Could Tracey Dowse’s Little Bean Café be the tiniest café in Britain?
“Coming into Cowfold, I notice how deep we are in the heart of the country, surrounded by animals…..it does have a comprehensive and spirited village life, centred around the green on one side, where cricket and stoolball are played, and the church with the lychgates on the other side. Eating and drinking can be done in between…”
-Pieter Boogaart, A272, An Ode To A Road
I was speeding out of Brighton, heading for home, when my stomach announced it was lunchtime. Tatty filling stations, dowdy pubs, mini-marts with long queues winding out of the door… none appealed.
And then in a flash (if I’d blinked I might have missed it) there was the Little Bean Café with its bunch of fresh anemones, bowl of blousy meringues, and spotty tablecloths. I parked the car and went in.
‘Small but perfectly formed’ is the best description for the Little Bean. I got a warm welcome, sat down thankfully on to the fresh whitewood chairs, logged into the free wifi and tucked heartily into enticing toasted sandwich in front of me. All was right with the world. But how could something as splendid as this exist in such a tiny space.
In the end I just had to ask, and Tracey Dowse, the café owner, very kindly told me all about it.
The Little Bean Café is in Cowfold, West Sussex, RH13 8DA. Tel: 01403 864816.
I decided to become a café owner because I’d been a teacher for 20 years and I thought it was time to step out into the big wide world and do more of the things that feed my (older and wiser) soul.
As a primary school teacher, creativity is at the heart of everything I do. The love of entertaining, of cooking and baking for friends and family, comes from my family and upbringing.
During my childhood in South Africa my family farmed and ran local supermarkets and businesses. I was surrounded by people and by home grown and home cooked produce. My parents were never afraid of starting new businesses, my grandmothers were always up to something in the kitchen, while my mother was either sewing costumes, flower arranging or creating wedding cakes
The initial problems
The first issue I had was fear! Fear of trying something I’d only dared to dream of. In the past I’d only ever seen, and been reminded of, the obstacles and practical difficulties – that squashed my creativity. But eventually immense work stress in teaching began to affect my health and the time came to seriously re-evaluate my life. With the support and encouragement of my partner Neal and my family I dipped my toes in. This cafe was tiny and low risk enough to just give it a go and continue teaching part time.
I haven’t looked back. I love what’s happening in Little Bean Café and I only want to do more of it! I joke about my “Little Bean Empire”.
I am learning new things every day, and have so much to learn, but I’m loving the journey. It’s all about the passion and the people.
It’s true that it takes time to build a reputation but we’re already getting known. I believe if you offer quality food and great service, people will come back.
The question of size
Most people have never seen such a tiny cafe. We’ve only been here three months but the business is already taking off and we can’t accommodate much more business without restructuring the layout of the café and taking on another staff member.
Cooking in and equipping such an unusually small space is challenging but you have to be creative! That’s even more the case when we’re full upstairs and have a queue out the door for take away orders!
Then it’s all about engaging with our customers as they wait. People don’t mind waiting when you add that personal touch of a little treat with their coffee or freshly making their meal/drink just the way they want it.
One client said we should get a therapy sofa in the corner as regulars love to come in the share their frustrations in exchange for a listening ear and often a lot of laughter.
Where do the customers come from?
I’ve spent the first couple of months trying to work out where my customers are coming from! Initially I thought it would be mostly from the local community but instead it’s come mostly from local businesses and some passing trade. Now it’s growing in every way: the community of residents, businesses, schools and passing trade.
Developing the business
For the two years before I bought it the building was a snack bar but people say they’ve only just noticed its existance. We began by creating a brand, changing the name, smartening up the frontage appeal and placing advertising around the local area.
Then we began monitoring what was selling well and why, and constantly getting customer feedback about our service and products. Slowly we began to bring in more and more local products and products that people particularly enjoy, replacing those that don’t suit our clientele or business style.
We’ve now set up a website and Facebook page where we post updates. It’s through our social media network that we connect with the local community group.
We are in the process of taking on an apprentice from Chichester College which will coincide with restricting the café and then opening another Little Bean in another West Sussex village/ town location.
On my philosophy as a café owner
I love being part of a community. We live such busy lives and most people just work and spend and don’t connect with the people who are behind the services. We hardly take the time to stop and talk to each other about our lives. The café is a meeting place, a place to connect with people again….slowly…..a place to build relationships. I want that same principal to extend to my suppliers. That’s why I’m trying to support more local businesses. Our bread is from the local bakers in Henfield; our pies and scotch eggs from local butchers in Partridge Green; pure pressed apple juices comes from a young company, Wobblegate, in Bolney; cakes are from Neal, my partner’s mum and Lucy, a local home baker; delicious coffee from a family business in Hampshire with excellent customer service! I love the idea of bartering and looking out for each other as businesses. Not just my suppliers but other local businesses in the village. We look out for each other.
What people like and don’t like
Most people love the quirky, tiny space (I’ve never seen a cafe as small as this). I think a few don’t, as you can’t ignore people here. Everyone ends up chatting. There is pavement seating which is a bit noisy but feels like you’re in a busy European town really! Upstairs, built into the roof space we have cosy seating for eight – that always amazes guests in such a tiny building.
You might also be interested in The Reinvention of the Cafe – follow this link.
My lunch was so good that I asked Tracey for the recipe – here it is:
Recipe for the Little Bean Café chicken pesto panini
Pesto, sliced chicken breast, 4 sundried tomatoes, handful of rocket, freshly milled black pepper
- Slice panini in half.
- Starting with pesto spread on one half, and ending with the rocket, layer your ingredients.
We use a hot buffalo grill for 3-4 minutes to cook, but you could use a slightly greased heavy based pan and place pressure from a plate, turning after 2-3 min to cook each side.