Interview: Michael from the Penny Bar, Old Vic Theatre

What’s it like to be the head barista inside one of the world’s most famous theatres? I caught up with Michael who has headed up the Penny Bar since it opened in 2015. From the challenges they face working inside a 200 year old building, to serving celebrities and up to 2,000 people in a day, to their ambitious sustainable practices; Michael reveals just how turbo-charged this multi-faceted cafe is, and how it has become not just a thriving theatre cafe, but one of the top coffee destinations in London.

One of my favourite coffee shops in London is inside a theatre: The Old Vic Theatre. Situated right next to Waterloo station, it first opened its doors in 1818 and since then has borne witness to seismic changes. From enduring two world wars; to launching the careers of British theatre icons John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier; from setting up the National Theatre and Sadler’s Wells, it’s fair to say it has been world-reaching in terms of its history, its enduring success and its contribution to culture and theatre on a global scale.

But throughout all the shifts that have occurred over the years, there is one thing that has remained constant: its mission to bring people together. As part of his scheme to widen and diversify The Old Vic’s reach, artistic director Matthew Warchus set up a coffee shop when he first began his tenure in 2015. But it wasn’t just going to be any theatre cafe; this was going to be somewhere which rivalled some of the great specialty coffee shops in London – this was going to be The Penny Bar.

“It’s a real feat of design, bridging the gap between theatre bar and daytime coffee shop”
The Penny Bar is named thus owing to the fact they held lectures in the building during the 1800s – anyone could come in and learn something new for a penny. The naming of it demonstrates a commitment to the theatre’s legacy of being inclusive, whilst also going one step further: it strives to introduce new people to the theatre.

So how do they do it? How can a coffee shop be responsible for introducing new people to the theatre?

I met Michael in the newly refurbished Penny Bar. He describes coffee as a ‘gateway drug’. Passers-by might be lured into the Penny Bar for a coffee via the side entrance on Webber Street and then, without even realising it’s a theatre, they could be offered a £10 day seat for a show. Before you know it, The Old Vic has gained a new audience member.

“As an Australian we’ve always been obsessed with coffee” – Michael in the Penny Bar

The Penny Bar has also totally reconstructed the idea of what a theatre cafe/bar can be. It wasn’t long ago that the function of theatre cafes/bars was to serve audience members a quick drink 30 minutes before the show, usually in an over-crowded room. Now, however, Michael says he wants to encourage people to come in at any time of the day, regardless of whether they’re going to the theatre or not. Of course, this is a big task for a small basement cafe. So they’ve spread the Penny Bar over all the bars on the floors of the foyer, turning it into a fluid concept. You can get Penny Bar coffee from any of these bars – all with trained baristas – making it a perfect place for people to come into the building, grab a coffee, eat some lunch, and enjoy the space without feeling a need to move on. It’s like a three storey coffee house inside the foyer of one of the most famous theatres in the world. How’s that for a coffee shop environment?

“It’s like a three storey coffee house inside the foyer of one of the most famous theatres in the world. How’s that for a coffee shop environment?”
It seems to be a perfect partnership, both coffee and theatre working together to bring people in. ‘I mean most people drink coffee, it’s such a huge industry. It’s a good way to get people interested – whatever it is, cycling or books or theatre – it’s literally a gateway drug’ explains Michael. Other coffee shops are doing this on a smaller scale – drawing people in via the commonality of coffee, and then to interest them in something else – but to see it happening on such a vast scale here is exciting for both the coffee industry and the theatre community. It can also work the other way – Michael explains how some theatre-goers are lured into the specialty coffee movement when they just order a ‘coffee’ and he takes the time to explain what different kinds he can offer, and then endeavours to make the perfect cup for them.
“There’s a love for the place, a deep sense of responsibility to uphold its legacy and to ensure it keeps evolving into the future”

The Coffee

Flat white perfection

Now let’s talk about the coffee. They use Workshop Coffee, a London based roastery which also trains the team here. On ‘dark weeks’ (a week when the theatre has no show on) they run refresher training for the staff. ‘We have a hundred people on staff like ushers who could work the bars. Trying to get everyone trained up is hard, so we try and do training as often as possible.’

I asked him what attracted him to the role. ‘I knew that they didn’t have a cafe and they were starting something. I like to come in – like the last couple of jobs I’ve had – and set up a cafe. Then you’re not going into someone else’s domain and trying to change things, you set how it’s going to work and then run it how you want it to be run. And I mean just to be able to work here – it’s a pretty special place and I haven’t left so…’ Michael’s eyes glisten as he looks round the foyer – you can tell this is much more than a job for him. And I sense this with everyone who works in the building. There’s a love for the place, a deep sense of responsibility to uphold its legacy and to ensure it keeps evolving into the future.

“Modern and calm. It’s the sort of place you’d want to spend all day in.” The space on the 1st floor

Day to day Penny Bar

Although the Penny Bar seems to be a law unto its own – or at least unto Michael’s – its day to day business is totally reactive to what is going on in the theatre. ‘Every day is different. We’ve got actors rehearsing at the back of house during the day so they might come down and have coffee and lunch. And if you have a matinee show on, suddenly you’ll have a thousand people in the building.’ At the time we met, the show Lungs was on with The Crown stars, Claire Foy and Matt Smith. It’s sold out, and so this will affect the running of the Penny Bar. ‘In order to get tickets people come and line up at 6am and then when we open at 8am we want them to come inside and sit and have coffee and breakfast before the box office opens at 10am.’ Alongside that, staff from the theatre will often hold meetings, and regulars who work locally pop in. But by the time the evening show goes up at 7:30pm, the Penny Bar evolves again into more of a bar and stays open late until 1/2am most days.

The side entrance leading straight into the Penny Bar

The level of constant adaptability and quick-fire invention necessary to keep afloat makes this one incredible, super-charged coffee shop. I ask Michael what challenges he’s faced. ‘Just the space,’ he says. ‘It’s a two hundred year old building, it wasn’t designed for all the things that we’ve added and that we want to be able to do.’ He mentions the flooding they had in 2016 when they had to close for a couple of weeks. ‘And we’re never going to have enough seating for a thousand people. But after this renovation, we have so much more space and it’s beautiful.’ We take a moment to look around. It’s true. It’s a real feat of design, bridging the gap between theatre bar and daytime coffee shop. There’s better wheelchair access, more toilets, more places to stand for interval drinks and the design is modern and calm. There’s a feng shui about it – it’s the sort of place you’d want to spend all day in.

The steps leading down to The Penny Bar from the street entrance (accessible lift on the left)

The UK Coffee Scene

Michael moved over to England from Australia nearly ten years ago – just as the coffee scene was taking hold over here. ‘As an Australian we’ve always been obsessed with coffee. I’ve never gone into a cafe in Australia and they’ve not had a flat white’. He continues, ‘I’ve been over here since 2012 and I feel like the coffee boom was starting then, but hadn’t quite hit McDonald’s yet – now they have these adverts like “what’s in a flat white?” which means it’s taken hold.’

I ask him how this has changed consumer habits. ‘People want the experience and the story behind it and the craftsmanship behind it. Artisanal. That word has sort of fallen away a little but that’s what it is, it’s people caring about their product, making it well, and it tastes better. In terms of beer, they used to make a lager and everyone would drink that. And now they make a bunch of different drinks and not everyone likes every type, but you can find the drink you like. It’s the same with coffee – you can find the drink you like and order it.’

What’s next?

“Sustainability, equality and independence”

Looking beyond the refurb and into the future, Michael says himself and Sam Miller (on the alcohol side) have worked towards three main aims: sustainability, equality and independence. Every product they serve represents at least one of these things – ideally all three. ‘So in terms of of our alcohol we’ve gone for the niche product which is made by women brewers instead of male brewers or it’s an independent company rather than the big conglomerate’. This practice spreads to the food, ‘We try to do locally sourced food and over half of our menu is vegan. Today is world vegan day so we’re doing 20% off anything vegan on the menu which is quite substantial because most of our menu now has a vegan option. Same thing with our milks: oat milks and almond milks and soy milks. We don’t charge for any extra for [alternative] milk because we don’t think you should be given a fee for that. And that’s also partly because the theatre as a whole has lots of vegans and people who care about these things – we had Extinction Rebellion across the road and it’s become the fore-front of everything that we do.’

Throughout the interview I was sipping away on a flat white Michael had made me, and it was good – just like it is every time I come here. What a feat the Penny Bar is. Five years old and yet so engrained in the theatre’s ethos and the feel of the place, it’s like it was always here. Welcoming, innovative, pioneering and inclusive. And with Michael at the helm, I’ve no reason to believe coffee will ever take a back seat at this theatre again (they’ve even got their own Keep Cup). Who knows, perhaps your traditional ‘theatre cafe’ might become a thing of the past, with people like Michael changing our perceptions of what it can be. Coffee benefitting theatre, and theatre benefitting coffee. Now that’s a two-way street I can get behind.

***

Final Quick Fire Questions…

Best thing about working in a theatre cafe?

‘I like the challenges it brings – each day something happens and we have to adapt to it, and I love that. I think most of the people who work here are actors and creatives in some way and they thrive on that as well. It’s sort of that unknown which is fun – terrifying sometimes, but also it means it’s never a dull day.’

How do you make your coffee?

‘I make filter coffee at home. Because I’m here Monday til Friday I only drink coffee [at home] on Saturday and Sunday. If I had the space for an espresso machine I would have that – a small mini espresso machine, single filter sort of thing. I would have that in a heartbeat. At the moment I use a workshop coffee grinder and then use a V60 filter, which is nice.’

What’s the best coffee-related product you’ve ever bought?

‘A grinder. It’s a really simple Krups Grinder, but makes our lives much easier!’

What’s the secret to making a great cup of coffee?

‘Consistency, I think. What I try and teach here is that the coffee shouldn’t be any different between when I make it and when someone who’s working the show makes it 5 minutes before the show goes in. We’ve tried to keep the recipe the same and train everyone so that every time the same quality of coffee is coming out. We weigh every shot, it’s written on the grinder downstairs so that you know it should be 16 grams and it should take 30-34 seconds. And if you’re doing it the same every time you’re gonna have good coffee every time.’

The bar on the ground floor
The Penny Bar is open Mon-Wed 8am-1am; Thurs-Fri 8am-2am; and Saturdays 1pm (if there is a matinee on) or 6pm-2am. There is full accessibility via the lift from the entrance on Webber Street. The food menu is designed by South East London cafe Brown and Green.
Find out more by visiting the Penny Bar website. If you’d like to book tickets for their current show – including £10 tickets – featuring Alan Cummings and Daniel Radcliffe, click here. For more information on the history of the building, visit their website here. To book one of the infamous ‘Ned’s Tours’ which takes you backstage and around the building, click here.
Want to follow in the wake of top barista Michael? Make Penny Bar quality coffee at home with Workshop Coffee; get a V60 filter here; or get a Krups Grinder here.

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