Saturday, April 23

A brief history of Ken's Cafe

Ken and Carol Lucas have been running Ken's Cafe for 49 years. Here they tell Pete May about their Boleyn memories… and the good news is they're staying open after the Hammers' move to Stratford.

Ken’s Café is a pre-match institution at West Ham. On match days the queues stretch through the door and out into Green Street. Ken’s is only the size of a normal two-up two-down Green Street house, but it fits in a tremendous number of customers around its Formica-covered tables.

Behind the counter is Carol in her apron, dispensing strong tea from an urn and numbered tickets for each food order, sharing jokes and shouting for someone to get more cups (the staff include three generations of her family). Hundreds of fans all get fed on time. Instead of on overpriced stadium pie or hot dog, you can still get egg, chips and beans with two slices and a cup of tea for less than a fiver.

Ken and Carol Lucas have plenty of stories to tell.  Ken emerges from his kitchen to make a rare appearance in the café itself and makes himself a coffee, joining Carol and myself at a table. Did they ever get used to get any footballers in?

“Frank Lampard Senior used to have a business two doors away and he’d sneak in for his sausage sandwich with masses of brown sauce,” remembers Carol.

“I put a load of brown sauce on it, he said ‘it ain’t enough’, I said ‘just have the bottle!’” adds Ken, who cooks all the food in the kitchen at the back of the café aided by his daughter Sarah Jane.

“We had half the team in here… Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst… a lot of the youngsters come in the old days. But they’re prima donnas now aren’t they, with their tinted windows, not signing autographs like in the old days,” says Carol. Though Carlton Cole did come in more recently. “It made my grandson Billy’s day and though he wasn’t meant to eat it, Carlton mullered his bacon sandwich!”

Ken and Carol celebrate their 50th anniversary
The good news is that the cafe is staying open next season after the Irons move to Stratford. “No we are not closing down!” emphasises Carol. “We’ll just potter along, as long as we get to the end of the week with enough to cover us.”

Ken, who recently turned 80, owns the café outright, so fans will still be able to get their pre-match grub in Green Street before taking a bus or taxi to Stratford.

Carol, who is a few years younger than Ken, but never seems to age, was originally from Slough and Ken from Streatham. They met at the Southend Kursaal when Carol was on the coach and Ken was riding his motorbike. After accepting a ride home on Ken’s bike Carol was in trouble with her parents, but romance quickly blossomed.

Having been a cook in the Army, Ken was working as a lorry driver, but fancied opening a café. In 1967, two years after marrying Carol he looked over number 467 Green Street. “I parked my lorry outside. The law come in and said you’ve got to move your lorry there’s a match on in two hours.  I didn’t even know West Ham was here!” recalls Ken.

When Ken and Carol took over the premises it was an amusement arcade. They still live upstairs and four of their children were born there. Ken kept a few machines in the café, though this lead to problems with, what he terms, “a few Herberts from Canning Town.”

“We had all the rockers in here and all the mods went to a place in Plaistow,” remembers Carol. “I told them we can’t have German helmets in here, it’s a Jewish area!”

“One of them came in with a shotgun. I said I’m not having that in here!” laughs Ken. “ You see ’em now and they’re all granddads. When I say ‘do you remember the shotgun?’ they go, ‘sshhh!’”

Back in the 1960s and 1970s Ken’s Cafe did an unlikely trade selling bacon sandwiches to Rabbis from the nearby Synagogue. “It was a very Jewish area when we moved here,” says Carol. “The market was mainly Jewish and next door was a Jewish lady selling materials. The rabbis would sneak in, and him next door, every time his wife went to the warehouse, he’d say, ‘quick Ken, get me a sandwich!’”

But it was the football trade that really helped the café prosper. Ken and Carol are proud of the fact that customers on match days are usually served within 20 minutes and nothing is cooked until it’s ordered. “Keep the fat hot!” is Ken’s sage advice for feeding industrial quantities of chips to hungry fans.

They’ve had the odd mishap though, such as the time a fryer broke down and, “the time the electric went off, so we did it by candle light but we still fed ‘em!”

Ken and Carol are happy to serve fans of any hue, though if there’s any aggravation it’s normally Carol who sorts it out. “I can shout them out, because they’re not likely to hit a woman,” explains Carol. “But the worst football fan was a woman in in her 80s, quiet as a mouse. Then one person came in wearing another team’s colours and she was like a volcano. The most she ever managed was three games before we threw her out again.”

Even the police used to like a secret cuppa round the back. “In came one of the chiefs saying ‘have you got any of my officers in there?” I said ‘no’ and he looked in the kitchen, but we had eight of them in the scullery at the back!” laughs Carol.

Over the years, the café’s displays of replica guns on the walls have caused some talking points. “This girl said, ‘are them guns real?’ I said, ‘yes’, the only thing you’ve got to do is don’t slam the door when you leave.’ She flew out of here!” chuckles Ken. “The law came in and he said ‘I’ve got to have you about these guns’ until I told him they were plastic.  We did have one of them nicked once and about a month later the bank was robbed!”

Ken’s Café has had its share of well-known customers such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ Phill Jupitus and Ken Livingstone when he was running for Mayor. “Ken’s alright, though I don’t like his politics. He saw the sign at the front and said, ‘my cafe!’ We’ve had EastEnders stars too and Iain Dale from LBC. I’m dreadful for names I just see faces,” says Carol. “What I like is the celebrities are just like any other punter. They queue up, they don’t expect special treatment. They’re not here as celebrities they just want to be one of the punters. So I won’t let anyone molest them.’’

Other memorable moments at Ken’s include a car swerving in Green Street and coming through the front window some ten years ago. “I was sitting here doing my books and crash, a car come in. The whole side of the shop come down. I got a new front out of him though,” says Ken. The Cafe has also had a window smashed by an irate window cleaner who had a grudge against the previous owner and was once burned down— but only on celluloid, when it was used as a film set.

Thanks to their match-day regulars Ken and Carol have been recognised in unusual places. Ken recalls: “We were at Center Parcs in Nottingham and this big bunch of Herberts came over. I said ‘watch it’ but as they got nearer they said “Ken’s Café!! How are yer!” What a relief! We were at the Isle of Wight in a chip shop late at night and the guy says, “I’ve seen you before in Ken’s Café!”

There was talk of a committee being formed to help local businesses move to Stratford, but little came of it. They remain sceptical about West Ham’s move to Stratford and Carol bemoans the flat prices of the planned development of the Boleyn Ground. “It’s rock bottom for housing in this borough, you get five families in some houses, so there should be more social housing when it’s developed.”

The area is changing, but Ken’s Café today is pretty much the same as it’s always been and that’s part of its charm and why authentic cafes are back in fashion. Ken and Carol seem genuinely happy in their work and will carry on. It’s a proper caff and they’re a culinary treasure.

“They won’t give us that fifth star for food because they want lighting and marble floors and posh chairs and a toilet,” says Carol. “But people are fed up with Costa Coffee and all this espresso double this double that. We won’t change!” And none of their customers would ever want them to.

Pete May's memories of West Ham's final season at Upton Park will be appearing in a forthcoming e-book Goodbye To Boleyn.


Shane Barber said...

Ah, the wonderful Ken's. The only place I've ever found that could serve a decent toasted bubble sandwich.

Happy days back in the 90s, flogging 'On A Mission' from a stall next door.

In the immortal words of their best sign....... 'Bubble takes a little longer"

Pete May said...

Indeed it does!

Melbourne Matt said...

Lovely piece Pete, on a matchday institution. You are too modest to say so, but i know Ken's played a big part in the life of "Fortune's Always Hiding" - still the finest fanzine in our history in my book - with NBN/Steve and Porky/Phil etc in the late '80's. I'm delighted to hear they are carrying on, so that I can visit with my kids when I come back from Melbourne, who still talk of their prematch meals at Ken's, and the miracle that however long the queue you always get a seat and always, or nearly always, get a meal before kick -off.

Pete May said...

Cheers Matt. Yes, Ken's was integral to the rise of Fortune's and we had many post-matvh inquests in there! We plan to visit there a few times next season and get a taxi or bus on to Stratford. And sure Carol and Ken will be impressed that people travel all the way from Australia to sample their chips….