The Settle Down Cafe – Life is sweet

NeilLeFlohicIt’s the kind of cafe couples dream of running when they do the TV cookery shows, a delicious little piece of home-from-home in Newcastle’s city centre. And it’s up for sale! Rosie McGlade prays the next Settle Down owners will be as good as the last 

It’s Thursday morning at the Settle Down Cafe on Newcastle’s Westgate Road, just down from the Tyne Theatre. A group of arty-looking women, mostly in their 20s, have gathered around the sofas area in front of the window to crochet. It’s the crochet club, and they come here every week. There’s a writers’ club, a philosophy club and, until recently, there was a knitting club.

In the space at the back, with its big kitchen-style table and funky 70s-style wallpaper, there’s a meeting going on, a group of what look to be new media types discussing future direction over cups of cappuccino.

Here, before the counter, are the mothers and babies, then ordinary folk, some on their own, some quite old, some chuckling away at jokes with shopping bags at feet.

It’s business as usual.

Neil le Flohic (we’ll explain that one shortly) set out with exactly this vision in mind when he opened this quirky little community-style cafe in February 2009. The coffee is from the local Ouseburn Coffee Company, so as good as it gets, the staff are laid back and friendly, the cakes and the soup and sandwiches are big and homemade and scrumptious. For two years in a row, the cafe has been voted Best Cheap Eaterie in the North by the Observer newspaper. Essentially, it has made Neil the living he hoped it would as a 40-something father of two young children.

So why, you might ask, is he selling it?

SettleDown1The answer, in a nutshell, is because the little Pink Lane bakery heopened round the corner last year to feed the cafe has become such a runaway success. And he loves it even more, I guess.

Neil was born in Jersey, where two sets of French grandparents – hence the surname – combined to produce parents who ran a French-style boulangerie and patisserie. From the age of 15, he worked there every weekend, making breads, French sticks, cakes, croissants and heavenly patisseries. During university summer holidays, he managed the business.

That he’s become a baker himself is the result of several meandering paths his life has taken: coming to Newcastle to study, and meeting his wife, the acclaimed singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams; managing her road tours and record label; having children, who took to the road with their parents, but then realising, with school looming, he needed a job that would root him more firmly in the city; buying the Settle Down Cafe.

“I started the cafe from nothing and have been so emotionally involved, I just feel it needs new  energy with someone to focus directly on running the place to give it the right future,” Neil explains.

“I opened the Sugar Down Bakery to supply the cafe because the kitchen there is quite small, but then that place took off a lot more than I anticipated so now I’m scarcely there,” he adds. “I used to be the face behind the counter, which is what you have to do if you want to make a proper living from a little business like this.”

SettleDown2The Sugar Down Bakery

Enter the Sugar Down Bakery, literally a stone’s throw away, and in my humble opinion you could be anywhere in the Western world. The merry bunting might be a British touch, but there’s a timelessness and a coolness that would place it happily in any a bustling capital.

But, and it’s a nice but, you don’t have to be cool to be here. The cakes are the kind of things your granny might have made, very high grade baking, good ingredients, interesting little additions of cinnamon here, cardamoms or almonds there, but unfussy. Proper. Things your whole family will eat.

The bread is a bit fancier – ciabatta, sour dough, rye and spelt, but then we’re that bit more fancy ourselves these days. There are homemade pizzas, too, and bakers right before your eyes mixing and kneading and taking tray bakes out of the oven to cool. Nice tiles.

Another ‘small and simple set-up’, as Neil calls it. He has an obvious flair for this sort of enterprise, but says he’s not alone in the city.

“The food scene in Newcastle has taken off massively in the last 12 months. There’s so much energy here, and because the city is so small, such a lot of support for people who want to try something new. For me, the Boiler Shop Steamer has been a really important part of this movement. And we’re now a few years into the Eat Festival, which has started to mature and inspire new food festivals everywhere.”

It also gives foodie types regular opportunities to meet and to network.

Neil has done Boiler Shop Steamers where at least three other food stalls are using his breads, and he supplies a growing number of cafes, pubs and restaurants in our region.

Indeed, it’s the wholesale part of his business that mostly accounts for its success. Neil carefully tailors his produce to fit individual businesses.

“And I think that’s what’s really worked for us here,” he explains. “I like to have a few meetings with potential clients in order to come up with something that complements their style exactly.” Wow, what a lovely success story. Good on Neil, just please sell the Settle Down to someone nice.

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