With the arrival of Sweet Talkers, Roman Road is now home to three dessert parlours. We explore why dessert is our community’s main course.
Looking out over Globe Town Square, Big Beans is a busy café with the words ‘FRESHLY MADE DOUGHNUTS’ stuck in vinyl across the window. At the counter, a rich selection of cakes are visible through the glass. It’s mid-morning and the café is busy both outside and in. People sit around sipping cups of tea, enjoying salt beef beigels fresh from Brick Lane. Stacey Isitt, the café’s co-founder, is a warm presence who knows her customers by name.
It’s the day of the match and Isitt sports an England shirt, the St. George’s cross marked in red across both her cheeks, fingernails painted with neat English flags. Big Beans might feel like a classic caff now, but when the school day ends, floods of kids from Morpeth School pass by seeking sweet treats. ‘Milkshakes are famous in here with the kids ’cause they get the doughnut on top,’ says Isitt.
In the UK, the sweeter side of business is booming. A report by PricewaterhouseCooper found that in the UK, ice cream parlours are one of the only growing sectors, bucking the trend on an otherwise shrinking high street. The latest evidence lies in the recent opening of Sweet Talkers, where the Percy Ingle bakery once stood.
The opening of this shop may be unremarkable in itself, except that you’ll find Dzrt, another dessert shop, fewer than 50 yards down the road. And that isn’t all: there are plenty of other sweet spots too, from Sweet Treats to (the temporarily-closed) Eden Sweet Retreats in Globe Town. Along a one mile stretch, we have not one but four dessert parlours to choose from. Home to sweet shops, ice cream parlours and a doughnut van, it’s clear Roman Road has a sweet tooth.
Has the pandemic increased our appetite for comfort food? ‘One hundred per cent,’ says Khuram Farooq, owner of Dzrt. ‘When you’re happy you go and get a cake, and in bad times, to make yourself feel better you go and get a dessert too.’
Dzrt is glossy and sleek, with grey walls and polished wooden counters, black lamps hanging low from the ceiling. Farooq is friendly and warm, kitted out in Dzrt merch. Open since 2019, Farooq’s shop is celebrating two years on the Roman this July.
How does he feel now that Sweet Talkers, with their balloons and fanfare, has opened just down the road? ‘I take it as a compliment,’ says Farooq with a smile. ‘To be quite honest with you, we’ve got a totally different model.’
It’s certainly true that they’re carving out different niches. Sweet Talkers is a pastel pink-and-blue bonanza with leatherette booths and lots of tables. Dzrt is a smaller space, concentrating on deliveries and takeaways. Farooq is sanguine about the future, taking the long view. ‘Where’s all the technology moving?’ he says. ‘It’s all moving to your phone. The biggest companies in the world are all tech-based. That’s more our thing,’ he says.
Sheik Islam, owner of Sweet Talkers, agrees. ‘We’re totally different,’ he says. ‘I have forty-two seats, I do parties’. Sweet Talkers feels more like an American diner, with a vast humming ice-cream freezer, candy-striped walls and booths perfect for discreet dates.
Islam’s customers are ‘younger people and family groups,’ who visit for the experience of going out. After the lockdown, says Islam, people appreciate getting out of the house. They ‘come here and enjoy sitting in, dining’. The most popular options at Sweet Talkers are crêpes, waffles and ice cream. Mocktails – ‘like a cocktail, but alcohol-free’ says Islam – are also very popular with the customer base.
Islam’s dessert parlour is ‘zero alcohol’, making it a popular space for those who avoid drinking for religious or health reasons. Both Sweet Talkers and Dzrt are open till late, the former closing around midnight, the latter around 2am.
Farooq, who also serves mocktails, sees dessert bars as ‘the alternative to drinking, pubbing and clubbing. After you’ve had your dinner, what are you going to do for a bit of fun?’ This gives the shops community-wide appeal. ‘It’s a good alternative to have, especially if you’ve got kids or you’re moving away from alcohol,’ he says.
But dessert as the main event has long been part of East End culture, before Bangladeshi and Muslim communities sought alcohol-free fun in the form of ice-cream sundae extravaganzas. For over fifty years, the baking empire Percy Ingle provided East Enders with their sugar fix in the form of bread and butter pudding, doughnuts and cakes. The Percy Ingle bakeries have since closed, leaving a sugar-shaped hole in the local high street.
With their sugared doughnuts, milkshakes and ice cream, Big Beans is reminiscent of the quintessential seaside caff. Their school cakes – fluffy squares of vanilla sponge topped with white icing – are hugely popular. ‘It’s got people feeling nostalgic, right? ’ says Dzrt’s Farooq. Shokofeh Hejazi, senior editor at The Food People, says that ‘consumers can’t seem to get enough of all things retro at the moment.’ As Hejazi explains, ‘there’s comfort in familiarity, especially in uncertain times.’
Despite the current popularity of dessert bars, Isitt is aware the area’s tastes are changing. ‘It’s an up and coming area round here, remember?’ she says. ‘We’ve got a lot of different class people ’round here who don’t want their kid to eat a chocolate waffle. I’d rather give my kids a plate of fruit and avocado.’
When searching for a microcosm of the Covid age, the humble dessert parlour may not be the first thing that springs to mind. Look a little closer, however, and it’s clear these businesses are grappling with some of the defining issues of our age, from gentrification to nostalgia to technological change. They are also businesses singularly suited to the East End, a nodal point that appeals just as much to traditional English pudding-lovers as to those seeking an alcohol-free social space.
It feels fitting, then, that Sweet Talkers has taken Percy Ingle’s place. The arrival of this new dessert parlour is not the end of an era, but rather the continuation of a long East End tradition in which we can all take part.
If you enjoyed reading about the rise of the dessert parlour on Roman Road, you should check out our article on Whole Fresh.
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