Owner Harish Bagauty in front of his Indian Spice Shop, Drummond Street

Drummond Street, a sleepy side-street just by Euston station, has long had a special place in my affections. When I was little, my father, as a special treat, would bring the family here for a meal at the original Shah restaurant – he still reminisces fondly about The Shah’s onion bhajis. Later on, as a university student,  I came to Drummond Street to eat bargain-priced dosai at Diwana and to shop at Ambala to satisfy my craving for cardamom-fragrant burfi and freshly-cooked, spicy samosas.

The Indian Spice Shop on Drummond Street has long been another favourite food shop of mine, a place at which to stock up with Indian ingredients, from Bengali panch phoran spice mix to Alfonso mangoes.  Stepping inside this shop, the smell of asafoetida hits you, a smell so pungent and tangible that you feel you could almost slice the air and eat it. Living up to its name, this unpretentious shop has always impressed me with the range of spices it stocks. Neatly arranged on its shelves are packets of everything from ajwain seeds to smoked Spanish paprika. For decades Drummond Street and its Indian restaurants and food shops has remained unchanged.  It was with real shock, therefore, that I discovered that the Drummond Street community is under threat from the High Speed 2 railway project.

Shelves of spices at the Indian Spice Shop

Shelves of spices at the Indian Spice Shop

Quietly-spoken and courteous, Harish Bagauty, the Indian Spice Shop’s Goanese owner is very worried indeed about what the future holds for Drummond Street. “The thing is, we don’t know the exact plan yet,” he sighs. “It’s a worrying time. What we do know is they will put in a dead end, so we won’t have road access to Euston Station. We don’t know whether there’ll be pedestrian access.  A lot of customers come from the station, buy stuff and go out. If there’s no parking, we’ll have problems with the customers. It will be a nightmare and business will run down. ”

Harish is proud of the fact that his shop is a Drummond Street institution. “I worked here for the people before me and took over this shop 16 years ago. We are family basically. Me, my brother, my brother in law my sister in law – we all come here 9.30am-9pm.  People know if they come they get everything from vegetables to rice and spices, toiletries, groceries. We get all kinds of customers. People come in and say I’ve been coming here for 40 years. English people go to India, taste Indian food and they love it. Sometimes they ask me for spices even I don’t know! It’s amazing. We try new spices and new blends. We sell a lot of mangoes in season – very popular now. The English people love these mangoes, they wait for the whole year; when mango season come, I see them here every other day.”

As he talks, I can hear the anxiety in Harish’s voice, his sense of frustration. “It is hard to find out information. There were  meetings, but they have no answers for our questions. They say, they don’t know yet, so what’s the point of having meetings? A waste of time.” I can also hear Harish’s sadness at what’s being planned for his local community and his disbelief that a street which means so much to so many people should be destroyed. “There is a lot of opposition to HS2. Camden Council is opposing. People have lived here their whole life –  they’re now in their seventies, eighties, nineties – where are they going to move them? There won’t be the same community where they move them. Same for businesses. They say they’ll move them – it’s not going to work. Drummond St is known by everybody – if only me, then nobody is going to come. I heard that Diwana Bhel Puri and Patak, they were the beginning of this street. These restaurants are very famous – any time when you come, they’re always busy. We run an off-license because of them only –they don’t sell alcohol, so people buy their drink here and take it to them.”

“People are upset – all the flats are going. We’re the local shop, specialising in Indian food. In here, you get personal service, family atmosphere, we know them by name or by face. It’s a friendly atmosphere so people love to come here,  we give them the best service. When they say it’s going, we feel bad, what are we going to do? It takes such a long time to build up this business.”

The Indian Spice Shop, 115-119 Drummond Street,  NW1 2HL, 020 7916 1831

Save Drummond Street Facebook link

The Indian Spice Shop, Drummond Street

An American Food Store in London


Ali and Tahira Punjani of the American Food Store

It was the sign that first caught my eye. I was updating my food shopping guide  Food Lovers’ London, out visiting food shops in Holland Park. Walking up towards  Notting Hill, I spotted the red, white and blue sign declaring ‘American Food Store’ in large letters above what looked like a newsagents. I crossed the road and peered in – there – past the magazines and newspapers – were shelves lined with gaudily colourful cans and packets  so I went in to investigate.Sure enough, there was an array of American foodstuffs, from boxes of Duncan Hines Red Velvet Cake Mix and cans of the iconic Campbell’s Tomato Soup made famous by Andy Warhol to fluorescent-coloured packets of Wonka Nerds and Bazooka bubble gum. The shop’s friendly, helpful owner, Ali Punjani, explained that this had been a newsagent and a post office, but was now indeed an American food store – known for both the range it carries and its competitive pricing.  Intrigued by what he’d told me, I returned to learn more of Ali’s story and how he’d come to set up his American food shop.

American Food Store, 2 Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park, London W11 3BG

“My family is from Kenya. My grandparents were traders from India who followed the British Army and settled there. We came over here when I was five. We’ve had this shop since 1972 – a little post office and a newsagents. I grew up in the shop,” explains Ali smiling “so everyone locally knows me.” When his father sadly passed away from a heart attack, Ali took over the family business, working with his mother.  “It was very high pressure running a post office; a lot of responsibility. All the pubs and coffee shops used to bank with us, so we had money to count, re-count, bag up – and always the security risk, always that fear. The nice thing though was the contact with the regular customers; people I grew up with. When I was a kid it was fun because I had access to sweets!”

“About four and a half years ago, the post office shut down. It was cutbacks and an enforced closure. It was not a good period of my life. We were very upset; we cried for a couple of days,” Ali tells me, “because it was a way of life. Without the post office the shop wouldn’t survive; it didn’t have the footfall. The locals were really supportive and our customers came up with suggestions of what to do; crazy things like haberdashery or health food,” he laughs. “An American woman called Jill Ruddock said I should have American foods and do it properly, have a whole range rather than just a few items. It was  a risk because we had to make a big investment and we didn’t know if it would go or not. I bought half a container load to start with. When we got the stuff, we didn’t know what it was or how to arrange it . Grapenuts – no grapes, no nuts! Cream of wheat; what is that?! Jill Ruddock came in and helped me arrange the ingredients; I couldn’t believe that she took the time to come and help me.”

Word spread among the ex-pat American community that this small shop was now carrying an extensive range of American ingredients. “I’m very grateful to that film Notting Hill because whenever Americans get posted to London and asked where they want to live they say Notting Hill! There’s a big American community here. They like the range of what I sell – other shops will have the bestsellers and the fast-sellers but I have the biggest range and our prices are competitive too – very,” he says emphatically. Such has been the demand that in addition to the shop, Ali now runs a flourishing American food mail order website. “Now we import full containers of foods from America every five or six weeks.”

Ali proudly talks me through his stock of American foodstuffs. “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese – a lot of my banker customers go crazy for it. It’s because when they were at college, they ate it all the time and they’re nostalgic for it. At Thanksgiving, it’s things like cans of pumpkin, readymade pie crusts and marshmallows. Borden Eggnog – this is a must for Christmas and Thanksgiving.” He gestures towards the packets of Jell-o “apparently it’s got a different texture from our English jelly. This Berry Blue is a bestseller because you can’t get blue jelly – they do red, white and blue jellies. We sold lots during the U.S. elections; they had parties waiting for the results. We’ve sold out of grits  – people have grown up on it and they can’t get enough of it.“

Red Velvet cake mix, American Food Store

Chatty and sociable, Ali obviously enjoys the social side to running a food business. “This stuff brings in a younger crowd and there’s lots to talk about. I learn something new every day. They educate me and tell me about the things we should get in. We had Brad Pitt and Angelina in here,” Ali tells me proudly. “A massive Mercedes Maybach with a chauffeur drew up outside and two people came in. She was really beautiful and I was trying to work out who she was and then I looked up and saw him and I said ‘Brad Pitt’ and he said ‘yes’ and I said  ‘I don’t have my camera with me’ and he said ‘lucky me!’”

At the moment, the shop continues to function as both a newsagent – complete with newspapers, magazines and a photocopier –  and an American food shop. Plans are afoot, however, to make it look more obviously an American food shop. “It’s the biggest part of the business. We’ve got a new sign coming. Do you know the designer Paul Smith? He helped me! He’s my customer and I asked him for advice and he drew a little sketch and said make the sign all black with just your name on it. It’ll be up soon. The shop is changing; the shelf space dedicated to American foodstuffs is getting bigger and bigger.” Having made that first speculative investment in a half-containerload of American ingredients, Ali is relishing watching his new business flourish. “My gamble paid off,” he says. “Now it’s like the whole world has opened up, so I’m really grateful for the post office closing!

American Food Store


American confectionary, American Food Store

SALT BEEF AND SOCIABILITY: Gaby’s Deli, Charing Cross Road, London

For as long as I can remember, Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road has been part of my London cityscape.  Just down from the Wyndham Theatre, it is a familiar West End presence – a modest façade with Gaby’s trademark colourful salads proudly displayed in the window. Now this modest, down-to-earth eaterie is under threat, with Gaby Elyahou of Gaby’s given notice to quit by his landlords, Gascoyne Holdings.

Gaby's, Charing Cross Road, London

Gaby outside his iconic West End deli

“I’ve been here since 1964,” explains Gaby, a sprightly, dapper figure, with a shrewd face and wonderfully alert eyes. “It was a salt beef bar before I took it over. I added more dishes, bought an espresso machine, started to concentrate on the salads – we do 37, all home-made. The people who eat here, they know about salt beef. It’s a meal. You can see how much meat we put in the sandwich. I think it’s the best sandwich in the world. I mean it. What other sandwich can you have so much meat in?”

As we chat, Gaby insists on ordering me a plate of his falafel to sample. It arrives promptly – a generous serving of crisp, freshly-fried falafel on a bed of humous, topped with foul medames, then tahini, sprinkled with parsley, with two warm pitta bread on the side. Truly tasty food. Watching Gaby in action, teasing the old ladies sitting to our left, calling out a friendly greeting to a customer walking by, noticing that a customer needs sugar for his coffee, I realise, however,  it’s not simply the good, fresh food and the reasonable prices which bring people back here time and time again. This is a place with a human face to it. Gaby is one of a fast-vanishing breed of proper, old school proprietors – alert, democratic, experienced, proud of his business, relishing the face-to-face contact with all his customers, gloriously nosy and interested in everyone who comes in. As a result, in a world where clonetown franchises dominate, Gaby’s has that rare quality – personality.

Falafel at Gaby's

“There are too many chains around here now,” says Gaby thoughtfully. “We serve home-made soup, really filling, moussaka, meatballs, goulash. We have a special every day,” he gestures towards the board. “Tell me – in the West End, where else can you sit and eat a meal for £6 or £7?  I don’t have tablecloths or a waiter with a white starched short, but all the food is freshly made. We get in at 8am – we have to prepare the food.  It’s a lot of work. Eating a sandwich – that’s boring! There are too many sandwich shops. We get a lot of theatre people, always have done, always actors. They want something light before the show, so they have a salad.”

“People come back here. We have customers returning from America, Scandinavia, South Africa, from Timbuktu – they come from all over the world. I just had a customer tell me that his grandparents from South Africa always come here when they’re in London, so they told him to come.”

The announcement that Gaby’s was being closed down has seen an extraordinary response from his customers, with their campaign to Save Gaby’s launched on Facebook quickly attracting thousands of supporters. A series of Falafel Cabarets have been launched, with Gaby’s thespian customers, such as the actors Henry Goodman and Simon Callow, generously performing to help spread the word.

Among the Save Gaby’s team is Steve Engelhard, who explains why he joined the campaign. “I’ve known Gaby’s for many years. I think it was my big brother who first alerted me to it. We’re a family with Jewish origins – so salt beef, falafel, salads  are comfort food as far as I’m concerned. Gaby’s is affordable, it’s unpretentious, the quality is high and it’s very individual – there’s none of the blandness which goes with chains. When I heard that Gaby’s was threatened, I thought I’ve seen too many of my favourite places closing. I’m not a campaigner by habit. It pleases me no end that there’s such a community of people willing to make a stand about this. I think it’s a sense of maintaining a personal landscape, a personal identification with something that contributes to the quality of life and to the soul of London. Without individual places like Gaby’s the West End could easily be as bland as any standard high street.”

The affection in which Gaby’s is held is almost palpable. Gaby’s customers, when they realise that I’m writing about the Save Gaby’s campaign, are eager to tell me what Gaby’s means to them. A middle-aged man, who’s been sitting together with his wife and young daughter eating a meal at a table next to me, stops unprompted to talk to me. “I first came here in my early 20s, so have been coming here for 25 years now. It would be a terrible shame if it went. It’s a disgrace that Westminster Council didn’t protect it. Walk to Leicester Square – all you see are crappy pizza and pasta restaurants. They should be protecting this – tourists want London proper, not chain London. This is an iconic, one-off restaurant.” An elegantly-dressed, elderly gentleman pauses shyly on his way out to tell me “I’ve been coming here for decades. It’s desperately sad. So much of London is under threat. It seems wrong that someone who’s been here for so long can be kicked out when so many people care about it.”

Gaby himself is touched by the campaign, wryly amused at the fuss his customers are stirring up. “It was all from the customers. People came and said “We’re not going to let you go.” Boris Johnson, Ken Livingston, actors – they all come here to show support. The newspapers, TV they’ve all come here. I know a lot of people. Fifty years here, it’s not three months. I hope they don’t spoil the West End, but I think they will.” He pauses and shrugs expressively. A neatly printed notice sellotaped to the counter behind him reads: ‘Thank you to our customers who set up and signed up to Save Gabys Deli on Facebook. We are very touched by all your support. The management and team at Gaby’s.’

“The only hope,” explains Steve Engelhard from the Save Gaby’s campaign, “ is to change the mind of Gascoyne Holdings and its directors,  notably Lord Salisbury – because everything else has been tried. Westminster have granted the planning consent. The only remaining hope is to change the minds of the owners. We’ve had huge press coverage. The question is do these people want to minimise the bad publicity they’re getting? Do they want to be clever and get good publicity for doing the right thing in the end and saving a well-loved institution?” If affection and loyalty alone were enough to save Gaby’s deli, then its future would absolutely be assured.

Thankfully, spring 2012 saw Gaby’s granted a temporary reprieve, with his lease extended until May 2013. The Save Gabys campaign remains vigilant, ready to spring back into vociferous action should the threat to close their beloved Gaby’s return.


Twitter: @SaveGabys