The Last Bite: The 130-Year-Old London Coffee Shop That Won’t Serve Lattes
Algerian Coffee Stores has been providing Soho’s caffeine fix since 1887.
Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up? Today, it's the turn of long-standing tea and coffee specialists Algerian Coffee Stores in the heart of London's Soho.
Walking under the red and white candy-striped awning into Algerian Coffee Stores in London's Soho feels like entering an old-fashioned sweet shop. One side of the narrow store is flanked with jars and there's a stepladder in the corner to reach the uppermost shelves. The staff busy themselves weighing, packaging, and sealing red bags for eager customers.
But these aren't orders for sugar mice and gobstoppers. The jars being reached for are full to the brim with coffee beans and tea leaves from every corner of the globe.
The tea and coffee specialists have been trading here since 1887, selling to Soho regulars, shipping to countries far and wide, and offering punters a caffeine shot to take away (don't think about asking for a latte though—an espresso or cappuccino is all that's on the menu). In addition to the beans, leaves, scales, grinders, and bags stacked on every shelf, Algerian Coffee Stores also stocks enough varieties of percolators and copper Turkish coffee pots to keep even the most committed of coffee nerds happy.
Overseeing Algerian Coffee Stores many tea orders and hissing coffee machines is manager Marisa Crocetta.
"My dad, who owns the shop, remembers some of our customers coming in as kids, and he'd give them sweets and stuff," she tells me. "But I've banned sweets because I'll eat them all!"
Crocetta is the third generation of her family to help run the business after her grandad bought it in 1946. But the 130-year-old shop long predates that.
"Not a huge amount is known about its history, but we do know that the original owner was Mr Hassan in 1887. He had it until 1928 when he sold it to a Belgian man. Then, in 1946, he sold it to my grandad and it's been in the family ever since."
And so, it was among the coffee, tea, and sweets that Crocetta spent her childhood.
"I grew up here. I used to come down on Saturdays with my dad and I had to polish all the brass weights and the machines. This was obviously before computers so I'd draw all the lines in the banking books and write in the dates," she remembers. "Then they just put me to work serving customers and pressing the big buttons on the old style till—I could barely see over the counter! There are little nooks in the counter that I used to sit in. Now, I couldn't dream of contorting myself to get in there!"
Despite leaving the shop for a few years, Crocetta tells me that family is what brought her back behind the counter.
"My dad has always told me to go and do my own thing and I did for years and years but my family drew me back to the shop," she says with a smile. "I just thought I'd come and work with them for a bit and ended up staying. It's knowing you're helping out—that's the best place for you."
But her eyebrows raise when I ask whether the next generation have shown an interest in helping out. She tells me: "My sister's kids are coming in now, sweeping and pricing everything. The new thing seems to be that they need to price everything. They come in during the school holidays once because it's a nightmare. There's three of them so one afternoon is enough."
Crocetta hands me a freshly brewed, velvety espresso and I steer the conversation away from unruly schoolchildren to coffee. Unsurprisingly, I'm not fed the line spouted by so many hipster baristas about a life-changing trip to a coffee farm in Columbia that made them sack in a job at a law firm to set up a succulent-filled cafe.
"The green beans come in from the City through brokers. You've got the brokers that you can reply on and trust," explains Crocetta. "We've been dealing with them for so many years so we always buy from them."
Simple as that.
But what has changed over the years at Algerian Coffee Stores is the demand from customers.
She says: "People definitely buy a lot more coffee than tea. We sell a lot of tea but it's a lot smaller proportion compared to coffee. It's always been the way but now the gap has widened and you see trends happening where people are more into things like green teas."
Crocetta continues: "It's got a lot busier and we have a lot more mail order. Everyone is buying a lot more coffee. I think there are fashion trends with coffee so you see people obsessed with a certain type of coffee, then they're obsessed with another style of coffee. And they're preparing it in this way, in that way and it's got to be a particular roast … but a lot more people are into coffee now and it's not a bad thing!"
But with this new interest in coffee comes the wave of trendy coffee shops and cafes—especially in an area like Soho, which has experienced rapid gentrification. How does somewhere with a comforting, old-fashioned vibe like Algerian Coffee Stores keep up?
"Soho has completely changed. Soho isn't what Soho was," admits Crocetta. "It's a new, trendy, and fashionable place with nice restaurants and nice bars. I prefer the olde worlde buildings but it doesn't matter whether a place is new or old, it comes down to what they're selling and what they're doing."
She adds: "And you've got to start somewhere with history, you know? Those new places might be around in 100 years time. It doesn't really matter who you are, it's what you've got and what you do."
For now, it seems that Algerian Coffee Stores is doing the right thing.
"We've got people who've been coming in for 60 years and then people who've been coming every day for a few years," says Crocetta. "I have no idea what'll happen in the future. I think the small little companies around here are either going to have some sort of backing or they're not going to last very long. It's insane to try and survive in this place so we'll probably have to find a way to balance it out."
Turning to leave, I notice that the morning rush of customers coming in for a takeaway coffee or picking up a bag of tea seems to have subsided. Crocetta laughs. "It's busy all day for us. Now we'll start things like packing up orders. There's never a quiet moment!"
And long may it stay that way.