When I spoke with a friend about this ‘goodforleeds’ blog concept a few weeks ago, she enthused about the ‘lovely independents that make life in Leeds richer just by existing’, and hoped it would cover these alongside the new(ish) breed of social enterprises.
And as a resident of Headingley, there was only one place to start. North Lane – which runs between Otley Road and the cricket ground – appears to be at the centre of an epic tussle for the soul of our high street.
Sandwiched between the chain supermarkets and convenience stores, the big bars and all the gaudy takeaways which feed those spilling out of them, you can find a host of very popular independent businesses. These include the locally-cherished RK Harris grocers, the butcher next door, an artisan baker, a health food shop owned by scores of locals as a cooperative, and a range of independent coffee shops and eateries.
My friend’s favourite of these, Mint Café, has been serving a menu of largely Lebanese and Mediterranean food – and great coffee – at lunch and dinner for two years. So I went to Mint to test some of the theories about what makes ‘indies’ good for Leeds.
The perception is that the one-offs offer a different or unique product, meaning all our high streets don’t look and feel exactly the same, and the owner/manager’s passion and presence gives a more personal and satisfying customer experience.
Mint’s owner, Marcos Dakka, certainly passes the customer service test; a warm welcome and as much chat as you want about the area and his menu before he is pulled away to clear a table, take an order, make a coffee or any of the other jobs that fall to the manager of small operations.
Judging by the twenty-plus very empty plates cleared off over Sunday lunchtime, the locals share my love for the menu which Marcos and his chef, who grew up together in the same Lebanese village, have developed. Meals like Shawarmas (marinated meat strips) and the cracking batata harra (potato slices, garlic, coriander, chilli & hummus) are authentic and different enough to stand out in Headingley’s packed market place. A chef’s special plate containing both these (£9.99) filled two of us on a Sunday lunch.
I was a bit surprised that Marcos doesn’t feel threatened by the ever-growing competition out on North Lane. He relies on a discerning and loyal customer base not to have their heads turned by the offer of a full pizza for £2.50. In fact, he can’t imagine leaving the place, even for cheaper rent in town.
“Headingley is a great place to be, because the local people really value and support independents, so it’s better for us than moving to somewhere else even if it would mean much cheaper rent.”
Mint brings more than a fresh set of spicing to LS6; they host music and entertainment nights, the most recent of which gave customers the chance to see flamenco dancers at what must be very close quarters in such a small shop.
But quality, value, a unique experience and customer service are only half the story.
Money spent in independents stays closer to home than that spent in a chain. The owners will usually source from other local businesses (also reducing the environmental footprint), tend to live and therefore spend their profits in the same area, and can’t afford the sort of accountants who can effectively declare one small corner of your high street a tax haven. According to the New Economic Foundation, chains are also quicker to close stores in a recession. So an independent presence means more variety, more resilience and more cash in communities.
Mint delivers on these criteria too. Marcos talked me through the products on the counter. All his fruit, veg, eggs and many other ingredients are bought from other independent businesses on North Lane, the meat is from a Halal butcher down the road by the university, and his pastries are from Croissant D’or in Rawdon. Aside from packaged crisps and drinks, only the baklava has had a motorway journey, because there isn’t enough room in the kitchen to make their own.
As we get talking about what makes a business good for its community, Marcos walks me round the shop to show that Mint really values its connection to the local community. Local artists’ and enterprises’ work and products are on display and for sale. Marcos lives locally and shops in all the other local independents, whose staff and owners also all seem to eat in Mint, giving the impression that they are a bit like a supportive family.
As an aside there’s also a big commitment to re-use running from Mint’s retro shop right through to a counter made by a designer (unfortunately, not from Leeds) who specializes in creating heavy duty, recycled products.
The glorification of independent cafes over mass dining experiences will always lead to some charges of snobbery. But whenever I have been in a big bar or chain restaurant, I often find myself reading marketing literature which describes how their thousand franchises are all built on the values, passion for great product and customer service for which an original version was so celebrated.
They’ve rarely achieved the faintest echo of what they describe. So if we really want the kind of charming, personal experience, coupled with the great value food and drink they say the original offered, then surely we are far more likely to find it in independents and one-offs like Mint than we are in a chain in a retail park or shopping centre?
Mint Café, 33 North Lane, Leeds LS6 3HW
Monday to Friday from 11am to 10pm
Saturday 10am – 7pm Sunday 11am – pm
tel: 0113 226 48 43 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
twitter @mintcafeleeds or find them on facebook mint café Leeds