Editor & Founder Kirk Truman talks to Ben Leask owner of unique grocery store and coffee shop Ben’s House in the heart of Fitzrovia, Grafton Way.
Words & Photography Kirk Truman
“I’ve worked in Marylebone and Bloomsbury; Fitzrovia is the perfect space in-between the two. Once I found the space here on Grafton Way, I knew I’d found the perfect spot – I felt completely at home!”
There’s something about Grafton Way. It seems like a wave of fresh air that goes on to the square, not the punch on the nose of the West-End that flows and flows. Though for a long time I have wondered just who would have the courage to come along and snap up a spot on the Way, my answer arose in the fashion of a gentleman I have come to respect and admire. Tasteful, meticulously curated and admirable, Ben Leask tells me of his London-centric grocery store & cafe, Ben’s House; a 21st century grocery store entirely “Cured, Created and Crafted by London.”
Having grown up in South London and now living in The Angel, Ben describes himself as a hideously passionate Londoner. Growing up, he observed his father in the day-to-day running of his jewellery business in Blackheath, South London. “I don’t think as a youngster I ever really wanted to get into shop-keeping, even though I always adored going to my father’s shop, I adored watching my father through the gaps in the banister… chatting, cajoling, confiding, selling. But most of all I loved the sense of community,” Ben explains. “My father was at the heart of everything in that community. He was a friend and ear to everybody: working class, upper class, gangster, judge or artisan; never a gossip, but always a storyteller,” he smiles.
Having spent his entire career within the fine food industry, Ben knows his onions; managing a variety of world class stores & ventures for La Fromagerie, Ginger Pig and Rabot Estate to name but three. Ben also wrote a ‘1 Year Diploma in Chocolate’ for Hotel Chocolat which isn’t something you hear every day. However last year Ben made the decision to go it alone by starting his own grocery store & cafe. As a proud Londoner, he is passionate about produce that lives and breathes the same London air as him. His eponymously titled store is influenced by his father’s own community centred background, and his passion for London itself. “My father was a shop-keeper so I’ve always had his passion running through my veins… 20 years later and now I’ve got my own shop, seemingly it’s in the blood!” laughs Ben.
The search for the perfect location for Ben’s House was carried out just about all over London; from Brockley to Brixton, Kentish Town to Marylebone and finally Fitzrovia. “I did it by walking, walking and more walking, it’s the only way. I found that estate agents didn’t help me find what I needed. I once spent a summer or two in Fitzrovia, living above L’Etoile on Charlotte Street. I’ve worked in Marylebone and Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia is the perfect space in-between the two. Once I found the space here on Grafton Way I knew I’d found the perfect spot – I felt completely at home!” Ben remembers.
Though his relationship and passion for London is eternal, the concept for the store itself began about 8 years ago, following dinner at legendary restaurant Konstam, overseen by the iconic chef Oliver Rowe. “His restaurant was incredible. Everything in the restaurant was grown in London; carrots grown in flower pots on Brick Lane, salt made from the Thames water, although it didn’t last for long. Konstam was a showcase for what London could produce. I, there and then started keeping illicit little lists of everyone I met in London making great flavours. So many of my suppliers have never been on a shelf in a shop before, it’s important the wonders they produce get displayed and get eaten. It’s important to support these small producers while they grow.”
Ben also cites the importance of creating an informal environment at the heart of the grocery store. “Fine food retail in London is often so boring: the same products on the same shelves with the same labels. I wanted to create a store people wanted to hang out in. Somewhere people came for a coffee and a doughnut then left with a case of fine wine. Somewhere people could try the gins and tonics or nibble a sample of cheese if that’s what they wanted to do.” Ben also wanted to make his favourite customer (his wife) happy. “We often talked about why we couldn’t both go and enjoy a treat together, when one of us was in the mood for a glass of wine, the other wishing for a coffee.” Very few places offer both in such a charmed way.
A store graced with bounty from every corner of London; a visit to Ben’s House itself will see you educated & enthralled by the sheer volume of products formed right here in London. From Dalston Chillies Chipotle Ketchup to Gay Farmer olive oil, W1 marmalade from Warren Street and Half Hitch Gin from Camden, right down to Postcode Honey where fascinatingly each particular honey is harvested from the flowers of that particular postcode. The list is endless and growing by the day. Keeping to his ethos of “Cured, created, crafted in London,” the physical space takes up the mantra. The centre-piece table top is crafted from reclaimed London wood, the tree-stump which supports it being taken from a ‘London Plane’ tree felled outside the store whilst Ben was preparing to open.
The environment of Ben’s House is informal and relaxed with the ever diverse community of Fitzrovia flowing through day-by-day. Ben is forever on hand and ever willing to discuss the origins and stories of each and every product. “That’s why my name is above the door. In too many shops and businesses you rarely see the same person twice. You never get to meet the maker or even get to learn the names of the staff. I know every single one of my suppliers and I want to be a conduit for their passions.”
Ben’s House is still really quite new to the area, having only opened its doors in November last year. Remarkably in this short fraction of time Ben and his team on Grafton Way have made strong lasting impressions in the Fitzrovia area. I personally believe that Ben’s concept for this ‘cured, created and crafted’ in London store is a sure match for our Fitzrovian neighbourhood. I am certain in saying that his concept shall prosper with time and therefore long remain. Throw me a line, if I reach it in time I’ll meet you there.