Lockdown has been a difficult year for all businesses, particularly independently run hospitality, but Liverpool coffee shop owner Anthony Grice has turned it into a triumph.
A coffee shop owned by a coffee-shop-skeptic – “I used to call them ‘anti-social hubs’”, he says – sounds like a terrible idea, but a coffee shop owned by someone who genuinely loves seeing other people happy and interacting is much more fitting.
What did he dislike about coffee shops? “You’d just notice people would meet for a coffee and there’d just be three of them on a table, and they’d all have their laptops out, or their phones out, and they’d be on the internet and they weren’t interacting at all, and I thought ‘what’s the fun in this?’.”
This is why Anthony’s shop is centred around the Fika concept.
‘Fika’ literally translates from Swedish as ‘coffee’, but in practice it’s much more than that. Having a fika with someone means really talking to them, it’s something for which you have to make time. You wouldn’t say you were grabbing a fika to have at your desk. Anthony first discovered the concept on a trip to Sweden to look into investing in a restaurant with some friends there, and his previously planned South American themed coffee shop went out the window.
Before Fika opened in 2018, Anthony was already running several other businesses, and he used to be the manager of Caesar’s Palace in central Liverpool, which was the biggest restaurant outside London. In December, it was through Fika that he called on the local community to donate Christmas presents to children who wouldn’t be receiving any in 2020.
“This is something that I’ve done for many businesses for the past 10 years, I’ve always done like a mission Christmas campaign where I’ve asked customers to just buy one extra present, unwrapped, unopened, and get it to me and I’ll make sure that it goes to someone who’s not got a present to open at Christmas.”
The generosity from the community has been overwhelming. “We’ve had a PlayStation 4 donated, we’ve had an Xbox donated, and we’ve had over £250 in cash donated.” The only rule was that the present had to be new. “There’s nothing worse than a child getting a present that’s been used on Christmas day.”
The gifts went to a women and children’s refuge, partly run by the Whitechapel Centre, and Anthony delivered them himself with his children. “It’s an education thing for them [his son and daughter], you don’t realise how blessed you are to have a roof over your head, and food on the table, because there’s a lot of children that haven’t got that.”
The cash, donated by patrons of the shop who didn’t have time to buy a present, went towards gifts for the older children at the refuge, as most of the gifts donated were aimed at younger ones, between ages five and 10. The refuge houses children of all ages, from new-born babies to 18 year olds.
The Christmas presents aren’t the only charity work Anthony had planned last year. When buying a coffee at Fika, customers have the option to ‘suspend’ a drink: they can pay for two, drink one, and the other (in the form of a post-it note), goes on a board by the entrance. Anyone unable to pay for a drink for any reason can take a post-it to the cashier in exchange for a hot drink. Not only does this help people who are struggling, but it helped the café get on its feet in its early stages, and customers can feel like they’ve done a good deed for the day.
“There’s probably about 200 or 300 coffees on that board.”
The scheme finished in December, and Anthony took the post-its to town to give away free drinks to the homeless community there.
At the start of lockdown, he found a way to keep himself occupied when Fika had to be closed in March. He was responsible for donating care packages to the vulnerable residents in the area. He has continued this scheme since the UK re-entered lockdown at the start of the year.
“I just saw an image going round on social media, and it was an old man who had like two tins of beans in his trolley, and there was people walking past with like toilet rolls stacked up and all sorts stacked up, and they were young people, and it really hit home”.
The panic buying clearly still bothers Anthony to this day. Much like with the call for gifts, when he knew people were struggling he asks people to donate any extra food they had, and then set about delivering the packages to people who needed them.
“Elderly people had to isolate before everyone else did… I’d just lost me nan, and she had a lot of people who she could depend on to get her stuff, same with my granddad, and I knew there must be people who were struggling.”
By the summer, vulnerable people who had fallen victim to panic buying could rely on the government to send out food parcels, and Anthony started sending packages to people struggling financially due to COVID. “There was probably more people who had lost their jobs than elderly people that I delivered to” – of the 900 packages that he was able to send out. “It was a real eye-opener”.
Only when the café was able to fully reopen, and people could come in and sit down, did he stop sending out packages. “It was like a full-time job, and eventually I had to say, I can’t do it anymore, I’m so sorry, I’ve gotta focus on getting my business back up and running.”
It’s hard to imagine how he could be sorry for anything, but there are always people we cannot help, a burden he shoulders every day. He mentions people who wanted Christmas presents delivered that he couldn’t get to, and someone from the Wirral who needed a care package but was just too far away. “At the end of the day I poach eggs and I bake cakes and there’s only so much I can do. But I will try and help people out.”
That’s just the type of person he is. The board outside the shop started as a way to make strangers smile. “People just kept walking past the shop and they all looked miserable.” So he took it upon himself to make random strangers smile. It began with a fake offer, ‘buy one cup of coffee for the price of two, and get the second one absolutely free’. Today, Fika has won an award for its social media presence, as its Facebook page always features a ‘board of the day’, usually with a quote or a joke on it.
“No one’s getting left behind, I’ll make sure of it.”