To say that Alex Motta made the BloQs Cafe could be misinterpreted. Alex literally made the BloQs Cafe. He built it, he designed it, he fitted it. He even lived in it.
Now, after four years beating the heart of Building BloQs, the Brazilian native is heading for pastures new. In May he’ll leave his north London legacy behind for the bright lights of Berlin.
As the hunt continues for someone to fill Alex’s shoes, the man behind the kitchen counter opened up on how his cafe came to be.
Fresh off a plane from Lisbon, where he’d been a successful restaurateur, Alex arrived in London looking to change paths.
A mutual friend connected Alex with Arnaud Nichols, who was at the time working as a maker in the Chilli Works communal living space in north London. He didn’t know then, but Alex met flatmates Arnaud, Al and Vinny at the very nexus of the Building BloQs project.
“When I first spoke with Arnaud we found out we had lived in the same place in Brazil,” says Alex. “It seemed a good fit, so I asked to come in and have a look in the workshop. I offered to clean the workshop for free, just to get to know the business.”
Doing odd jobs around the Chilli Works, it wasn’t long before Arnaud won a commission that needed more hands. So the trained chef got some rapid on-the-job experience in woodwork, metalwork, cutting, sanding, painting and finishing.
When the landlord served notice at the Chilli Works, the hunt was on to find a new space. And when the group stumbled across the leaky Enfield workspace, Alex was able to put his old and his new skills to work.
“I started to build the cafe, cleaning and sorting and clearing out the rubbish. What is the kitchen today was literally a big pile of rubbish. It was a lot of work to carve out and fix the space for the cafe, it was basically an empty space that was falling down.”
As the other founders concentrated on building up the maker workspace, it was up to Alex to, with his newfound woodworking skills, make the tables, the chairs and the fixtures in his own custom cafe. It soon came together.
“We decided to open the workshop cafe just as the place was taking off. It was organic. Friends were coming in to use the facilities before we’d really thought about our business model so the cafe was a logical step.
“I remember saying to Arnaud: do we have money? He said no. I didn't have any money either.”
Alex was only able to buy the bare essentials after a fundraising dinner for friends and colleagues. The pictures of that evening can still be found on the wall of the cafe. Takings from the night even stretched to plates and cutlery.
Finally, and with the help friends Che and Flavia, Alex opened the Building BloQs cafe on the 28th May 2013. But times remained tight, and any money made was pumped straight back in.
“We literally had no money,” says Alex. “We used to buy the food, cook it, sell it, then go to the supermarket and repeat. We'd do this three times a week because we didn't have any reserves.
“In fact, when I opened the cafe, I actually moved in and lived here: I wasn't being paid and we weren't making money. It continued on like that until we were eventually able to buy things.”
Many things separate the Building BloQs cafe from any other workshop caff, but chiefly it’s the food. Alex’s menu is innovative and refined - it’s more pork belly and polenta chips than pie and mash. It’s not the typical fare one associates with a worker cafe.
“I had quite a few arguments with Arnaud and Al because they said we should be a chips and bacon kind of place,” says Alex. “I said I didn't want that. This is a place where people make stuff so I wanted to serve homemade food: honest and wholesome food for a fiver.”
From the beginning, Alex saw the cafe as a place to represent and strengthen the Building BloQs’ community.
“The cafe has a role to play beyond food,” he says. “I tried to make this an extension of my kitchen: when I have people at home for dinner, I want to make the time comfortable, not too pretentious or formal. I just want to be myself and make people feel welcome.
“Today people pay for their coffees even when I'm not here. It's a place of trust. They'll always settle their bills – that's the kind of place we have here.”
Having lived (literally) and breathed the workspace cafe since its inception, Alex has decided to embark on life’s next chapter. Describing it as “a natural time to leave”, the self-diagnosed activity junkie is headed for Berlin in May.
“I took the cafe to a level I'm happy with and I feel I can leave it in safe hands,” he says. “I made something; I made this space and that's my mark.
“In terms of the cafe, I see it like I did the original artwork. Other people can come in and develop that artwork, but I laid the foundations. I built the reputation and I’m happy.
“BloQs gave me the opportunity to be creative and to try new things. I found inspiration and ideas in some wonderful people here. And when you're surrounded by creative people you challenge yourself - you get better every day.”
Welcome back any time, Alex will inevitably miss the next phase of BloQs as we scale up our business and our ambition. The only things he asks of the team and his successor in the kitchen - someone who’ll have to get used to baking bread at 7am - is that the BloQs Cafe, whatever it becomes, retains the vibe and the heart he worked so hard to nurture.