It has been just over one year since double gold medal – winning Olympic athlete Dame Kelly Holmes first opened the doors of Café 1809.
Tucked away in the quiet village of Hildenborough, the ‘café’, a term which does not do the venue service, has proven to be a big hit among both the locals and the passing trade.
Named Café 1809 in honour of the numbers pinned to her running vest at the time of her triumphs, the venue feels as if it would be more at home in Spitalfields Market than Hildenborough.
Spacious and maximising the use of natural light, the entire place was planned by Kelly Holmes, right down to the Union Jacks which adorn the sofas – a reflection of its patron’s patriotism and her ex-military background.
“I did the project management, right through from the demolition of the old shop to the rebuild. I did not want to just call up someone and say ‘stick a café there and pretend it’s mine’,” she explained.
It may seem an unusual step for an athlete to announce their intention to open up a café, but for Kelly Holmes it was a way of both contributing to the community in which she grew up and embarking on a new life challenge.
With a drive to succeed ingrained in her from an early age, the fact she had no prior experience in the catering industry has not daunted her.
She said: “This industry was very new to me. I had a business before but it was in mentoring and education, so completely different.
“This has been a big learning curve for me. It is something which started with a passion, but as I had not done it in the past I have been learning on the job.”
Kelly Holmes took the decision to have a ‘hands on’ approach, and can often be seen in the venue doing some of the more routine and mundane jobs, such as cleaning up and serving the coffee.
Coupled with coffee tastings, the menu has been selected to cater for both the connoisseur and the average coffee drinker.
She said: “In the first year it was about operating in a way in which we became comfortable with our offer and learning how to conduct proper customer service.
“We have tried hard to work on our speed of service. But sometimes if you have a group of 30 cyclists arrive at once, the first person is going to be very lucky, but the last person is going to struggle.
“But you literally cannot go any faster because you cannot pour the coffee any quicker or make the food faster as we have a small kitchen. So we have to try and balance the expectations of people.”
A lot of thought has also gone into the food and drink served, The café sourcing its own blend of coffee, a mixture of Peruvian and Brazilian beans, from Tunbridge Wells based -Perk & Pearl.
However, Kelly Holmes always retained a wider vision for what she wanted to achieve with Café 1809.
She explained: “I knew what I wanted to do, which was to open a social hub for people to come in, enjoy, relax, come together whether from in the village or outside of it and use it as a meeting point.”
And although the Times was conducting the interview on a Friday morning, the place was already full with a variety of people.
“It has become more than a café, it has become a destination point and a little venue,” she added, explaining how the place has come to host several events and classes, including yoga and a mothers’ meeting, which was ongoing at the time of the interview.
There is also a cinema room, the facilities to host kids parties, space to hire out and a retail shop.
“I knew I wanted all of those spaces, and it is kind of what I had a vision for and it is probably different from what a lot of people expected when they come in here, Says Kelly Holmes.”
“But once you see the interest you have to keep building on it. It has probably become more about the venue itself than I was expecting it to be.”
Kelly Holmes explained that her reasons for choosing the location to build the café were rooted in her fond memories of the place from childhood.
She said: “I was a paper round girl from 12 to about 16, before working in the shop which used to be here for a year.
“I said to the owner then that I was going to buy the shop one day. I don’t even know why really.
“But what I remember from those days was the place really buzzing around Christmas and Easter when the owner used to dress it up for the villagers to come in. It just felt like a really nice environment.”
One of her main motivations in life has been the achievement of goals, which for many years was to compete in the Olympics.
Nowadays it is focused on her businesses and her desire to help as many people as possible.
She said: “My personality is driven by achievement and the need to feel like I’m progressing. I like to start things with an aim and achieve it.
“I had striven to achieve my gold medals for 12 years and once I had achieved this and injury forced me to retire, it was almost a relief to not have to strive to achieve it again to be honest.
“But since retiring I have had to find my feet.”
To this end she has become a prominent motivational speaker and the patron of her own charity, the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, which seeks to transform the lives of disadvantaged children through sport.
And, of course, she has thrown herself headfirst into the management of her café.
“When I retired I just thought ‘oh, what am I going to do?’ But you get given so many opportunities, to do things which are fantastic. You get to meet new people and learn about what you like and don’t like.
“But it is also hard because I went from a lifestyle where I was focused on just one thing – first to get into the army and then the Olympics – to having to split my attention between 15 things,” she said.
“Obviously my physical activity has also suffered a bit, but I try to attend the gym frequently and have got back into running and cycling more recently.”
It is partly because she has done so much to support other people over the past ten years, whether through her charities or her help for ex-servicemen, that Kelly Holmes decided to go into business for herself.
And her plans are not limited to her flagship café in Hildenborough, she said. “I want to expand the brand. I am definitely thinking of opening another couple of concession type ventures.
“If that goes well I will look at franchising, but that is long-term and I believe you need at least three or four of your own to get the formula right.”
The Personal Touch
WHICH MEDAL WERE YOU MOST PROUD OF ACHIEVING?
“That’s a hard question. I always dreamed I would win in the 1,500, which was the second medal, so that was a dream come true. But obviously the first, in the 800m, that was a shock. ‘I was like, oh my god I have just won a god medal in an event I didn’t think I would.’”
WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE AS A FEMALE PHYSICAL TRAINER IN THE ARMY?
“I loved the army. I entered in just before I was 18. When I joined it was the Woman’s Royal Army Corp, so effectively one army of all females, but we amalgamated in 1992 to become part of the British army and for a female it had its challenges.
But I thoroughly enjoyed it, I think it taught me a lot about myself, I grew up so quick. The army is known for discipline, and at that age you either take it or rebel against it and I took it because it is what I wanted to do.”
HOW DID YOU MOTIVATE YOURSELF TO RUN?
“I started athletics at a young age and throughout my teenage years I hardly went out or socialised. I was training first for three days a week then ﬁ ve. It just became a routine and I got involved in things like the youth Olympics. So I had learned self-discipline early. At the end of the day 80 per cent of performance is in the head, and when running it is about your tactical awareness on the track. Before races I would also listen to calming music, such as If I ain’t got you by Alicia Keys before my Olympic races.”