Counter culture: Stories from 75 years of Britain’s Caribbean food shops

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Jimi Famurewa (The Guardian) is the author of Settlers: Journeys Through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London, to be published by Bloomsbury on July 6, 2023.

In the early years of the post-Windrush era, Black British presence was most obviously marked by people; those “willing hands” who toiled in factories and mines and hospitals while making their dogged way through the often unwelcoming vastness of the so-called mother country. But in a smaller yet no less significant way the UK’s nascent Caribbean community announced itself on grocery stand displays and corner shop shelves. From Ridley Road to Moss Side, the lasting impact of the 1948 arrival could be glimpsed in the specialist purveyors of yellow yams, Jamaican water crackers and tinned breadfruit; it could be traced in precariously stacked aisles of red beans and callaloo, and plump, warm loaves of hard dough bread. As the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon wryly notes in his 1956 Windrush novel The Lonely Londoners: “Before Jamaicans start to invade Brit’n, it was a hell of a thing to pick up a piece of saltfish anywhere.”

Initially operated by savvy white English or south Asian businesspeople – and then by enterprising West Indians selling shipped produce out of vans – by the early 1960s, Black-owned Caribbean food shops dotted Britain’s major cities, and had emerged as vital points of cultural connection and congregation. “They were significant because they were among the first public displays of Caribbean life, besides music, that people from outside the community would have interacted with,” notes Riaz Phillips, author of Belly Full and chronicler of Caribbean diaspora food in the UK. “For those within the community, bakeries, mini markets and restaurants were more like social hubs than just places to buy food. They were places to see familiar faces and to organise – be that a party or a protest.”

Now, even as generations have passed, recessions have bitten and migration from the Caribbean has dwindled in relative terms, many of these original businesses and their spiritual descendants continue to flourish. Some are time-warp family endeavours with links to specific farms or bakeries back in Jamaica or elsewhere. Others are slick, strip-lit operations that seek to modernise the formula with deli counters and vegan options. All of them, in their own way, are monuments to the complexities of British-Caribbean food culture and the fortitude of that postwar generation of migrants. Here, just before the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s 1948 arrival, five shopkeepers talk produce, community pride and life behind the counter.

‘I still love the smell of freshly baked buns, bread and cake’

Joanne ‘Mrs T’ Thompson
The Old Trafford Bakery, Manchester
Established in 1960, this tiny, neighbourhood business is perhaps the oldest Caribbean bakery in Britain. Founded by Jamaican-born, second-generation baker Winston Reid, it has been run by his relatives, the Thompson family, since the early 2000s.
[. . .]

Established in 1960, this tiny, neighbourhood business is perhaps the oldest Caribbean bakery in Britain. Founded by Jamaican-born, second-generation baker Winston Reid, it has been run by his relatives, the Thompson family, since the early 2000s. “I was 18 when I came here from Jamaica to do nursing and I’m 70-plus now, so I’ve lived here much longer than I ever lived there. [. . .]

Mr Reid was the first owner of the bakery, and he was family. He had run a bakery back in Jamaica and so he would do it in his house when I first arrived – he’d make bread, patties, spice buns, bullah [molasses-enriched round cakes] and all the usual things that we’d get in bakeries in Jamaica but couldn’t find here. [. . .]

‘I used to sell mangoes at the end of dances’

Wentworth ‘Wenty’ Newland
Wenty’s Tropical Foods, Forest Gate, London
Having started as a door-to-door business, this corner greengrocer was officially established by chef, businessman and community fixture Newland in 1986

“The only reason I’ve had any success in this business is that when I see the good stuff, I know the good stuff. My family used to farm in Jamaica and so I learned it from my parents. If someone buys a vegetable or piece of fruit and someone has told them it’s good, I can look at it and tell them if it’s rubbish. With avocado pears especially you have to know what you’re doing; you can find one that looks very nice from the outside but inside it will be bad because the cold has got into it. [. . .]

‘For years I wanted a shop that would put a smile on your face’

Darren Richards
Montego’s Market, Bedford
Launched in June 2021 and housed in a former bank, this Caribbean-influenced supermarket has links to Lee & Sons – a longstanding business that previously had outposts in Luton, Bedfordshire and Harrow. [. . .]

‘When people come through the door they feel like they’re back home’

Colin Mitchell
Mitchell’s Supermarket, Radford, Nottingham
Operational in some form since 1959, this shop was one of a number of businesses established by Jamaican entrepreneur Clifton Mitchell. Now run by his son, it has stood on this site since 1999. [. . .]

Even though we get up early, it doesn’t feel like work’

Kiera-Lorelle Rhomes
Cinnamon Leaf Food Hall, Tottenham, London
Opened in January 2020 by the Rhomes family, this north London shop combines Caribbean and West African-themed produce with health foods, a coffee shop and a fusion deli counter.

“I grew up in Tottenham with Ghanaian-Sierra Leonean heritage on my mum’s side and Jamaican-Cuban heritage on my dad’s. So, especially in the foods we’d eat, there’s always been a very strong Caribbean and West African presence. I have really comforting memories of coming out of church on a Sunday and being wheeled to Ridley Road market in the pram so my mum could get hair products, pick out vegetables and fruits. [. . .]

For full article and photos, see

[Shown above: Wentworth ‘Wenty’ Newland from Wenty’s Tropical Foods in east London. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer]

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