in this industry. 

“I’d like to thank St George for supporting us to open at London Dock – we’re definitely in it for the long term as the area continues to develop.”

Find out more about Urban Baristas here

Read more: How Level39-based WyzePay offers discounts at MMy Wood Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Wapping: Why baked goods from Wapping Sourdough have a real flavour of the area

How Robin Weekes and Clare Kelly create and sell their loaves and baguettes fresh at London Dock

Robin Weekes and Clare Kelly of Wapping Sourdough
Robin Weekes and Clare Kelly of Wapping Sourdough – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Parents of six, Robin Weekes and Clare Kelly, say their youngest and most temperamental seventh “child” has been the hardest to raise.

The husband and wife team have spent the last decade wrangling baking business Wapping Sourdough through its startling birth, challenging toddlerhood and now maturing childhood.

They went from launching at the London 2012 Games and finding success selling their products at markets to striking out on their own at Thomas Moore Square in Wapping.

Now they have entered a new phase of the business with a food van at London Dock, selling their sourdough loaves, filled baguettes and cakes. There are also plans to expand into coffee and toasties.

Robin said through the whole journey, one thing had remained the same – their doughy child – a 20-year-old mixture of water, flour and salt that needs constant attention.

“Sourdough is the best bread in the world and it’s made from only three ingredients,” said the 58-year-old.

“But you have to look after your starter every day or it dies. I have taken it through customs, on aeroplanes and on holiday. 

“The flour ferments and has a bacterial culture in it and a wild yeast culture that makes the bread rise. It’s massively temperamental and takes so long to get it so you can make real sourdough and not use commercial yeast.”

Clare added: “It can’t be neglected. I think a lot of people in lockdown started making it, but the fact you are then committed put a lot of people off.

“It’s amazing when you see it bubbling and growing. When Robin started it was like a science experiment and he had pots and jars of starter around the kitchen that would hiss and sometimes explode.

“Everyone who came round the house had it shoved in their face to smell.”

Wapping Sourdough's filled baguettes
Wapping Sourdough’s filled baguettes – image Matt Grayson

Robin rises at 5am every morning to tend to his creation, heading to the bakery expansion on their home in Vaughan Road, which they built after landing £20,000 contracts for the London 2012 Games.

“I was a social worker in child protection for 20 years and bread making was an obsessive hobby,” he said.

“I was so into sourdough from when it first became popular. I built a brick oven in the garden and started making it with the kids. 

“I made it for charity and people started wanting to buy it. Then I saw an advert in East End Life for the Olympics, looking for local producers.

“I made an application, very naively as we weren’t a business – we were just doing market stalls on a Saturday. 

“We won two contracts for the corporate events for three weeks of work, despite competition from Angela Hartnett, so I gave up social work and set up a bakery.”

From there the couple were invited to sell at St Katharine Docks market with Clare stepping naturally into the business side of the partnership and fitting running the stall around looking after their children.

The 55-year-old said: “We had just had our sixth child when we launched the business and I think we were quite lucky in our relationship that I was able to stay at home and Robin was the breadwinner.

“It all happened accidentally really, our youngest was two when we got the opportunity to do the market at St Katharine Docks and these were always in school hours so I could drop the kids off and then pack up in time to pick them up.

“The people who used to run the market owned Partridges food store on the King’s Road invited us to do their Saturday market, which we did for seven years and really gave us a boost. 

“We did 10 different breads then and that was a lot harder for Robin because we would start on the Saturday evening, mixing the doughs and going right through to Saturday morning baking.”

So, the obvious question is, which is harder – making sourdough or raising six kids?

“Well I wouldn’t have got up that early for the kids and Robin never had to,” said Clare.

“I used to breastfeed and they were all in bed with us when they were little so he never had to wake up at all.

“But now he has to get up at 4am so I would say the six kids are easier. 

“One changes your life completely and two seems like hard work because you can’t split yourself. After three it doesn’t make any difference.”

Robin stayed diplomatically silent but said making sourdough was much less demanding than his previous career.

“It’s so ancient and there is so much respect for bread,” he said. “What I can’t get over is the amount of respect people have. 

“I was a senior manager in social work and I think I get more kudos now for making the bread than I ever did as a social worker. 

“It’s really important to people and our culture. I’ve had kids round from the local school, teaching them about bread and how to make it.”

He is keeping the secret of his sourdough to himself but said: “I can only make the bread I do now because I have been doing it for 20 years. It takes that long.

“The consistency is really difficult to achieve. You can look at a YouTube video and you might get lucky and make a great loaf the first time but I doubt you’d make a great loaf 10 times on the trot. 

“It’s something you have to judge all the time because we don’t have temperature controls and proving machines like in a professional bakery so you have to change what you are doing throughout the year. 

“Now winter is coming the bread tastes different and every loaf has a  varied flavour, which is what I love about it. You are not just churning out the same thing every day.” 

Robin said his bread didn’t taste like any other in the world because people were imbibing the very essence of Wapping itself.

“When you start learning about yeast you realise that it’s everywhere – pretty much on everything, on us and just flying around. 

“That’s where the name Wapping Sourdough comes from – the flavour of the bread is unique to wherever it’s created. You can’t recreate San Francisco sourdough here because the yeast is latent in the air. Hence why we’re Wapping Sourdough.”

Wapping Sourdough's focaccia
Wapping Sourdough’s focaccia – image Matt Grayson

Robin bakes about 25 loaves (£3.50 for 800g) a day, 50 vegetarian and vegan baguettes (£3) with fillings that include handmade hummus and pesto, focaccia with olive and sundried tomatoes (£3 a slice), 30 cakes and 20 flapjacks (£1.50).

The couple, whose other hobby is performing in panto for their local church St Patrick’s, had a crisis last year when flour supplies dried up during lockdown.

Clare said: “Everyone was going crazy buying supplies and we thought we would be stopped in our tracks. We just couldn’t get any.”

Luckily they managed to get a direct supply from Wright’s Flour and carried on. But Robin said the pandemic saw sales plummet from 150 baguettes a day to nine.

They survived by launching a home delivery and a pizza service but have now stopped those to focus on trading with the van.

Robin said: “Now we’re in the right place at the right time and it’s a really good deal for us. We want to take it forward and try to add to our repertoire.

“It’s got a coffee machine and electricity which opens up a world of opportunity for us. We’ll be starting to do Vagabond Coffee, sourdough melts and who knows what else?  

“I still love that it seems like a really honest transaction. We make something, people give us money for it and we can make a living from that. It is stressful in terms of it being hard, physical work but there isn’t that mental stress behind it. 

“We had the philosophy right from the start that we would only buy equipment once we had earned the money for it rather than paying it back later.”

Clare was previously out in Thomas Moore Square with a gazebo or umbrella and constantly watching the weather forecast.

She said London Dock bosses invited them to take on the van and have made it an easy transition for them.

Bake Off fan Clare hopes it is a step towards an easier life as she dreams of one day owning a shop.

“So far the business has really fitted in with our lifestyle, we could take time off for trips and assemblies, but now the kids are getting older, I would like to have a shop so we get other people who can do our jobs if needed.”

Robin, who reckons he could get a handshake from Paul Hollywood, but prefers Masterchef, said: “I’m quite happy. 

“Even though it’s been a long time I still feel very lucky to be able to do it. We still have two kids at home and I work from home and still get to spend a lot of time with them.”

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