I find it very hard indeed to pass by De Melo. The aroma of the coffee wafting outside is the first line of attack but then there is the arresting sight of those incredible cakes and ice creams just sitting up and begging to be eaten. Judging by the large certificate on the wall, 2015 People’s Choice Award for Best New Cafe, I am not alone in my feelings. The food and hot drinks assault all your senses full on and you might as well give in, for resistance is futile.
As part of the build up to Middlesbrough Restaurant Week 2016 – Monday, May 2 to Sunday, May 8, I will be talking with some of the managers of the participating eateries to find out a little more about what makes these foodie emporiums tick. Tracy Hyman will be taking some photographs to give you a better idea of the food and surroundings.
I chatted to Imran Ayoub the co-owner of Middlesbrough’s first artisan espresso, patisserie and dessert restaurant, trying to avert my eyes from the amazing looking milkshakes and ice cream constructions tottering on tables to the left and right of us. I thought I recognised the voice, Imran revealed that he had phoned me on occasions when assisting the late, great Alastair Brownlee on BBC Tees. In fact Imran worked in sport on local tv as well as radio, which naturally brought me to my first question.
Q: Imran, I believe at one time you assisted the late Ali Brownlee on BBC Tees. How did you move from that to open up De Melo?
Imran: Coffee is my side of things. Desserts is my wife’s. We are both partners in this business and we work hand in hand in looking after this business, we really do. It is a good little partnership that we have. When I was studying at University I worked at Costa Coffee. That is where I have really found a passion for making coffee, it honestly was one of the best jobs I have ever had, it was fantastic. It was a weekend job but I just loved the hustle and bustle and the idea of making different coffees. It seemed so foreign at the time. That passion stayed with me. I delved into the world of tv and radio working for both ITV and BBC and there was just a part of me that always wanted to do something for myself. I always knew that I wanted to own my own business and my wife and I one day put our heads together and came up with the idea of De Melo Coffee and Desserts. Simple. I loved my time in tv and radio, I achieved a lot of things in the four years and was very pleased with what I did but I thought the time was right to step away and do something for myself and two year’s later here we are.
Q: The timing was maybe right as well because until very recently this idea of coffee and desserts probably would have seemed out of place in Middlesbrough outside one of the big chains.
I: Yes, Costa, Starbucks, Nero, the big three, they have really changed the perception of coffee in the UK market. Middlesbrough as we all know it, is not the first place you think of as innovative. Everything usually starts off in London and by the time it gets to Middlesbrough this particular trend might be six to nine months behind, sometimes it is years behind. If you were to take a walk on any street in London you would be guaranteed to find independent artisan coffee shops combined with dessert parlours. It is such a popular and huge trend that has been taking off in London for the better part of eighteen months up to two years. Yet in Middlesbrough it just seemed lacking, there was a little bit of a delay. I saw this opportunity and I thought why not? We’ve got a fantastic coffee blend. Our desserts are second to none. Why not put this together, why not create something and give back to Middlesbrough.
Q: Where you are situated is on the main street, Linthorpe Road but also in the heart of student land.
I: Absolutely. We have got 248 student rooms upstairs and I am assuming it is one to two per room so there are potentially 500 students on any given day living above us. We are on Linthorpe Road in a particular stretch where up until a year and half ago or so there really wasn’t much here on but there is so much development going on right now. Our next door neighbour is going to be Dimi Konstantopoulos. I am so excited for his Greek food to come here. I have heard rumours that there is a really big Indian restaurant opening up on the other side of us. So there is a lot of movement, a lot of growth, there is a lot of development happening. I find that we compliment every other business because we offer as a speciality, as an expertise what other businesses don’t. So we compliment everyone else which is why we are the ideal business to be where we are at the moment with huge potential growth ahead of us as well.
Q: A lot of people will know where you are located when I say you are almost across the road from Swatters Carr.
I: There is no doubt that Swatters Carr is easily one of the busiest pubs in Middlesbrough. We see hundreds of people walking in there day in and day out and it rubs off on us. Last summer we saw so many people sitting in the beer garden and we wanted to make a bit of noise, shout and sing our own praises. So we were consistently sending my absolutely amazing team of staff over with free cookie samples to people sitting in the beer garden and free ice creams. It was literally to whet everybody’s appetites. It took a while but I believe that we have done a fantastic job of keeping our standards so high that people are starting to recognise us as one of the better coffee and dessert shops in Middlesbrough, possibly in Teesside.
Q: We might not have had many independent coffee shops but we have been well served with excellent cafes and tea houses lately.
I: The Olde Young Tea House is absolutely fantastic. I have met Carli before and she is absolutely brilliant at what she does and she has really caught on to a particular niche and a trend and the business is thriving. Middlesbrough needs more places like that. Basically tea has always been a very popular thing around here and coffee is one of those trends that did take its time. But you will see in the next year or two years that the coffee trend will really start to take off.
There is Rounton’s that is opening up on Bedford Street. I have met David, the owner, he is a great guy and have tried his cappuccino and it is fantastic. That is what we need, more independent places to be able to establish themselves as slightly different to Starbucks, Costa and Neros. It is safe to say that 90% of the public will have an experience of Starbucks, Costa or Nero, one of the big three but to be able to try something different, try something new, something independent is what we are here to do. To offer something different, I wouldn’t necessarily say better, I would say a slightly different taste and a different market altogether.
Q: Where do you get your coffees from?
I: We have a house blend that consists of three origins. 60% from Brazil, 30% from El Salvador and the remaining 10% coffee comes from India. It is a bold coffee. It is aged. It is grown through the monsoon season for six weeks before it is roasted. Our coffee is very different. It is a unique taste. It is very bold, there is a lot of flavour but there is very little acidity to it. That was one of the feedbacks we were getting when we were doing market research that what people don’t like about coffee is the bitterness, the acidity. So we offer them an alternative.
Q: Can we talk about cakes and desserts now.
I: We do a lot of the baking of the large cakes in store, we have an oven. My wife has plenty years of experience. One of our apprentices, Scarlet, is an absolutely fantastic baker. My wife and Scarlet combined make a lot of the cakes. In fact Scarlet has just made a rainbow cake, which is easily one of our more popular items. The day it is baked, by the end of the night we have 30 or 40 slices, literally all gone. The popularity of that will never cease to amaze me. It is just a very tasty cake.
Q: It is different flavours?
I: No. It is vanilla sponge with coloured icing. It is just the colours. It is such a simple cake but it is crazy popular with the kids. Apart from that, ice cream sundaes, waffles, crepes, wafer baskets and literally this weekend we are first in Teesside to launch freakshakes, like milkshakes on steroids is the only way I can describe them.
They come in a really big mason jar. For example the F5 has toppings of fresh strawberries and an ice twister lolly stuck in there. It is very visually appealing and it has kept us so busy this weekend. On the average weekend we go through 75 litres of ice cream. This weekend gone we went through over 215. It goes to show you the demand. We weren’t prepared for that level of demand, we literally had to shut shop early on Saturday night because we were out of stock. So, we know that the desserts are very popular with everyone and long may it continue.
Q: So I would imagine a lot of those ice cream desserts will attract the kids and the coffees for the parents. So, something for the whole family.
I: Exactly. I did everything to tick everyone’s boxes. Day by day, week on week, we are getting busier and we are seeing so many new faces on top of all the regulars as well. My wife and I when we put our heads together we do tend to tick all the boxes. We believe we did get this one particular decision right to combine desserts and coffee together which is very different for somewhere in Middlesbrough. But we are hoping that we are the first of many businesses similar to ours to ride this trend with us.
Q: What are your offers for Restaurant Week?
I: Any patisserie item, usually costs £3.95, so what we are doing is offering everyone a free coffee or large hot drink with any patisserie item. Basically Monday to Friday between 3-7pm we offer unlimited refills anyway, so you could be on unlimited drinks in Restaurant Week. We want everyone to try our particular coffee blend because it is different, it is unique and we think it is one of the best ones out there in Teesside. We want everyone to experience our coffee and agree with us that it is the best.
Q: Restaurant Week can be an opportunity then for people who may have walked past to duck inside and try you out.
I: Yes, as you probably know the bulk of the popular restaurants are on Linthorpe Road where Akbars, Manjaros, Peri Peri are. That is basically where the bulk of the trade is. With also Uno and Oven etc. There is very little to bring people past there towards Swatters Carr, unless they want a drink. We are hoping that this offer will entice people to come in once and try us because we know if you try us once then you will be back.
Q: You are not really that far from those restaurants you listed.
I: No, less than a 2 minute walk.
Q: There are other restaurants around you too with Kilimandjaro and over the road Happy Villa and Meze Lounge
I: And like I said with Dimi opening up next door and more opening. There is plenty to offer out here, we just need to give people a reason to walk those extra few steps.
I am hoping that the weather plays in our favour as well. There’s nothing better than having a nice ice cream sundae or a cone while the weather is hot. You don’t tend to do that when it is raining.
Q: You do appreciate hot drinks then, though.
I: Oh yes, exactly so we have got something for any weather condition.
Q: Let’s hope that on the final weekend of Restaurant Week we are celebrating promotion with Boro.
I: We are huge Boro fans in this shop and we always have the commentary on every game. I said at the start of the year, promotion is ours for the taking. If Boro do get promoted I think I will throw in a crazy offer. I will see if Aitor would like to come in here for a free coffee and cake on me.
248 Linthorpe Halls,
Mon – Sat: 7.30 – 22.30
Sunday: 16.00 – 22.30
Middlesbrough Restaurant Week – Monday 2nd – Sunday 8th May 2016