Operator profile - Cafe: The Bus Café

Operator profile - Cafe: The Bus Café

Margate, appropriately enough for a town synonymous with its seaside amusement park, has a history that could be described as being ‘a bit up and down’. A resort destination for at least 250 years, its fortunes have been somewhat washed out in more recent times. Immortalised in the 80s through the popular song by Chas n Dave, it also featured in the episode of Only Fools and Horses when Del and his drinking buddies embarked on a lads’ weekend to the town.

The aforementioned Dreamland Amusement Park closed in 2006, a symbol of the decline in Margate’s status – though it has become more fashionable recently. After a lengthy campaign, Dreamland finally reopened in 2015 and started hosting gigs by popular acts such as Gorillaz and Foals. Continuing the musical theme, the band The Libertines also bought a hotel in the area (Pete Docherty even gave the local out of home industry a shot in the arm when he was photographed eating a huge ‘challenge’ breakfast in a local café – which he somehow completed, getting the dish for free in the process).

The trickledown effect was that disaffected Londoners, put off by sky-high prices in the capital, started buying up property in the area – making it a perhaps unlikely hipster hangout and earning the town the tag of ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’. This gentrification now manifests itself in the form of rooftop bars and exciting eateries – and the most obvious of the latter sits right on the seafront.

The Bus Café has been ushering Margate into the fast lane culinary-wise since it parked up on the beachfront back in 2016. Simon Lindley, who made a familiar route to the town via London, reveals that, despite its great subsequent success, the original ‘business plan’ was about as back of a beermat as its possible to get. “My wife Jodie and I moved out of London to Margate to find somewhere exciting to settle. A new place brought new friends and we met Lois and Xander, a South African couple who lived just round the corner. We spent many hours in our local pub together, and after probably one too many beers we had become business partners with the idea of starting a new food project.”

Just two weeks later, Rosie, their 1980 Bristol VR, was ushered out of retirement to house their new ‘street food café’. Unbelievably, for a business that was turned around so fast, Simon actually has no formal training. “I was an interior designer, always specialising in the retail and food and beverage areas,” he says. “I’ve always been passionate about food and cooking. I don’t have any real formal chef training. However, the passion to create the best with the ingredients I have means I push to make everything look and taste as good as possible.”

Having sampled Simon’s dishes – both his National Breakfast Award-winning bagel (more of which later) and the wonderfully innovative eats that are served up on the top deck of the bus – I can confirm that he definitely achieves both of these aims. And his customers certainly seem to agree, as the outlet enjoys an impressive 5/5 rating on Facebook and 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor.

Despite all this success, in the early days, as with many businesses of this type, necessity was very much the mother of invention. “The idea came about after seeing a friend’s campervan kitted out with a kitchen,” says Simon. “We actually couldn’t afford to take on and rent a traditional shop space or food unit, so we thought having a unit that was ours and that could actually move could be a good idea.”

They then found Michael Daly of Used Coach Sales, and just a few days later Rosie was driven down from Warrington. “It was something of a a marathon trip,” Simon laughs, “as she only does a maximum speed of 40mph.”

With self-reliance and upcycling being high on the agenda, they took the bus apart and put it back together reusing a lot of the original components, creating a cute retro restaurant upstairs and a galley kitchen downstairs. “It’s forever evolving and getting better,” says Simon. “We started out with a street food stall set up barbequeing chicken and halloumi out the front while we were still working on the interior, as we were so excited about cooking food for everyone.”

Even though the original idea was to take Rosie on tour, the practicalities of breaking down a double decker bus kitchen means that, while she does still run, it is more likely that she will be staying put. “The site was a rundown and derelict spot, but we located the landlord and set up a proposal to turn that unused eyesore into a street food desitination,” says Simon. “We spent months clearing, cleaning and building the site up to attract other new start-up street food vendors to join us. We now have four other food vendors on site together with a licensed bar, and they have all been intergral to the success of what we call ‘The Sun Deck’ so far.”
The Bus Café does plenty to distinguish itself from this healthy competition, not just because of the impressive novelty nature of its setting, but also the sheer quality of the food – particularly the popular hashed mounds, which consist of a potato rosti topped with a variety of local and seasonal ingredients. “Our emphasis is on good quality, healthy and creative cooking and we use fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. We believe that everyone should be able to enjoy high class food and we make our menus accessible to all dietary requirements with options for everyone.”

This emphasis on quality really shone through at the National Breakfast Award, where the contestants had a strict time limit of 10 minutes to knock up two bagels from limited ingredients. “This meant we had to bring together the best ingredients with some creative flair to create more than just a bagel sandwich’,” says Simon. “Lining the bagel with the best Iberico ham and baking the egg wrapped in the ham, along with the cherry tomatoes and our home-made salsa verde, brought together a dish that looked impressive and, more importantly, had the perfect flavour balances required for a real dish worthy of our kitchen.”

These high standards mean that the business is already viable for 12 months, and not just during the summer months. “As a group of people with limited backgrounds in food, we have built something that is constantly full all-year-round. Not bad for a town that is renowned for being very seasonal for businesses.”

Looking to the future, Simon feels confident that The Bus Café can continue to be a driving force behind the success story that is Margate’s rejuvination. “We’re going into our third summer season, which is promising to be busier than ever, and we’re about to begin a franchise residency in the kitchen of Cliffs, a legendary local coffee shop,” he says. “So hopefully we’ll carry on this upward trend. Who knows, we may have Bus Cafés all over the place one day.”