Joan Rhodes talks about how it all began.

“After we purchased the building, one of the first things that came to mind for the community had to be food. So, we sold teas, coffees, crisps and cakes. Then we thought well, maybe we should branch out and do something more substantial, like jacket potatoes and soup. As the Centre developed we built up our own clientele. One of the earliest things that brought people in, was the Equal Access Library. They’d stop off and get their library books and then come in and have something to eat, and as other groups built up, so more people were using the café.”

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Can you describe a typical day?

“We all arrive at 8.30am. The first priority is to make sure that everything is clean and tidy, and then we start doing vegetables and salads. So there’s always a big salad tray with fresh produce. Oh, yes, and before that someone will have done the shopping either the night before or early in the morning.

Our menus are based on what is on offer and we look for the best possible value. If we see some organic veg we think looks good we’ll have that, but if there is other fresh produce that looks good, we’ll take that instead. We try to buy goods that have not travelled too far, and choose local produce when ever we can.

We usually prepare two vegetarian and two meat dishes. There’s always a soup, which is one of the first things to get made. Then the meat dishes are prepared; beef and red wine or chicken casserole, or maybe cottage pie. We look for quality meat and have an organic box delivered on a Friday. Vegetables play a big part, cabbage for some reason is amazingly popular, and we aim to have as many vegetables as possible so that people have their 5-a-day quota. Our puddings are very important as well. Twelve o’clock is the deadline and we often have a queue. The meals finish at 2.15, so we can wash up, then we have people coming for tea and cake in the afternoon, so we finish at about 4.15pm.”

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And everybody can see you cooking!

“Yes, I think that’s really important. I think that is why our café is quite attractive to people, they can come and sit there and see the ingredients we are using, and it’s like a big home kitchen. The smell floats down the corridor! Perhaps that’s why we’ve never had to advertise. Instead it has slowly built up through word of mouth and people saying, it’s nice in there. In fact, I think it’s the homely fare and a nostalgia for what we used to eat. I’ve heard them say as they’re coming through the door, ‘this is going to be a real dinner.’ They know we’re not going to the freezer to get out frozen carrots. We might have the odd frozen peas, but generally, everything is cooked from scratch.”

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Can you tell me a bit more about your philosophy?

“We feel very strongly that a café should provide not just good food, but also care and friendship. We have a mixture of people in here from 0 to 90 and try to be tolerant and caring; one of the most important thing is the personalities of the people behind the counter. They enjoy their food and the company of all the customers who come into the café. It’s also about giving back to the community. If you’re looking for something that fulfils the community’s needs, well, the room, the warmth, the food, it all comes together to make a satisfying ambience.

We put a lot into the food because we want to please people. We cater for older people who don’t always cook a proper meal for themselves, and young mums who are just thankful to sit down and have their children play in the play corner. So a lot of it is not just about the food, it’s the ethos of the place. We had lots of ideas about the décor, some people wanted stainless steel, but we wanted a homely atmosphere; we get a lot of feedback on that. So it’s the food, the comfort, the fact you can sit there and relax and talk to people.

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People don’t sit on their own for long, because quite often when it’s busy people will say, ‘Can I sit next to you, is it that OK?’, and then before you know it, there’s a younger person talking to an older person – it’s inclusive. You’ve got the grandmas and the young women with their babies. For me, it’s a dream come true, if I was thinking of an ideal community place, I would never have thought we could do it in Newhaven, but we did.

Everybody wants to have a cup of tea, and you want somewhere to meet where it’s warm. All we do is share this warmth, and the food. The café is the hub of the place. Without the café I think the Hillcrest would be quite different and I think it’s a real plus for the community. Perhaps it is accidental, but that’s what the formula is – the café has become a place where we aim to make people happy, and where people are happy to be.”