Welcome back to The Last Bite, our new 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?
Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. Today, it's the turn of 97-year-old tea and coffee stand, Syd's Coffee Stall in East London.
Syd's Coffee Stall opened its shutters onto Shoreditch, East London in 1919. Since then, it has seen a lot. From the bombing of the East End during World War Two to the more recent cereal cafe-spawning gentrification of the area, Syd's has borne witness to it all.
Founded by war-veteran-turned-entrepreneur Syd Tothill, the stall has been passed down through generations and is still run by the Tothill family, keeping locals satisfied with fresh ham sandwiches, coffee, and famed loose leaf tea. With its green panels and original wooden wheels, Syd's is one of the few Shoreditch establishments to retain some of its original character, staying defiantly old-school in an area that teems with pop-up shops and trendy bars.
It's also easy to miss. Tucked on a corner away from the busy circus of Shoreditch High Street, I spent months walking by Syd's without even realising it was there.
But once you see Syd's, you won't miss it again. The stall sits on the side of the road, parked up like a horse-drawn carriage—except with stationary wheels and a serving hatch that opens onto the pavement.
Syd's is run by Jane Tothill—granddaughter of the eponymous Syd—with help from teamaker Cheryl.
"When I took over in 1986, we had queues right round the corner and sometimes we'd squeeze four people behind the counter," remembers Tothill. "Everything is made fresh, y'know? We couldn't serve people fast enough!"
This is probably the only place in Shoreditch where you'll be laughed at for requesting a latte or scanning the breakfast menu for avocado on toast. What you will find, though is deliciously stodgy pound cakes and local cabbies hoovering up greasy bacon sarnies before heading to work. The old fashioned silver kettle will always be on, brewing away.
"I know we only do basic but our tea is the best in London," says Tothill. "We only have fresh, loose leaf tea—the best you can buy and no teabags. When people say to leave the bag in, it's like they've sworn."
Despite the rise of high-end coffee shops and bakeries in the area, Tothill has no plans to change the food and drink offerings at Syd's.
"We just keep basic English grub because that's what it's always been. People tell me to get a coffee machine but that's not English," she says. "We have tried different things—even silly little things like croissants—but no, our customers know what they like."
The original Syd bought the stall in 1919 using his war pension and over the following years, became a centrepiece of the Shoreditch community, running several cafes in the area and making connections with everyone from the mayor to the local vicar. At the start of World War Two, Syd became ill and his wife May was injured after a bomb blast went off at the end of their road. The cart, however, was unscathed, sheltered by a nearby bus stop.
But with both Syd and May unable to run the stall, Syd's son (Jane's father), Syd Junior, was called back from the RAF by the Mayor of Shoreditch himself to run the stall. The community agreed that Syd's was a necessity to the War effort.
Tothill remembers helping her father and mother with the family business as a child.
"My mother and father also had the outside catering business Hillary Caterers (my dad said the name "Syd's" wasn't upmarket enough), and they used to put on a dinner for the old people at Shoreditch Church every year," she says. "I don't know how they managed it. The kitchens were down in the basement and you had one of these dumb waits, or you had to drag it up the stairs. I was put to work with the potato rumbler."
The food served back at Syd's in the day doesn't sound half bad either.
"It was saveloys, slices of bread with a dollop of mustard, and pies," remembers Tothill. "They used to carve a hock of ham on the front. It was different times."
Tothill's face lights up as she shares these memories.
"Dad is the only one to have been granted a licence to sell on the steps of St. Paul's," she says proudly, pointing to one of the numerous newspaper clippings on the wall of the stall.
Sadly, things at Syd's are different now. While the original stall was tailor-made made on nearby Hackney Road with etched glass and brass rails, today Tothill has vandals to contend with, and often comes to work to find the stall daubed with graffiti and the debris of weekend clubbers.
"I'm absolutely mortified," she says, showing me where the stall's varnish has started to bubble from the paint stripper used to clean away the vandals' scribbles.
Since the 1990s, the footfall around Syd's has also changed. Bus routes have been diverted, restricted parking has been implemented, and wider roads have changed the face of this corner of Shoreditch.
"It was a really busy corner: the bank, a sweet shop, toilets, bus stops," remembers Tothill. "People would park up or get of the bus, pop into the shops or the bank then come and see us. You can't do that now."
And what about the social changes that have seen Shoreditch become a kind of hipster mecca? Tothill sighs: "Most young people aren't into tradition and people have so much money nowadays that they don't think twice about spending £2 or £3 on a coffee."
Tothill's coffee, on the other hand, could never be described as artisan. But it costs 50p and gets the job done.
With the odds seemingly stacked against Syd's survival, its future seems uncertain. Tothill takes a last drag on her cigarette as she tells me: "My brother intimated that he might want to take it over to keep it going after we hit 100 years but I don't think it'll go on. I'd like it end up in a museum somewhere but we'll see how it goes."
I hope Syd's makes its 100th birthday. The East End needs its ham sandwiches and proper brews.