6th October 2022
Each week our in-house food writer Bibi Roy reviews a TN partner to see what members can expect when they visit. This time she visits Zero Cafe & Emporium at 13 The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells.
Holly and Charlotte (Lottie) set up Zero Vegetarian Café and Emporium in the heart of The Pantiles to “create a space that encourages the community to come together and shop, smartly, ethically and locally”. Opened on the old Taywell Farm Shop and Secret Bookshop site in 2019, these two adorable mums wanted to provide a zero waste environment offering household refills, locally sourced produce and a coffee shop at the back. I would go there every week to pick up my apple juice, fresh cheeses, pastries, fruit and vegetables and end up buying far more than I had planned, whilst parking myself on one of their comfy armchairs for a slice of cake and coffee, so inviting was the atmosphere. Then Covid hit.
Everyone had to rethink their business model. During this time, things got so bad they were on the brink of closing. They decided to put a call out to the local community and the response was incredible. People came in droves, it literally saved the business, but they realised it was time for a change of direction if they were to survive. Holly and Lottie decided to scale back selling bulk foods, launching a brand new community hub. They converted the front of the shop into a lovely café and turned the back into an emporium, a space rented out to twenty-five independents all with same ethos. The exhibitors take proceeds from sales and pay a rental fee to their hosts.
As I sit, Lottie tells me both of them have no experience in the food industry but have employed a great chef, Jen who has created a stellar menu. They are even converting the kitchen downstairs for her and Lottie is now proud to say, “We do coffee, cake and lunches and that’s what we do well”. She’s pretty happy that they have just received a five star hygiene rating too. Seasonal dishes are gradually being introduced. Customers are delighted at the return of their famous soups and chillies, which they sold as takeaway during lockdown, along with nachos. Apparently they are toying with the idea of vegan and veggie burgers. Let’s see what they come up with, there’s stiff competition in this town.
Jen makes the delicious vegan cakes, tempting all as they approach the counter. They try to source produce as locally as possible. Pastries and bread are from brilliant TN partner The Sussex Kitchen, orange juice is freshly squeezed and they make a lot of drinks in-house rather than buying them in. Coffee is also by TN partner, Bean Smitten in Flimwell. You can choose if you want dairy or vegan cheese in your sandwiches. I personally detest the texture of vegan cheese and am therefore pleased about this. Smoothies are still popular of which they have three, Tropicana, Green Goddess and Enchanted Forest. They are reasonably priced too.
Seasonal Warmers, including Hot Chocorange, Mulled Wine and Eggnog Chai Latte are right up my street, but if I want something alcoholic they have a whole menu of wine, winter favourites, long drinks, craft beers and cider and local spirits. Good to see my favourite Ranscombe Wild on there and I must try the Light n Stormy, intriguing. All wines are organic and sustainable. If you wish to buy a bottle and drink it here, the corkage is £10. They are awaiting a full collection to enable a buy the glass option.
And so to my lunch. Before I start, the typical demographic is families, mainly dog owning families, which is great if you don’t have a long hair allergy like me. Don’t worry I just play musical chairs but have to say they are all really cute and well behaved. From their Seasonal Warmers menu they make me a Snow White. Creamy, dreamy hot chocolate made with real Belgian white chocolate. Made with dairy milk but you can have coconut which I love and oat. It’s for you sweet treat maniacs out there and they even put a teaspoon of white chocolate drops on the side, gone in seconds.
From their Speciality Lattes menu I try Mr Blue Sky. It’s so pretty and tastes marvellous. The butterfly pea flower makes a blue, mood enhancing, stress busting latte, said to increase energy and productivity. I love the little freeze dried raspberries on top, they give such appeal. I’ve found my new drink, love it Lottie.
The Curried Lentil Soup is divine and served with crackers made by a local lady, containing flax, sunflower seeds, red pepper, garlic and sea salt, not the lady, the crackers! They are equally delicious, perfectly complimenting this warm hug of soup. I love this time of year as restaurants and cafes change their menus to reflect the colder season. Soups are now available at lunchtime and change every few days.
The Slumdog Trillionaire, their signature is truly massive. We Indians love a toastie and theirs is an homage to this traditional Mumbai street food. Within the beast, a lightly spiced masala potato layered with cheddar, creamy mozzarella smoked applewood cheese topped with zingy green chilli chutney. Chunky white farmhouse bread brings it together with a lightly dressed salad. The chutney makes it very piquant, but it does make this double carb creation feel lighter on the belly. They have three other toasties, sandwiches, salads and savouries, not a sausage roll and hash bite sides.
Remember I always save belly room for dessert? As well as their amazing selection of vegan and vegetarian cakes, there’s the Queen’s Tea, two fluffy sweet raisin scones with butter and their award winning raspberry jam, accompanied by a cup of tea of your choice. I have to try one of their vegan cakes and go for the Cherry Bakewell. It’s marvellous, gooey and jammy where it should be, better than any non-vegan version.
I have to say between four of them they are working the room very speedily. Presently there is a table of eight having afternoon wine, mums and babies in every corner, children and toddlers doing drawings whilst sipping milkshakes with mum and dad and a big St Bernard making friends with everyone. I love the buzz of the place. Not one person has a glum look on their face and the team seem to be coping admirably with the rush. You have to have a certain personality to do this job, to be able to smile when the world is chaos around you. These girls are well prepared sunflowers, I say sunflowers because they smile continually, exuding positivity in every interaction.
To Lottie, Holly and your stellar gang, thank you for a lovely luncheon. I hope you get five minutes to sit down because you all deserve it. Did I tell you they also do outdoor catering and arrange events and workshops, like wreath and candle making? Where do they find the energy?!
All opinions are my own. Review exclusive to the TN card.
Member reward: Complimentary hot drink when spending £5 or over in the café (to dine in or to take away). 10% off shop branded purchases, (excludes fresh produce and bakery). 10% off purchases from the TN card partners in our Ethical Emporium.