Food, coffee and advocacy create a joyful blend for this welcoming and passionate Bow Road cafe
At the start of 2020, the space on Bow Road that root/25 now occupies was a funeral director. Impressively, in just one year, the team behind human rights organisation Restless Beings has transformed the space into a bustling, welcoming café.
The Restless Beings co-founders, despite only being in their 30s, have achieved an impressive amount, first with their advocacy organisation and now with the launch of root/25. One of the café’s founders, Mabrur Ahmed, explains how they created the whole of root/25’s interior from scratch: ‘We completely renovated the space. Everything you see, from the wall panelling to the majority of the furniture, was built or upcycled by us.’
The ‘us’ is just three people; Ahmed, his partner Rahima Begum, who is the other co-founder of both Restless Beings and root/25, and Rahima’s brother, Saleh Ahmed.
By Ahmed’s own admissions, they collectively had limited professional DIY experience and it took a lot of trial and error (and a smattering of YouTube tutorials) to renovate the space into the café they envisioned. The result is very impressive – the space is modern and airy, while also feeling intimate and cosy.
Ahmed and Begum live locally in Poplar and realised that, unlike many areas in East London, Bow Road didn’t have a café like the one they envisaged. As Ahmed talks through the different components of the café – the food, the drink, the events and the ethos – it’s clear they’ve considered how they can use each part of root/25 to help bring people together and form connections.
For example, the team tasted around 90 different coffees before settling on one that they felt was right. The coffee they were searching for (and eventually found) needed to be bold, have a kick, whilst also being sustainable (their coffee is net zero). Ahmed explains: ‘We want people to enjoy the coffee and the food so they spend more time here and feel welcome. For us it isn’t about getting people to spend more money – it’s about them feeling comfortable here.’
You certainly feel at ease here, and it’s a great environment for studying and working. There’s a plug socket near every table and inventively, the café has dubbed different areas of the space as ‘zones’, each with its own playful name.
There’s the ‘friend zone’, which is a cosy corner with a sofa reminiscent of the iconic Central Perk set-up. There’s a ‘romance zone’, with a table nestled under a fairy-light adorned tree. There’s also a ‘professor zone’ and a ‘boss zone’, set up to facilitate learning and working. Ahmed explains that music (both live and from a laptop) sounds different in every zone.
When you visit, you would be remiss not to order a Masala Chai. Slightly spiced, perfectly creamy and wonderful to look at – one of the best hot drinks we’ve had in a long time. It’s a struggle to pick from the menu, but Ahmed highlights the Kimchi Melt as a bestseller – homemade kimchi and two types of cheese are combined between slices of their house sourdough.
The Jackfruit Chipotle Roll is another standout, where slightly spiced jackfruit is encased in a delicious pastry – it’s very hard to order just one. As with everything else about the café, a lot of thought has gone into the menu. Everything on the menu can be eaten with your hands and Ahmed describes how they chose food that would satisfy as many different palettes and dietary requirements as possible.
As well as providing the community with a relaxing and welcoming space, the café has another purpose. It was set up to support Restless Beings’ advocacy and human rights work, by helping them to maintain their financial independence.
They run several projects across the globe, including one that improves the lives of street children in Bangladesh and another that advocates for women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. Since they launched in 2008, all their funding has come from public donations and root/25 was created to help safeguard the future of the organisation.
The last 18 months have completely shifted how most people socialise and make connections. What happens when the environments that many Londoners rely on for connections i.e. offices and universities, aren’t there anymore?
In a city that, even pre-pandemic, had a reputation for fostering loneliness, hospitality venues that encourage you to come and meet new people feel like an obvious, but for the most part, uncommon solution to this problem.
The attendance at the café’s events, where film screenings are packed out and a recent analogue games night didn’t have a table to spare, shows just how much people value having a space in which they can feel at home.
Root/25 wants to make an impact, not just globally, but also locally within their community. From seeing how positively people react to the café both in-person (the staff are genuinely happy to take their time recommending favourite menu choices) and online (their social feeds are filled with glowing reviews), it seems they achieved this goal in just a few short months.
If this is what they’ve achieved in three months, it’s exciting to imagine the impact the café will have on the community in the years to come.
If you enjoyed this, then read our article on Swadhinata Trust and its work in promoting Bengali culture and history.
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