The emperor of Roman Road: Mustafa Has

Local entrepreneur Mustafa Has is overtaking Roman Road’s food scene, and the locals love it. But, what’s the secret to his success?

Do you have that one friend who seems to know everyone? You’re out for a drink, going for a walk, or grabbing a bite to eat, and, without fail, they bump into someone they know?

For Bow, that person is Mustafa Has.

During our chat just after lunchtime on Old Ford Road, around the corner from Victoria Park’s Gunmaker’s Lane entrance, he offers a simple nod to a passing white van driver (a builder he knows), sends a friendly wave to a white-capped man in the steel grey BMW (a regular at his café on Roman Road, Café East) and picks up conversation with an auburn-haired passer-by (familiar-faced local). It was one person every ten or so minutes.

‘This looks cute,’ the auburn-haired woman says in a slight American twang, her sharp red nails circling the freshly painted dark sea blue exterior, and black antique light hanging on the shop’s corner bearing the words ‘fish and chips’ stenciled into the glass.

‘Yeh, thanks, we’ve been open four weeks,’ he answers. Breezy chat ensues, with the woman telling Has, who’s known locally as Mus, she is going to Café East. ‘We’re taking over Roman Road! No mercy!’ he laughs. ‘Then you can give me a job!’ she returns in jest.

People are drawn in by Has’ natural amiability, a trait that has aided his status as something of a growing local celeb. That, and his expanding empire of East End eateries which includes Café East on Roman Road opened in 2016, and Juice Trap in Bethnal Green in summer 2020.

Based in a former corner shop next door to the popular jazz haunt and pub The Eleanor Arms, Has’ latest venture to add to his portfolio is Chipping Wharf, an old school style East End fish and chip shop and it is already making waves in the East End’s highly competitive fish and chip scene.

We are sitting at a large wooden communal table in the chippie’s adjacent terrace, and the autumn sun pools the patio in a sparkly golden glow. Has wears a freshly ironed white t-shirt with the Chipping Wharf logo and his smiley brown eyes have a hint of boyish charm that conceals the shrewd business mind and mature head he has carried on his shoulders for the past 34 years.

The middle child of five, yet oldest boy, Has explains the feelings of responsibility he bore while growing up as a young teen after his family’s arrival to the East End in 1999. Has, who was 11, and his family knew no English, speaking Turkish or their adopted language, German. German because his family were part of the Gastarbeiter movement, a scheme encouraged by the then West German government in the latter half of the 20th century to welcome migrant workers. With a change to the newly unified Germany’s immigration policies in the 1990s, the family were not granted citizenship and so made their way to London, and settled in the East End.

His family’s initial status as immigrants, without the right to remain, had a profound impact on Has’ outlook on life.

He faces the sun for a moment, and pauses: ‘You know, when you’re a citizen, your life is a lot more secure. But when you don’t have that security, you stop and think, “Hold on a minute, if we don’t have the right to indefinitely remain in the UK, then we need to prepare ourselves to shift on.”

‘You know, you’re a bit delayed, so you try and fix that, and having that pressure, matured me up as an individual a lot quicker.’

For many youngsters, the transition from childhood’s cosy confines to boundary testing in teenagehood can see them crave freedom, seek out adventure, yearn for excitement, and maybe even toy with some risk taking. While Has concedes there were times when he sought that too, he says he always tried to stay focused: ‘All that I was after was stability, rather than freedom to do whatever I wanted.’

Freedom was hanging around the estates by Bromley-by-Bow and Old Ford with friends, which Has did do but when the pull of that faded, stability came in the form of the opportunities afforded by Bow’s youth clubs in the 2000s. This was a time when politicians and the media didn’t casually fling around phrases such as ‘budget cuts’, or ‘slimmed down services’, and words like ‘austerity’. Funding for youth centres was greater and afforded opportunities that Bow’s youth, including Has, was hungry for.

Has particularly cites the Bromley-by-Bow Centre (BBBC) as a crucial influence in where he is today: ‘The BBBC is where the seeds for creativity were planted in me.’

Has talks of the BBBC’s youth activities that included music workshops, creative design classes, and even stained-glass courses. Just as the Bow School for Boys’ bells would ring out the day, Has would take himself down to the BBBC. He found his attention was held fast by graphic design. While at the time he didn’t think it, Has now realises his luck.

He was in the right place, at the right time, with the right set of people. Creativity flourished in Bow, as witnessed by Bow’s place as the mecca of Grime music. People who he still counts as friends and good contacts, such as Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder, now frequent Café East, helping to place Café East on the map.

Demonstrating the cafe’s close links to Grime, a couple of years ago, it held an exhibition of acclaimed Grime photographer Simon Wheatley (who Has counts as one of his close friends ). Wheatley spent twelve years documenting grime culture and compiled a selection of photographs into his book Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime, spanning the years between 1998 to 2010. 

This blend of creativity and encouragement led Has to pursue a degree in graphic design at the impressive Central St Martins. This was 2006 and, by then, his family had been granted a right to remain and moved to a flat on the Cranbrook Estate. But elder son responsibilities were never far from the forefront of his mind.

‘I felt like I needed to help my family and support my dad. So, when I turned 18, I helped run the family business.’ Alongside his studies, he worked at his dad’s business, Offee and Toffee, a small off-license and café outside Bethnal Green tube station. Putting his skills into practice in a sector with which he was familiar, he says he changed the name of the cafe, and designed the interior.

By 28, Has was confident enough in his own abilities to launch Café East in 2016 with one of his sisters’ husbands, and then Juice Trap four years later, managed by his brother, and now Chipping Wharf.

For all his projects, Has speaks of the ‘drive, love and passion’ he feels when undertaking a new project but this zeal translates to setting very high standards.

Has openly admits that his creative yet critical eye means he cannot and will not give up until he is happy with the outcome. He could perhaps even be described as a perfectionist pedant, but that may be one of the reasons why Has succeeds.

He says he was ‘very picky’ about Café East’s vibe; from the light pink wooden shopfront, handwritten signs by Roman Road’s Luminor Sign Co., to the fact that the tables are 50cm by 55cm to give the area a cosy feel without getting too crowded. 

The same thought process went into Juice Trap and, again, the same for Chipping Wharf. But Chipping Wharf, he shares, ‘has been more special than anything else that I’ve done because it’s a solo project.’ The triumph in his triumvirate.

He conceived Chipping Wharf over lockdown and worked relentlessly day and night to understand the market of London’s quintessential fast food. Given the shop’s heartland of fish and chip location, mere metres from the country’s first ever fish and chip shop, Malin’s, Has wanted the décor to hark back to a bygone Victorian era. As for the food, the menu had to be simple but effective. Fish from Billingsgate Market, potatoes from Essex, and a Tartar sauce that went through 24 different iterations.

But while his creativity for design and food has caught the East End’s eyes, ears, and tastebuds, it is his relationship with the community that is fundamental to his success. People like interacting with him, his chat is fluent and natural. But he doesn’t take their love and loyalty for granted, and speaks of his luck in having a relationship with people in the area. Such links are especially necessary for a project like Chipping Wharf which, he concedes, is in a ‘standalone location’. He needs the support of his hard-won but loyal fans, and, they are more than happy to offer it.

As you can image, relaxation isn’t in Has’ vocabulary. ‘Relax? Yeh, I don’t. What is that thing?’ he jests.

Can he relax a little now that the fledging Chipping Wharf is starting to find its feet, or is that ‘find its fins’? Not so, says Has, ‘there’s still grafting to do.’

But it isn’t all work and no play. He does catch snippets of relaxation, whether that’s heading to KO Boxing in Globe Town, or hanging out with friends. But obviously they don’t hang around estates anymore so where do they go? Has laughs, ‘This is going to sound strange but we like to eat from a lot of dark kitchens. There’s a Smokestak dark kitchen near Bow Church. So, there’s little joints like that that we like to go to chill out, have a drink, you know.’

And, as any true East Ender will know, he cannot resist a pie and mash. From where? ‘Everybody likes to have a cheeky pie and mash from G Kelly’s.’

While he currently lives in Romford with his wife and three-year-old daughter (noting he was priced out of the area), he says that he would like to move back to the East End. But for now, any extra cash he earns he plugs back into his business, saving some for a gift or two for his family, such as the recent pink scooter he bought for his daughter. And, after some light probing, he cedes that he does like to treat himself nipping to Zee & Co for its latest designer trends.

Befitting his grafter status, Has always keeps one eye on the future. He’s thinking about entering the consultancy route and advising similar independent businesses on how to get off the ground. But his heart is at home, and as Has says, his venture at Chipping Wharf proved to him that ‘this is definitely where I have to stay’. 

Weeks into opening Chipping Wharf, he speaks about setting up more eateries along Roman Road. ‘There are a few more concepts that could be introduced to the area such as evening eateries, like a modern British steak house.’ He is also relocating Juice Trap to his roots in Stroudley Walk in Bromley-by-Bow. 

‘There’s a lot more work to do around here, to give more to the area, and to help develop the area. It’s the route that I want to be going down, to be recognised and to be respected and to give back to my community as well.’

From over here, he is hitting his objectives: he is helping the area, with the sensitivities of someone from the area; he is recognised and respected; and, he is giving back.

Like the countless immigrants who came and set up shop here, from Huguenots and their silk-weaving workshops, the Jews and their fish and chips and bakery houses, and the Bengalis bringing their tailoring business, Has embodies the 21st century version. 

So, will he be taking over Roman Road? Maybe. Maybe not. But if anyone does, it will be Has.

Mustafa Has with his team at the new fish and chip shop on Old Ford Road, Chipping Wharf.
Photography © Simon Wheatley

If you enjoyed this article, then read our interview with the creators behind Grime docu-series ‘Aint Hidin Nuttin’.


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