Brighton coffee van business was the perfect blend during lockdown

One year since the start of the first lockdown, a Brighton barista shares his rollercoaster experience after he launched his own coffee van business.

The Whistle Coffee van outside Brighton General Hospital
The Whistle Coffee van outside Brighton General Hospital

James King, 28, started his coffee van business, Whistle Coffee, with the help of his dad and brother at the end of 2019 and had been establishing himself in a spot outside London Road Railway Station, opposite the Open House pub.

Ready to take the plunge to grow his business further, in March 2020 he quit his job at a Brighton coffee shop. The timing wasn't ideal as the first lockdown started on March 23 with shops closing and people told to stay at home.

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James said: "It turned into a ghost town overnight. It was a sucker-punch."

A thumbs up from James King at his Whistle Coffee van

Left wondering where to take his business next, James was inspired like so many others to do his bit to help the NHS. With his sister-in-law working as a community nurse at Lewes Victoria Hospital, James decided to embark on a tour of some of the smaller community hospitals and units in the area, working with the Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust.

James wanted to offer free coffee to NHS staff who he said were often in secluded locations and had seen on-site indoor cafés forced to close as part of the lockdown rules.

His plight became known as #whistleforthenhs and after setting up a Gofundme page and promoting his idea, James said it 'snowballed' and the response was 'really moving' with companies and home-bakers donating items.

James took his van to Uckfield Hospital, Crowborough War Memorial Hospital, Newhaven Rehabilitation Centre, Lewes Victoria Hospital and Brighton General Hospital and the response from the grateful staff made it all the more worthwhile.

James King said he wouldn't change anything about his first year in business despite the challenges of lockdown

James said: "Everyone has shown great support and were grateful for me being there. One of them summed it up by saying we were providing essential fuel for essential workers."

James said the directors at Brighton General, in particular, loved what he was doing and offered him a permanent base at the hospital.

James is now there Monday to Friday and his earlier support and generosity is now paying off with a steady stream of paying customers, including staff, patients and members of the public.

Reflecting on his year, James said: "It has been a rollercoaster but surprisingly good. They say the first year in business is always the hardest but I wouldn't change anything."