Lewes Station cafe - collective cheer as business stays

I let out an unrestrained “YES!” when I read the article “The Runaway Cafe to stay at Lewes Railway Station”, on Sunday.

I have been a regular customer of The Runaway Cafe for a comparatively short three years but in that period, this is not the first time that commuters have lodged their emphatic wish to keep this unique cafe in the hands of its present owners.

For those of us who wished for the cafe to remain as it is, there is good news in The Flying Coffee Bean’s withdrawal and in Southern’s allocation of a three year lease to Runaway.

For this, I, and at least 5,000 fellow customers are relieved and delighted, not just for ourselves, but for Jacqueline Elsey and her wonderful team and the service they provide.

I suspect, however, that we are all celebrating on a more personal level. The commuters of Lewes have mobilised their voices not, I believe, simply because of a possible change in coffee brand/furnishings/food. At the heart of this passionate protest is a story about people and loyalty.

Southern’s managing director Chris Burchell said at the time “...we remain determined to ensure that the best possible solution for the station is found”.

While I can understand that as a business, Southern would find new investment attractive, for many of its passengers at Lewes, we already feel we have “the best possible solution”.

Similarly, Barny Clevely, MD of The Flying Coffee Bean stated: “There has been a consistent and sustained misrepresentation of who we are as an entity and what our intentions are with The Runaway. It would have been in very safe hands under our stewardship with our published intention of retaining all that is great about it.”

It is in the use of the word “stewardship” that the point becomes clear. With Jacqueline and her team, you feel like you are stopping in at friends. The service feels offered, rather than managed or “stewarded”. It is not the fault of chains that they cannot provide that feeling – despite their best efforts at training and customer service, the felt experience we have as customers is never the same as the one we get with independent businesses. I don’t imagine there can be many privately run cafes or restaurants whose owners would describe their role as “stewardship” – a term usually reserved for the management of places or events.

In my work as a therapist, I see increasing numbers of clients reporting work-related stress as a result of the depersonalisation and commodification of staff and services. People with high levels of skills and experience are feeling increasingly burnt out and depressed by companies that treat them as “functions” or “services” and forget that we are all, as a starting point, people and therefore, individual, sentient beings.

The practical logic of commerce might say one thing, but customers are people and as such we build relationships with people that, when they work, are precious. And so, Lewes commuters will always fight to keep their relationship with the Runaway Cafe because we like the individual, homely atmosphere and welcome we receive, from people we have known for years – like good friends.

Marie Larkin