TimberYard cafe just opened in Old Street between Shoreditch and Clerkenwell. I’ve been waiting for a casual, friendly cafe with plenty of seating in EC1 for a long time. Look Mum No Hands (next door on Old Street) is great but the coffee isn’t perfect and it often gets far too crowded to be able to relax and think.
I’ve been wondering why none of the cafes in Shoreditch have opened up their basements or their un-used first floors. Some days I traipse around Dose at Google Campus, Salvation Jane, Shoreditch Grind, Goswell Rd, Fix and Look Mum No Hands just looking for a place to hang my Macbook.
TimberYard is friendly, fun and it’s going to be very successful once they settle in a bit. The overall tone is perfect for the location – halfway between Shoreditch and Farringdon. This means halfway between TechCity, Hipsters and Red Stripe on one side and Architects, Design Firms and Chardonnay on the other side.
I really wanted to like TimberYard. But things aren’t yet working as well they should. There’s a lot that we can learn from these mistakes. So I’m going to share them here in the hope that Timberyard can learn and that we can help triangulate what makes a good cafe, great.
Cafes serve coffee
Timberyard are serving Has Bean coffee (which is better than Monmouth but not as good as Square Mile). Has Bean is great for a new cafe because the blend is very even and it makes a good espresso. I recognised the barista from another indpendent and he’s great. But the Flat White that I was served:
- Had pot marked bubbles and the crema had collapsed (meaning that they are re-using the milk or that the coffee sat too long before being served).
- Was luke warm (consistent with sitting too long but this really was tepid, so more likely, it wasn’t hot enough in the first place).
- Had a distinct thin layer of froth on top of liquid milk instead of evenly blended velvet (meaning that the milk was free poured unskilfully, was skimmed milk or that it sat too long).
- Was tasteless (this is a risk with a softer cafe blend, it’s hard to get wrong but there’s no character to it).
Almost all of these could be down to the coffee sitting too long, so maybe I was just unlucky. But I felt that there was a deeper problem. TimberYard sells all the usual coffee accessories, but somehow it doesn’t feel like coffee is the main point. The juicing machine, the iPads, the nice logo, everything makes the coffee feel like it’s not really their focus. I hope I’m wrong, but I’d bet money that the owner isn’t a barista. The lesson: Get the basics right.
Mixed use is hard
Look Mum No Hands is one of the few cafes in the world that successfully does double duty. (It’s a cafe and bicycle workshop.) TimberYard promises “Tea, Coffee, Work and Play” re-imagined. That’s a lot of balls to have in the air for a new business. I’m not sure whether TimberYard really is mixed use, or just has a confused brand message. The lesson: Focus.
You can’t fake cool
The faux distressed furniture and mis-matched suitcases look like they are straight out of an independent cafe. Until you get close. Like a Monet, they look great from a distance, but up close it’s a bit of mess. The whole place feels too “manufactured” too clean and and too artificial. And a bit like it was designed by a committee.
Maybe things will skuff up a bit after a few months and a few artworks, magazines, pot plants and knicknacks would soon make the place feel more homely. The lesson: Have one person take ultimate responsibility for interior design and let that person make the tough calls.
Mood is everything
While were at Timberyard the music varied wildly from Bryan Adams to modern pop to chilled out trip-hop. It was mostly harmless, but it felt more like someone had the iPod on random shuffle than a curated and intentional soundscape to reinforce the atmosphere and mood. The lighting didn’t help. It’s nice to light the basement brightly but I’d suggest using the lamps and side lights more and having the stark fluorescent bulbs turned down a little. The lighting in the upstairs felt more like a carphone warehouse than a cafe.
The Brazialians have a saying that “The grass grows faster under the farmer’s eye.” They mean that the owner of a business makes a difference. Just by being there. TimberYard feels like it’s a business not a labour of love. This is unfortunate because when you look at their Facebook page it’s clear that they have worked hard and that they’ve put a lot of love into the business. It’s just not translating through to the end customer experience.
It reminded me of Tinderbox (an independent that’s become a mini-chain). There is a common problem that as a cafe grows it looses the personality of the founder and becomes more generic. The staff were friendly but the place needs a firmer hand at the tiller to take “Steve Jobs Style” responsibility for the entire user experience. For example, the maitre d’ could be floating around the tables, checking on people, generally making sure that everything is running tight.
Social media for new cafes
Timberyard have a thriving Facebook page and are active on social media. Normally I’d be a big advocate of social media for small businesses but for a cafe Geo-social Media, SEO and local promotions are much more important than general popularity.
If you do a search for Timberyard on Google the results are mainly for a restaurant in Edinburgh. Their own website is nowhere to be found on the front page of Google. This tells me that the Timberyard team have under invested in FourSquare, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Places and Google Maps. They probably also need to court the favour of the London Coffee Bloggers and curators of the London Coffee Guides and iPhone Applications. I’d suggest that they call me or Sam Lynas to have a chat about how to get this in order.
My conclusion on Timberyard Cafe
For a nice coffee, fast wifi, a place to sit and a friendly staff. I really can recommend Timberyard. They are trying hard and I’m sure that things will improve. I’d suggest that you go now before it’s discovered because by February, March when we thaw out the place will be full of hipsters, entrepreneurs, designers and freelancers. I know I’ll be there.
All of the above are probably just teething problems. Once TimberYard settles down it will be one of the best cafes to meet a friend, do some work or hang out. I predict that it will be very successful and I’m hoping to do a six-month review. Assuming that this review doesn’t get me banned then I’ll probably be a regular.