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Canary Wharf: MMy Wood Wharf by Mercato Metropolitano set for the estate

Image of Mercato Metropolitano founder and CED Andrea Rasca

George Street facility will house traders selling pizza, gelato, beer and wine plus a jazz club

Mercato Metropolitano founder and CED Andrea Rasca – image James Perrin

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Andrea Rasca has two gifts. Spend even a little time with the founder and self-styled chief executive dreamer of Mercato Metropolitano and it’s not long before his talent for simplicity emerges. He can take a complex area like sustainability, for example, and cut through the crap, the greenwashing and the often tepid attempts by big corporations to polish their images.  

This feeds into his second gift – vision. Andrea can see potential, conceive of successful places that don’t yet exist. So it’s easy, sat in the sunshine on the meandering wooden benches stretching down to West India South Dock, for him to conjure a future where the waterside park becomes the most attractive destination for visitors to Canary Wharf.

The exquisitely finished boardwalk and the emerging residential community at the eastern end of the estate are two of the reasons his business has taken space in George Street to create MMy Wood Wharf, set to open later this summer.

To understand the potency of this opening, it’s important to look at where it’s coming from. In 2015, Andrea set up Mercato Metropolitano on the site of a former paper mill in Elephant And Castle. Today, the 45,000sq ft facility attracts millions of visitors every year and is host to more than 40 vendors, a micro brewery, a gin distillery, a jazz club and an extensive grocery. 

But it’s also an expression of Andrea’s goals and ideals. It’s a platform for small businesses to trade, but to do so they must fit in with MM’s sustainable economic model that strives to be socially responsible and an asset to the local community it operates in.

“I want to make food become the centre of our lives,” said Andrea. “We eat three times a day. It’s our first medicine. Food connects us to environmental issues, to farmers and to our health. There’s nothing more important. For the last 70 years, food has been treated like a normal commodity The big corporations have decided to sell us food regardless of the provenance or chemical content – they just want to make more money out of it.

“Five years ago I arrived at a point where I said: ‘I think I’ve got it, it’s enough for me. Why don’t we try to go back to how things were – this should be the normal state of things. There’s no genius here.

“With this model, we created a physical platform where we could allow small entrepreneurs and producers to operate without the hassle of rent, the business rates, things like that.

“We would give everything to them and help them grow their businesses so they could concentrate on the food. That meant they had to align with our vision, our manifesto for sustainability and food as a human right, which means adequate food  – accessible nutritious and compatible with the local culture.

“We vet every single one of each business’ suppliers and they have to change if they don’t conform to our model.”

Having created a successful pilot in Milan, Andrea turned his attention to London, a city he’d been visiting since the age of 15, having struck a deal with his father that the cost of his trips to stay with a cosmopolitan family in Harrow-On-The-Hill would be covered so long as he was learning English. 

It was an arrangement that allowed him not only to indulge his passion for opera, musicals and jazz, but also to uncover the good things in the capital’s food scene at the time.

“I have always been attracted to London for the kind of soft power or energy that it has,” said Andrea. “So I decided I wanted to test my idea in one of the best markets in the world – for me, that was Borough Market.

“But on a trip to look for locations there was some misunderstanding about what I was looking for. I was being shown places where there was footfall from a marketing perspective.

“So I said I couldn’t care less – I didn’t need historical data because what I see is what is not yet there. I wanted to feel the vibe of a location for people’s needs they didn’t yet know they had.

“So when they showed me the Elephant And Castle site – an abandoned printing factory full of drug addicts – it was beautiful. I fell in love. I had a feeling, crazy, but it was there. So I told my friends I was going to do it, against all of their advice.”

Having opened in 2016 on a shoestring with Andrea and his friends doing much of the conversion work themselves, the first year saw MM rack up £9million in sales, more than doubling that in its third year with more than 4million visitors coming through the doors.

“We call it a circus now – food is very important, but it’s 50% and the other half is the atmosphere of artists, community and accessibility,” said Andrea. “We realised that somewhere like this could reach more people in a city like London.” 

MMy Wood Wharf is set to open later this year – image James Perrin

Which brings us to MMy Wood Wharf – the latest project – as Andrea expands across the capital, having already launched at a second site near Elephant and in a converted church in Mayfair. November is expected to see a 30-vendor venue open on the Redbridge Town Hall car park site in Ilford with seating for 600 people. But before that, his Canary Wharf venture will open its doors.

“I had the idea in my head that whenever we open a big one, we need to have smaller ones too to provide a bit of an alternative to the delivery system for takeaway food, which is not a model with love,” said Andrea. 

“First they sell anything, like McDonalds, and I don’t want to be in that space, secondly, they have dark kitchens and you don’t know what they’re cooking in there and, thirdly, the delivery guys are underpaid.

“In the restaurant business we control everything – the safety regulations are amazing, so my idea was to combine a smaller version of our grocery, not a big variety but everything you need, with a smaller version of Mercato and deliver in a different way to the people who live a few hundred metres from the market.

“It’s called MMy, because it’s the customer’s space, their community. Every one will be different and I want people to tell me if they like it or they want to change it.” 

So what can Wharfers expect when MMy Wood Wharf opens its doors later this year?

“First of all, good food not compromised by conglomerates, or chemicals – everything will be healthy and natural,” said Andrea.

“We’re going to have 10 small corners inside, so you will have the chance to buy your own cheese and ham, freshly baked bread and olive oil.

“You will also have the chance to eat the most amazing gelato, freshly made every morning, great meat from our butchers, oysters, fresh fish, amazing craft beer and a wonderful corner of wines.

“We’re going to have amazing pizza, which is the same as we have in the other locations, with 48-hour raised dough, Neapolitan tomatoes and Mozzarella, which you need to have for a good pizza, and pasta made freshly in front of you – there will be such a big variety.

“On the lower ground floor we’ll have an amazing jazz club with music and food and drinks – wines from all around Europe and further afield.

“The most important thing, which I really want to stress, is that food, people and environment are at the centre of everything we do, not shareholders’ revenue.

“This is vital, because the only way forward is not when you talk about sustainability, but when your business is based on it.

“Sustainability is not just showing that 1% of your business is green, but when 100% of everything you do is – maybe not perfect yet – but aiming towards that. We are plastic-free and all our staff are paid the London living wage as a minimum. It’s easy to be green and then pay nothing to your employees.

“I believe – first of all – you have to create your own community. Then we need to talk to kids about it, that’s the future. 

“Everything we do is about creating the right balance for a better city.”

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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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