The Sharp End - Squeezed into the Tube

It was a tight fit for Dave Waller when he spent a day in an Underground coffee kiosk.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It's a bleary-eyed Sharp End this month - I'm off to not-so-leafy Stockwell in deepest sarf London for a 5.30am start, working in the Tube station's coffee kiosk.

I struggle to limbo myself in under the shop's three-quarters-shut metal security blind. 'You could just open that if you like,' says Tinto's owner, Oliver Bauer, when I straighten up creakily in his den. But scrambling seems right: this joint is tiny, squeezed into the wall next to the ticket barriers. I soon discover that Oliver - a native of St Louis, Missouri, who's as diminutive as his premises - has a habit of describing it as a 'cafe'. Hmm. I can see he makes great coffee and sandwiches, but it's only about 10 foot square - there's barely room to wave your Oyster card, let alone plonk down a chair and table.

'I've often wondered what I could do with a normal-sized cafe,' Oliver muses. If this was a Disney film that'd be the cue for the big musical number, the space filled with a chorus line of dancing paninis. Instead, he invites me to enjoy the 'ballet of watching me put things away'. Then we have to get the croissants in the oven 'to get the smells going', crank up the coffee machine and make the cabinets look well stocked, fresh and enticing. 'It's in the details,' he says. 'I don't want it to look like a Russian deli.'

By 7am a steady stream of regulars is siphoning off from the main commuter flow for their daily fix. Talk about a melting pot. I meet an incident manager for London Underground, an oil broker, a history teacher, a physio and a bloke moaning about his work in the Job Centre. Oliver knows everyone and has their orders down pat. 'Tea can really kick start your sex life in the morning,' a grey-bearded black man informs me. Is anyone not friendly? Bus drivers, according to Oliver, 'because they have to put up with so much bullshit all day'.

I spend the rush scooping salt-fish patties into paper bags and zapping them in the microwave. This seems a nice sociable job, but Oliver insists it's not easy. For one, he has to be happy all the time. And you have to be ready to muck in. 'Lots of people buy the dream, but wind up employing four people to do the work and wonder why they've got no profits.'

Let's hope I don't screw his up. Oliver has me manning the cash register while he handles the hot drinks. I realize that at the age of 33 this is my first job handling money. With the haziness of that early start, a head full of caffeine and no breakfast, I suspect my maths isn't 105%.

Thankfully, my colleague is far more retail than me. He was adopted by a family of florists at the age of 10 and after the US military brought him to Europe he followed a career in IT sales - until the death of his first wife aged just 25 sent him on a different path. His first kiosk was a franchise at Barnes station, a small metal shed he bought for £20,000. 'People aren't poor there,' he says, citing Simon Le Bon among his regulars, but the business still proved fragile: it tanked overnight when they switched the London-bound train to a platform where he couldn't put a kiosk.

Oliver came to Stockwell in 2005 - just after the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by armed police, who mistakenly thought the Brazilian electrician was a 7/7 terrorist. His predecessor in the kiosk actually saw de Menezes running through the station that fateful day. The tragedies don't end there: only two days ago he had to call the emergency services when a woman using the crossing outside was practically cut in half by a truck.

Once the rush hour's over, things drop right off and we spend the rest of the morning watching an entire stand-up show online. Yet the 'cafe' remains profitable, bringing in £300 to £400 on a summer's day, £500 to £600 in the winter. And Oliver only needs to pay one member of staff, a Portuguese girl who earns £6 an hour.

By lunchtime I figure I've seen it all, and I'm about to hang up my tongs when a determined-looking guy in an Adidas tracksuit rocks up and delivers a 15-minute exposition of a global financial conspiracy theory involving the gold standard, US sovereign debt, Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan. When the whirlwind leaves, I ask Oliver what he does for a living. 'He helps people lose weight,' he says. You don't get that in Starbucks ...

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