Bromley-By-Bow locals Maliha Haider and Katie O’Connor have created a new, sustainable coffee brand to champion female growers and producers. Stop by Bow Arts’ Nunnery Cafe to give Hey Sister Coffee a try
Bromley-By-Bow locals will doubtless be familiar with Nunnery Cafe, a cosy coffee and cake shop just off the High Street. It takes its name from the former nunnery that used to stand in its place, and is a much-loved part of Bow Arts, the neighbouring social enterprise and studio complex that provides affordable workspace to artists and artisans.
The cafe is managed by Maliha Haider, a coffee entrepreneur, who just so happens to supply the café’s freshly roasted beans with her partner Katie O’Connor. We caught up with them both to talk caffeine hits, community life and what sets their new venture apart from other artisan roasters.
So, Maliha, what inspired you to set up the roastery?
M: I’ve been in the speciality coffee industry for the last five years now. I’ve managed various different coffee shops, and enjoy working in sociable spaces. I wanted to have my own space with coffee, and it just kind of happened that I ended up creating a roastery rather than a coffee shop! I set up Hey Sister with my partner, Katie, who’s an actor, writer and educationist. We started during the pandemic, just roasting beans in small batches in our back garden, which we still do for freshness today. It’s still early days for us, but things have grown from there.
Where does your love for caffeine come from?
M: Coffee is a great connector. It can change people, businesses and communities. It’s a constant in our society. When two people meet for a first date, they go for coffee. Creative people meet and some great ideas are borne out of a coffee together. I’ve always wanted to create space – both in a physical and spiritual way – for people to have a dialogue. Coffee can help with that, I think.
What sets Hey Sister apart from other independent roasters, then?
M: We want to have a business that supports fellow women throughout the supply chain. We want to only source coffee from female producers and female farmers. This is a work-in-progress, but we’re working to create partnerships and and relationships with women across borders. We also pledge three per cent of Hey Sister’s profit to go back into the community. In the last few months, we’ve supported a local filmmaker we met through Bow Arts to make a sound film, for example.
K: There’s quite a bit of disparity between genders within the coffee industry. We wanted to help women who we normally don’t see; there’s a huge number of women who work in coffee globally, from crop to cup, who are almost invisible. Especially at a grassroots level – growing or harvesting beans. It’s physically demanding work and we never think about female workforces in Honduras, Mexico, Columbia, Brazil who actually grow and harvest the coffee we all enjoy. We’re just trying to do our little bit for them.
Hey Sister is only a year old. What’s the ambition for the business long term?
K: The dream is to establish a charitable foundation to support women in the coffee industry. Of course, to do that, we’ve got to keep building Hey Sister as a sustainable coffee brand and grow the company in a way that enables us to support communities.
M: We’d like to develop a kind of coffee training education programme too, and maybe work with schools or colleges to teach practical skills. It’s fun to make good coffee, but it’s also a skill to take into the working world.
Maliha, you also manage the Nunnery Cafe in Bow Arts, right?
M: The cafe is part of Bow Arts, and stocks our coffee. It’s a community space for everyone who’s local to Bromley-By-Bow. We’re an inclusive space, and we want to make sure we’re accessible and affordable. We host events and get togethers in the evenings and I’ve got a poetry evening coming up soon. There’s a new programme of supper clubs too. We’ve had a Persian evening and a vegan evening, so far. It’s a space to bring communities together – I’m proud of it!
You both sound incredibly passionate about supporting and connecting people. What does community mean to you?
K: Like Maliha says, it’s about creating conversations, telling stories, strengthening ties and bringing people together. That’s the thread between everything we do, really.