Chris Evans: social entrepreneur at Blighty

18 Mar

Everyone has a story. Arsenal fan Chris Evans had a gut feeling that Finsbury Park needed a workspace above a coffee shop so in 2013 he opened Blighty offering a taste of San Francisco live-work synergy to Islington. Here he explains more about behind the scenes Blighty, touching on eggs, ebay, pop ups and a new Anderson Shelter in the garden. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Chris Evans, Blighty coffee and workspace manager: “I feel like I’m a start up so like to help other start ups.”

Chris Evans, Blighty coffee and workspace manager: “I feel like I’m a start up so like to help other start ups.”

Two years ago – on 15 February 2013 – Chris Evans took the keys to his new property, the old Lee Valley College on Blackstock Road.

Blighty decor is quirky British.

Blighty decor is quirky British.

“We didn’t open Blighty Coffee for another three months,” he says remembering back to a hectic time of painting and ebay bidding. Two years on the coffee shop and community workspace is thriving. “There are three full-time staff and lots of part-time,” says Chris, plus nearly 30 currently renting (as hot deskers or regularly) the networked office space above the café.

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Chris Evans at his Blighty Cafe, Blackstock Road.

Blighty Coffee is on the Hackney side of Blackstock Road just down from Sainsbury’s and opposite the N4 library. It’s a friendly place also offering delicious food – Winston is their best selling full English breakfast but Chris recommends the Shropshire Eggs with grilled asparagus.

Downstairs are the mums and buggies, upstairs it’s cosier with a piano, sofa and walls of pre-war memorabilia (bunting, golf clubs, hockey sticks, leather box suitcases) that add to the British feel. It’s usually busy, but “most people who come here are in their 30s,” he says. On the Monday afternoon I do this interview they also all have laptops (there’s free wi-fi).

Chris Evans is building an Anderson Air Raid Shelter in the Blighty garden.

During February 2015 Chris Evans began building an Anderson Air Raid Shelter in the Blighty garden. They were used in the 1939-45 World War 2, but these days you can buy them in kit form from the internet.

Blighty also has a garden sitting space that acts as a sun trap (when the weather obliges) and can be used for meals most of the week and until 10pm on Friday and Saturday evenings. “I’m building an Anderson Shelter,” says Chris taking me to see a shiny shed where a family or friends could gather to enjoy breakfasts. The plan is to gently sound the air raid siren indoors on Saturdays – the first person who then runs to the shelter will win themselves a Brownie. Chris then does a test run of the siren (it’s not that loud!), cutting into the Blighty blend of cool jazz, followed by Winston Churchill’s famous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech that has some of the flat white drinkers looking a fraction bemused. It’s not Saturday you see…

Places Chris Evans likes in Islington

  • Gunners pub.

    Gunners pub: “lined with legends”.

    When I was 16 or 17 I’d come to see Arsenal and go past the Gunners pub. It is lined with Arsenal legends and going there now gives me that nostalgic feel.

    The people who work in Blighty Arts do a social once a month – we often go to Rowans.

    I like playing five-a-side football at the Sobell Centre.

    Dotori is good. Find it at 3a Stroud Green Road, N4. Tel: 020 7263 3562.

    I’ve gone off Angel – it’s too gentrified, but I like Coffee Works. It’s high quality and clearly designed by a coffee nerd. They have a very expensive espresso machine – there are only three of this type in England!

    I like walking down Holloway Road and going to Waitrose to buy a few treats.

Blighty loyalty cards pinned to the wall so customers cannot forget them.

Blighty loyalty cards pinned to the wall so customers cannot forget them. There’s a definite customer desire for “world peace” and Arsenal “to win the league”.

So how did Blighty come about? “I loved coffee but I was a bit fearful of running a coffee shop. With so many Mediterranean and chicken shops on Blackstock Road I had a gut feeling that a workspace above a coffee shop would do well here. I used to run a workspace in Wood Green and I think of my job as introducing people. I’ve got my desk in the corner and try to facilitate a lot of conversation – it’s good to be able to meet the people who work here.”

With desk users tending to live local (including standup comedians, musicians, consultants, a branding agency, developers, designers, illustrators, various social enterprises, photographer and most recently a musicians’ agent) the opportunities for networking at the monthly socials are huge.

“Blighty is a corruption of the hindi word for foreigner. Soldiers used to say ‘I’m going back to blighty’ when they were going home. I was doing business with India and was looking for a name that was a generic word and could be applied to coffee, recruitment even gaming.” When Chris tried the name out on friends they said it made them think of Churchill: hence the mural.

“Blighty is a corruption of the Hindi word for foreigner. Soldiers used to say ‘I’m going back to blighty’ when they were going home. I was doing business with India and was looking for a name that was a generic word and could be applied to coffee, recruitment even gaming.” When Chris tried the name out on friends they said it made them think of Churchill: hence the mural – created by Nick  Jobbings.

It’s a creative place to visit – there are ceramic courses, life  and portrait drawing (on Thursdays) and recently a three-day pop up kitchen. “It’s called Bangers and Mash up and really fits the Blighty theme,” adds Chris.

Chris studied business at university and before Blighty was exclusively working on internet projects, often commuting between London and India. He still works with the Hyderabad team, knows a few words of Telugu and helps an orphanage with their micro-credit project to get women into business.

Once Chris Evans decided to call his business Blighty he discovered it's been a popular name - here are 1940s magazines.

Once Chris Evans decided to call his business Blighty he discovered it’s been a popular name – here are 1940s magazines.

Finsbury Park
But Chris, 37, lives in Islington – at a new apartment off Fonthill Road – and though he’s lived out of the borough occasionally his first home was on Avenell Road, N4.

I used to think Finsbury Park was a dive coming from a farm in Shropshire,” he says with his disarmingly friendly manner. “Back then I didn’t know London, but I wanted to live by Arsenal. When I first moved to London I thought there was no community – I found my first place on Avenell Road in Loot magazine. But now I think of Finsbury Park people as friendly folk. I can see there are people who live nearby, who like the community, and even invite you to their parties. It’s nice that my fears about starting this business haven’t been realised.”

  • Blighty, 35-37 Blackstock Road, N4  http://www.blightygroup.com/
    Weekdays it opens at 7.30am; weekends 8.30pm.
    Get 5 per cent off your bill if you are dressed in 1940s fashion
  • Blighty Arts (work space) costs £90 a month for 2 days a week, 7am-7pm. The full month is £180.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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One Response to “Chris Evans: social entrepreneur at Blighty”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Nick Jobbings: illustrator | Islington Faces Blog - June 17, 2015

    […] You can also read an interview with Blighty’s founder, social entrepreneur Chris Evans here. […]

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