Caff Masters: Mr Burkeman

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mr burkeman
Mr Burkeman at Copper Grill


Mr Burkeman has run the Copper Grill for over 30 years. A fine combination of old fashioned service and understated, unchanged decor makes the Copper Grill one of London's most enduring classic cafes. Visitors will note Mr Burkeman's startling resemblance to a matured Ralph Fiennes and the remarkable 'caff-life' murals hidden in the downstairs section.

"I started in the catering business in 1959 with a sandwich bar outside Chancery Lane tube. I was 23. I had three places and as the leases came to an end I went out of business for four years. Then I got this place in Eldon St behind what's now the Broadgate Centre.

At that time cafes were the big thing. By 1950-51 people had come back from the war and the government had decided office workers should have a hot meal every day. They introduced luncheon vouchers and so all these meat-and-two-veg places started up.

The Copper Grill served a full menu. We had proper chefs. A lot of ex army, air force, navy people. They were used to serving high volume food. Lots of chefs want to work in the West End to earn more money. Places like MacDonalds, they don't have a chef. Much cheaper to run. All our food is fresh. In our lifetime we've tried selling cakes, pastries, it doesn't work. The plainer the food the more we sell of it.

The place now is still in the original 1960s style - just before cafes went gaudy with chrome. It's a basic city restaurant. When we opened there were ten near here all like this. They were like Pret a Manger is now - all over the place.

There used to be a company called Oliver Thoms and they fitted out sandwich bars, they used to be the top fitters around 1955-66. They were the ones. It was all designed not to be too comfortable so people would come in and out quick.

The seats here now were the same ones we had in 1959. All original. We re-cover them from time to time ourselves. Its leatherette and we staple them.

We don't get the Spitalfields or Petticoat Lane crowd. Its 99% regulars. We keep open for our regulars. We provide a service and that's it.

Once the Wimpys', Kentuckys' and McDonalds' opened everyone said it wouldn't work, the English wouldn't eat with fingers or drink out of paper cups. They were wrong. When the pizza places came and pubs started doing food, well, that was the end of it.

Many cafes have vanished now because of the high rents and it's very hard to get staff. The Italians died out and their kids didn't want to get up at 5.00am to prepare the day's dishes. My children have worked here but they went to university - became architects, worked in high tech companys.

We didn't used to open seven days but ten years ago five gents from London Transport wanted us to serve 200 people a day because the depot was round the corner. And the Copper Grill was perfect. They could come in and get food within 25 mins. So we opened 9.00 - 9.00 every day of the year.

The spin-off was that other people came too. We close now about 6.30 or 5.30 depending. As the week progresses it gets busy. On Friday it's packed in the morning with big breakfasts being sold. Sundays is just a breakfast trade.

If I changed the place I'd have to change the whole staff. They've been here a long time. Some people have been here 35 years. Some waitresses were schoolgirls when they came, now they're grandmothers.

I got a waitress here had three daughters, kids would come in on holidays, when they left school they worked here. Then they have kids and leave, and their kids go to school then they come to work here. The kids help with the order books or putting rubber bands on the receipts.

They couldn't get jobs anywhere else but here they can run a younger person off their feet. It's second nature. Being regular they know the customers and their tastes. They can give personal advice, they have the feel and the atmosphere is good. Customers like to call the waitresses by their first name.

People like coming here because they aren't overawed. No one interferes. They get on with it. It's a good mix of workers and city boys. This is the cheapest office space in London - people do so much business here! I don't mind if it's in the morning.

With a cafe, everyone's got to be served quickly. You have to make sure you have dedicated staff who appreciate the job. You have to be there all the time or things do lapse.

We run the sort of place where a man can come in every day and say 'this is what it's costing me to eat and I can afford it.' Some customers have been coming 10 years, day in day out. People even come back years later after they've left London. They like it like that."



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