Today’s Saturday Supplement is a little out of the ordinary. I avoid “Top 10…” lists like the plague. I detest rankings. I can’t abide arbitrary scoring systems. I write about coffee shops I like and put them on the Coffee Spot so you can find them. However, I can’t help but develop favourites, and, if there was a list of my favourite coffee shops, the original Flat Caps in Newcastle’s Ridley Place would be one of the first I’d pencil in.
That is, if I was writing the list today. If I wrote it tomorrow, Ridley Place wouldn’t be there. Because today’s its last day. Tonight, Joe closes up for the last time. Not that it’s the end of Flat Caps. Come Monday, you’ll find Joe at Flat Caps Carliol Square or maybe next door at Flat Caps Campus North. Flat Caps goes on, but the place where it all started, Ridley Place, will be no more.
Joe’s written about why he’s closing Ridley Place, a lovely piece which I urge you to read. Today’s Saturday Supplement isn’t about the whys and wherefores of the closing, but rather my own reflections on one of my favourite places to have coffee.
[Note: Yes, I realise that I’ve posted this on April 1st. I do hope this isn’t an elaborate April Fool’s joke that Joe’s playing on us…]
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
Flat Caps Coffee started life in 2010, when Joe, the owner, head barista, chief bottle washer and everything else, opened the doors on Ridley Place. Well, I say doors, but it doesn’t actually have any (not of its own, at least), which we’ll come to in due course.
I first came across Flat Caps on a trip to Newcastle in April 2013. I say “came across” like I stumbled upon it, but that’s hardly the case. You don’t just stumble upon Flat Caps, not on Ridley Place at least. I actually went to Newcastle looking for Flat Caps and, despite knowing exactly where it was, I walked right past it…
You see, Ridley Place is arguably the hardest-to-find coffee shop that I have ever visited. It’s downstairs, in a basement, under a gift shop. The only clue to its existence is a sign, high above the street and well above eye level, the size of which would make a postage stamp feel large in comparison. Even then, you have to have faith: entering the shop, there’s no clue that a coffee shop is lurking underneath. Just head for the spiral staircase in the corner and make your way down…
I think this is all part of Flat Caps’ charm. No-one ever wandered past, looked in the window, thought “that looks like a nice coffee shop” and just popped in. I can say that with absolute certainty: it has no windows. Everyone who visited Flat Caps was there because they wanted to be. It gave it an air of a private club, a shared secret, all drawn together by the common bond that is Joe.
Now I should say that the coffee was first rate. I’ve drunk some of my best coffees, espresso & filter, in Flat Caps (Flat Caps won the Coffee Spot’s Best Filter Award in 2013 and Best Espresso in 2015). However, I don’t think it was the coffee that was the main draw. I think most people came to see Joe, drink his coffee (of course) and maybe have a bite to eat. Above all, I think it was Joe who made the place what it was, and, by extension, made Flat Caps Coffee the success it is today.
Of course, that sort of success comes with some drawbacks. By making himself synonymous with the coffee shop, he made himself indispensable. Back in the day, when Joe wanted a (extremely rare) holiday, he’d have to shut the coffee shop. If the draw is to come and see Joe, and Joe’s not there, you’ve rather lost your unique selling point.
When Joe launched his successful Kickstarter to fund a second coffee shop (and ended up opening two by accident), I knew there would be changes: the closure of Ridley Place is, perhaps, the logical conclusion of those changes. Joe couldn’t be in two places at once. What had made Ridley Place uniquely successful was gone.
I’m saddened by the closure of Ridley Place, by the knowledge that I’ll never be able to walk down those spiral steps again and enjoy a coffee with Joe at the counter. For what it’s worth, I think Joe’s made the right decision. I’ve never doubted his ability to make a success of the new Flat Caps on Carliol Square and my sadness is more than offset by my happiness that things are going so well for Joe and Flat Caps.
So yes, let’s shed a tear for Ridley Place, but let’s also raise a cheer or two for Joe, for Flat Caps Coffee and let’s drink (espresso, please, Joe) to the future.
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