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A Taste of Hackney

'Recipes for success or failure: vegan chicken shops, designer bags and Tesco towers.'

By Oveis Rezazadeh and Kameliya Staneva

Written for the Cities and Social Change module, where students are tasked to investigate a physical and social change in a street, neighbourhood or city of their choice.

Facing onto its original location opposite, next door to Hackney Meat Centre, London’s first vegan chicken shop Temple of Hackney (formerly named Temple of Seitan) can normally be seen with a seemingly-constant flow of customers. People are queuing inside the shop and out the door for vegan wraps and burgers, and a few people are passing through, buying just chips. Since opening in 2017, it has moved to a new premise near to Hackney Central, and established a second branch in Camden close the new Kings Cross Redevelopment. With an average Google review score of 4.4 stars, of 1413 visitors, it is clear that something is right in their recipe.

Temple of Hackney in its new location [Source: TimeOut]

The shop sells vegan fast-food, centred primarily around recognisable takeaway staples of fried chicken and burgers, all made with the wheat gluten substitute seitan and absolutely no animal products. The store’s aesthetic noticeably invokes the same familiar feeling of any chicken shop throughout London and according to an employee, Dan, this is purposeful. ‘The point is to make it as normal as possible, to give vegans and everyone that option of fast junk food, I think.’ Temple started life as a street-food stall on Brick Lane in 2016; before the owner and entrepreneur of the business, Rebecca McGuinness, opened the initial storefront location with her partner in 2017. The intention was simple: to change traditional conceptions of vegan food as appealing and accessible, for both vegans craving takeaway as well as the curious general meat-eating public.

Prices start at £6 for a burger and can go noticeably higher than £10, once all the additions are included (chips, drink and any extra sides). That may seem like an eye-watering amount to the regular chicken shop customer, more accustomed to £4 for a full meal. However, as Dan points out, it is ‘not much more than you might spend on any meal from McDonald’s’. And, rather than worry about the potentially dubious origins of the meat, ‘you’re paying for higher quality food that’s more interesting’. The sentiment seems to hold true, as the concept has drawn people from around London [1] to try something they cannot enjoy elsewhere.

Another Temple employee, Imran, echoes a similar opinion; ‘We have a lot of regulars, as well as the daily crowd coming through.’ When asked about whether the demographics of these customers followed the general conception of of vegans, as stereotypically hip, white and middle-class [2] , he countered that the ‘shop brings in a huge range of people, it’s not just arts students and white middle-class’. Imran has been an employee for over two years, and has a good taste of how Hackney has been changing in recent years. ‘There’s lots of Hackney residents now switching to being vegan and coming here, not just people who’ve moved lately.’

A traditional chicken shop in Hackney Central

Imran has grown up in the area for the last thirteen years, and since leaving his family home has has moved three times in the last two years. Increasing rent prices and the on-going allure of Hackney as an appealing place to live and work has resulted in a markedly competitive housing environment, one where the community is divided into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ surrounding controversial large-scale developments [3]. Commenting on this, he remarks that ‘it would be nice to have the option to buy a house and live in the area I’ve grown up in’; however, for many across the capital, this is becoming an increasingly far-away prospect.

"It would be nice to have the option to buy a house and live in the area I've grown up in" - Imran, Temple employee.

Temple is a London Living Wage employer [4] , meaning it follows a commitment to pay based on calculated real living costs. In practical terms, this means that all employees are paid a minimum wage of £10.75 per hour, versus the national statutory minimum of £8.21 for over 25s and £6.15 for those between 18-20, which is paid to employees at many large chain companies such as the Tesco Superstore next door. In a borough where over a third of its population is living in poverty [5] , 9% above the London average, accessible and decent-quality work paid at a livable rate by a small business is a commendable initiative.

In stark contrast to Temple of Hackney’s relative success is the bronze-clad and now nearly-empty Hackney Walk luxury fashion retail development, just two minutes further along Morning Lane. A cluster of 12 retail units set in redesigned railway arches, they form a fashion outlet originally proposed to ‘re-establish the East End as the home of London’s fashion industry’ [6]. To this end following the 2011 London riots, £1.5m of post-riot regeneration funding, of the total £2m allocated to Hackney Council, was devoted to the project. Three years on, only four of the twelve units are occupied [7], with some never having found retailers to take up business in them. Rather than becoming a home to a burgeoning retail estate, it seems Hackney Walk has become home to not much more than hollow shops.

In the years since its inception, the redevelopment has been widely critiqued. In the post-riot context, a luxury fashion outlet as apt answer to young people looting shops has remained a difficult standpoint to justify. Would the same currently empty space, let at affordable rates to barbershops, grocers, social enterprises and other local businesses not provide a more beneficial opportunity for the local area it is located in? Rather, Hackney Walk seems to present a wasted space and an ungiven opportunity; one where the anticipated success of a failed ambition continues to be prioritised over the opportunities of the local area.

Hackney Walk presently, with vacant units and few visitors

The reasons behind the objective failure of Hackney Walk remains open for debate. While different stakeholders attribute blame to a too-quick implementation, an over-ambitious proposal or a difficult retail market - among myriad others [8] - it is clear when visiting the site meaningful points were missed. The importance of a mix of commercial uses, from both affordable to luxury retail as well as cafes and recreation, is noticeably lacking. The priority of this mix is highlighted in the architect’s website about the proposal, stating that ‘local designers will have small workshops with showrooms next to established brands while restaurants and cafes complete the mix’’ [9]. In this vacuum, rather than providing local businesses a vital step-up in affordable workspace for their enterprises alongside established companies, Hackney Walk is a half-empty retail unit like any other, with luxury brands far too expensive for the majority of people to afford.

Temple is the antithesis of this. A successful small enterprise, started by two individuals, attracts people to the street and has redefined conceptions of a ‘declining area’. By using lower property values in an otherwise underappreciated space as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, young entrepreneurs have established their own independent and unique business. All the meanwhile, paying their employees better wages than large supermarket chains next door. It is not perfect - but the recipe does seem a little nicer. There is a certain accessibility that comes with (fairly) reasonably-priced fast food. Though it may not be the everyday taste of everyone, Temple’s food is priced such that it can be investigated at least once by otherwise sceptical customers. The same, however, cannot be said for Hackney Walk. Whereas an inquisitive non-vegan may be ready to pay £6 for a burger, the same cannot necessarily be said for a Burberry bag.

Social change, most often seen in cities as gentrification, happens in multitude more ways than may be immediately apparent. Disillusioned local residents witnessing their area undergo fundamental and lasting change in their area may see Hackney Walk and Temple of Hackney as the same exact phenomena occurring in two different locations minutes apart on the same street. However, in understanding the aims and functionings of each, it is clear that change in cities is not as simple as the stereotypes we immediately perceive.

A vegan ‘chicken shop’ might seem like a stereotypically new-wave and unnecessary out-of-place hipster reinvention of well-loved institution - London chicken shops. However, the latter’s ubiquity throughout the capital has undoubtedly been one in a series of food-trends; how many of us are regularly eating jellied eels at the Pie and Mash shops that preceded the common image of fast food we maintain currently? And who’s to say a well-received reinvention of popular takeaway food, responding to changing cultural conceptions of veganism, is ill-placed in this series of changing trends.

Directly between these two sites, is the Tesco Superstore pegged for huge mixed-use redevelopment [10] hanging in the balance between two different recipes for success, both physically and ideologically. When previous developer proposals were refused, the expansive low-rise store and car park were bought by the Hackney Council in 2017.

Recently, it has become clear that the site is destined to be redeveloped in the same stead as Hackney Walk. The scheme, previously dubbed as Tesco Towers, has been offered to Hackney Walk Holdings Ltd, lead by the same executive chairman of the retail site.

If we are to assume that regeneration is not always followed by gentrification, it is clear that Tesco Towers has great potential to progress from lessons learnt from both Temple and Hackney Walk. With Local Council ownership, the scheme has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Its location possesses the character and vibrancy required to create an area of genuine value, and the retail and residential uses proposed should be informed by the ever-changing local context of Hackney, while keeping a firm focus on the existing population it is seeking to serve.

Temple of Hackney, in its original location, the customers queuing in the rain

Fundamentally, it is pertinent for Hackney Council to clearly define the future development it envisions, and who will benefit from it should it be successful. Will instructing starchitect firms [11], better known for supertall superskinny luxury condominium towers in New York or the car-melting Walkie Talkie, create a better city for years to come? Or is it time to possibly try a different recipe - one learnt from a unique local businesses that enjoys entrepreneurial success and pays their employees fairly - to possibly greater success?
















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