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The Review > Food & Drink

George 'The Coffeeman' will fill you full of beans

Buy your coffee from George Constaninou and you’ll never tire of the daily grind writes Charlotte Chambers

WHEN he was at college the only people that drank coffee were “the foreigners”.

Now we are a nation of coffee drinkers, and George Constantinou is not complaining. He took over the Camden Coffee Shop in Delancey Street from his uncle Michael in May 1978. He bought the goodwill of the business and the contents of the shop – which included an 85-year old coffee-roaster and sacks of exotic-sounding coffee –for £500.

When Brazil suffered one of its worst coffee crops in history in 1975, and his uncle made his fortune by buying up cheap coffee and selling it back to the coffee brokers at a profit, Mr Constantinou was determined to be a self-made man too.

Originally from Cyprus, George (pictured) came to London in 1968 and trained as an engineer at Willesden College. But after working at Henley’s garage for two years, he decided he wanted to be his own boss. He said: “I was fed up.Whatever happened, there was always someone above my head. I wanted the freedom of working for myself.”

He has worked at the shop for 27 years, and has always clocked in a six-day week. His is a well-loved face. He said: “If I walk into somewhere like Woolworths, kids all say to their Mum’s ‘Look it’s ‘the coffeeman’!”

But George’s shop has also been recognised in the broadsheets and international magazines for its unique and last-of-itskind charm. George reflects: “You won’t see anything else like this now.”

His small and dusty shop could be a Back to the Future film-set. Just as the coffee-roaster is 85, it feels like nothing has changed for probably just as many years. The oldfashioned way he has of working is part of his commitment to preserving the past. Of the antique roasting machine he said: “I might buy a new one one day but I like the history.”

The machine works by roasting beans from its core, which is lit. The beans are slowly spun like in a washing machine, shedding their yellowish husk as they turn brown. To keep their freshness, they are not ground unless a customer requests them to be.

Delancey Street is now a conservation area, but it wasn’t always that way. First the Bedford Theatre that used to sit just behind his shop was knocked down in 1969, and then in 1988 his landlord threatened to raze the whole block.

But George was so popular that residents, councillors, and the New Journal, campaigned to keep him. The landlord lost his battle, and George is still here today. In 1975 the council had a change of heart and made the area a conservation zone.

The shop has an uncertain future though. Although George has no plans to retire, there is no Constantinou to step into the breach when that day comes. George’s oldest son, Fanos, 28, works for Ralph Lauren, while Nicholas, 25, is in Cyprus working as an electronic engineer. His daughter Christina, 20, is studying Law at the London School of Economics. But for George, the shop has given him a great career.

He said: “I’m my own boss, I meet a lot of people. It’s not boring – people talk to me about everything, I’ve made a lot of friends.”

Asking what the secret is to his happy nature he said: “I take the good and the bad things that God gives. I accept everything. I feel sad sometimes but generally I’m always smiling.” Now that he limits his coffee intake, doesn’t drink or smoke, his only vice is – he talks too much. George revealed that his wife tells him off. He said: “She complains ‘can’t you stop talking!’ But she’s right though, it’s a bad habit. Sometimes the customer wants to go – they’re outside the door and I’m still talking to them!”

The Camden Coffee Shop, 11 Delancey Street, NW1. Call 020 7387 4080.

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