Peter Hulatt is smiling. After all, Camden Garden Centre is a local success story, a community business that has blossomed and flourished under his 20-year guidance. I’ve been a regular customer since the late 1990s but, as the store’s managing director tells me, its tale goes back even further than that.
“It started in 1983 in a shop in Kentish Town between Farrier Street and Jeffrey Street,” Peter explains over a coffee at the new on-site café Pritchard & Ure (of which more later). “The council said it was earmarked for housing association in future but available for a time, so they borrowed a greenhouse and got a manager. When they finally needed the land back to develop, they moved here to a much bigger site – although it is a little bit out of the way.”
The store has flourished on Barker Drive, off Pancras Way, where Peter joined as manager in 1993. Located in a large Victorian railway building with a glorious high wooden beam-supported roof, you can still see remnants of arches on the far wall where steam trains entered the building, formerly the London distribution centre for Royal Doulton in the late 1800s, and later a loco repair shed. “We also discovered a large concrete turntable when we did bore holes testing the strength of the floor before the gallery was constructed,” says Peter.
Over 30 years the garden centre has helped 300 people get to work, “everyone from long-term unemployed to those with a lack of confidence, education, substance abuse, offending, alcohol, and mental health problems,” he says. “We’ve taken on trainees that come to us for a couple of years then leave more employable.”
And ever forward-looking, earlier this year the team launched a quality – OK “artisan” – cafe in the mezzanine area overlooking the main indoor store. “We built the raised area ten years ago to be part of the training room as well as using it for garden furniture and things like Xmas products. But it was never used for full advantage – until now.”The café, named Pritchard and Ure, is part of the general social enterprise of the business. Its aim? To serve excellent quality and highly ethical food and drink while generating additional income to carry on the good work being done by the garden centre. So London small-batch producers and suppliers are at the fore, and young chefs are being trained to prepare the food by manager Andrea Massaro, who had until recently ran a cafe in Cambridge, and has created the not-dumbed-down-at-all menu.
“The cafe uses the space more effectively and is another avenue for training,” says Peter.
Its lunch menu is a tempting offer of sourdough toasties or open sarnies with lots of chorizo and cured meats, plus “retro” sandwiches – ie. the “best ever” cheese and pickle, or ham and tomato. There are vegetarian rolls with salad, or you can share an antipasti board. A dinner service is looking likely too.
Co-editor Tom and I plumped for an “open sandwich” board (pictured above) of London cured ham, sun-dried tomato, artichoke and rocket – smoky, salty, juicy and packed with garlic. Sourdough was lightly toasted and the bruschetta spilled over with its topping.
A toastie, meanwhile, was rammed with feta, organic spinach and organic tomato: more than decent, if not quite as exhilarating. We tucked into a salad of heritage tomatoes from Chegworth Valley too: tasty, vibrant and seasoned correctly. Prices are fair (around £6-£7.50).
We couldn’t pass up the chance to try a slice of chocolate avocado cake, having only ever seen people bake dodgy-looking ones on Masterchef. Smooth, dark and velvety, it was perfect with a single origin double espresso from hip Clerkenwell roasters Workshop. Best of all, you can walk it all off afterwards with a gentle stroll round the perennials.
“It’s still early stages,” says Peter, ever-cautious, “but the cafe allows us to train people in hospitality and catering as well as the other skills they can learn here.”