Afshan Ahmed runs Oh My Coffee!, a community café, larder and gift shop in Chingford. She is also a mother of four and a science teacher at the nearby Heathcote Secondary School. So where does she find the time to run one of the area’s most-loved spots? We asked her about her passion for cooking, craft and community
Take us back to the beginning. How did Oh My Coffee! all begin?
I previously worked in the pharmaceutical and chemical industry, which was very demanding. I wanted to do something that wouldn’t take up so many hours of my day.
I grew up in the West Midlands in quite a rural, small place with apple trees in the garden. I have always cared deeply about food and ingredients - my parents brought me up to be mindful about where your food came from. My mum used to say “food should be your medicine, otherwise medicine will be your food” and that always stuck with me.
I wanted to create somewhere that brought this ethos about food with it, but also for the café to be somewhere where the community could come together - somewhere with a shop that sold locally made crafts, with a children’s play area so families would be welcome and with lots of space between tables so it would be accessible for everyone.
Have you always been based in Chingford? How has the business grown since it started?
We initially had a little place in Highams Park. That was October 2012. We moved to 92 Old Church Road in Chingford in June/July 2013.
In 2016, we knocked through and took over 94 Old Church Road next door so we could expand. Importantly, this enabled us to put in a bigger kitchen to meet the growing demand. We got the delivery service up and running on Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats and expanded the number of tables so we could fit everyone in.
It also allowed us to increase the amount of locally produced arts and crafts we sold from small batch bespoke suppliers.
What do you think makes the business stand out?
There’s a line in the song from the American sitcom Cheers “where everybody knows your name” and that very much describes what I wanted the place to be like.
It was important for me to learn all my customers’ names, so we could create a really genuine community space that was homely and where everybody was welcome.
Where I grew up, it was the kind of place with a local butchers, greengrocers and corner shop on the high street and I’m really passionate about town centres that bring people together.
London can be so transient, but the community in Chingford is different. People have lived here for so many years, so it was great to find a place where there was a real, genuine community spirit and camaraderie.
From day one, we have ensured that every disposable product is either made from recycled paper and we are passionate about plant-based products. It’s hard to summarise, but I think the thing that makes us stand out is that you will find things here you would not normally find on the high street.
How does Oh My Coffee! give back to the community?
For starters, we set up a Community Book Club six years ago. We used to meet once a month before Covid and have taken that online during the pandemic. We also do weekly craft nights every Monday evening.
When the Government recently decided not to extend its school meal voucher scheme during half term, we provided those in need with bags of food shopping. Any which were remaining we dropped off at the Church Lane school.
We have also worked with a customer to provide ‘bags of kindness’ to a refuge centre for victims of domestic abuse.
And you’re a local science teacher too? How do you fit that in?
Yes! I decided about two years ago that the business was in good enough shape to go into teaching. I went to university to get my PGCE and graduated last year. I was offered a job at the Heathcote Secondary School and I love it. I’m so passionate about showing young people that they can do anything, that nothing is out of their reach.
What has been your experience during Covid-19? How have you dealt with the situation?
It has been really challenging. From a financial point of view, but also for our employees.
We only employ people who share our values and ethos so we’ve had to make sure they were looked after. We didn’t participate in the furlough scheme but we paid them the equivalent during the first lockdown when they weren’t able to work.
All our staff went on Covid awareness courses. It was really important to us that when we reopened after the lockdown that people could feel confident coming in.
We got rid of 50% of our tables, so we could implement social distancing properly and made sure we had QR codes printed out so everyone could use Track and Trace effectively. We also introduced a customer collection service and switched to plastic menus which could be wiped down.
We were really pleased when our loyal customers said that this was one of the only places where they could feel completely confident coming back in.
How would you define the Chingford community?
I love Chingford. I think there’s a total misconception about people from here that they’re really inward-looking and nothing could be further from the truth. They really are the most warm, heartfelt and intelligent people.
People in this community really care for each other and take each other to heart. There is such a sense of belonging and you can not take that out of people.
Where do you like to go locally?
There’s a few places. Jazz and Jets do really great food and I have recently discovered a place called the Artisan Café, which has the most amazing décor, with these beautiful tiles. It’s like being in Morocco. I take the family there. I think I had the tagine last time and it was so good. They really care such a lot about eating well and fresh ingredients, so I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Why should people shop local?
Now more than ever, we are relying on the collective power of our communities. These connections do not just exist online but in the everyday conversations, meeting and social interactions that our high streets provide. We must protect this most valuable asset, an asset held so dear to so many; the human contact, the kindness, the smiles, the sharing of our day.
Our high street shops give the backdrop for these connections. They give us variety, niche products and the personable service that only living and working within the community can provide.