Meet the Australian who went from food truck to conquering London’s cafe scene

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London: When Prue Freeman arrived from Sydney to work for financial firm UBS on Liverpool Street in London’s Square Mile she entered something of a culinary dead zone.

“There was just nothing here, it was either Starbucks or [sandwich chain] Pret,” she recalled.

Daisy Green founder, Prue Freeman, pictured at her newly opened bar Larry’s at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.Credit: Melisa Coppola

“There were really no healthy, options, nothing fresh, it all felt like it was living twenty years in the past.”

Freeman, then aged 28, and her British husband Tom purchased an ice cream truck covered in Smurfs cartoons for £3000 ($5700) on eBay, intending to launch a street food business.

It was a disaster. Lured to the Isle of Wight festival in 2012 with talk of making £80,000 ($153,000) in a weekend, heavy rain struck, bogging the vehicle and stranding her on the island with tens of thousands of pounds worth of food that she had been unable to sell.

“It was such a stupid mistake. The first six months were not good,” Freeman said.

The 1985 Ford Transit purchased by Freeman in 2012.

Freeman returned to her self-respecting Australian roots, replicating what she knew from home.

“In Sydney … I always remember in the bottom of the buildings you had these amazing baristas who knew your name, knew your coffee, knew something about you,” she said.

Freeman set about bringing that experience to London, beginning with mobile baristas who operated coffee carts on eco-bikes out of the ground floor of London’s skyscrapers, including inside the distinctive Gherkin building. Her first barista was Australian-Italian.

“He was exactly the culture,” she said. “[We were] baking banana bread after banana bread in our flat overnight and packing it up warm to take on the tube across London at 5am. By 6:30am, when our makeshift ‘cafe’ was ready and the queues formed, it was the first moment of finally something’s going right.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visits Bondi Green cafe in London.Credit: Domenico Pugliese

Freeman’s next major break came via her former job at UBS, the third-largest employer in the Square Mile, when the tenant in the building’s kiosk moved out.

“While the space was a shoebox, it was right in the middle of the action and we were serving 1500 coffees a day,” she said. “I think that’s when we had the first feeling of what were doing [was working] – but it was tiny.”

The coffee outlets served as a launch pad for their first cafe, Daisy Green, which they opened in April 2013 in London’s Marble Arch.

Freeman hasn’t looked back. Daisy Green is now in 15 locations across London and the business has always been profitable, with turnover reaching £25 million ($48 million).

To fund their rapid expansion, they sold 20 per cent of the company to around 1000 investors, crowdfunding from fans, supporters and friends, many of whom were former UBS colleagues. But the couple have kept 100 per cent control.

Daisy Green’s popularity is such that they are now being approached to open in new developments, with their most ambitious venue – the 10,000 square-foot venue Paradise Green (inspired by Surfers Paradise) at Bishopsgate, near the Gherkin skyscraper.

And then there is the most recent success – winning the tender to run a cafe, restaurant and bar in London’s newly reopened and revamped National Portrait Gallery.

“Daisy Green was this evolution. Daisy flowers physically open in the morning and close in the evening,” Freeman explained.

“But we also wanted to signify the green credentials of what we were doing by serving healthier, greener food.”

Freeman serves treats at the Audrey Green cafe at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.Credit: Melisa Coppola

The last decade hasn’t been without challenges. Unlike Australia, Britain never had a strong brunch culture.

“We’d open at 7am and sometimes we wouldn’t get people until 11am,” recalled Freeman, who credits food bloggers for helping Daisy Green first get noticed.

“Within six weeks the brunch was a sellout and the weekend brunch took off. We always thought it would be about the weekdays, but suddenly the weekend became the bigger part of the business.”

Freeman with her Daisy Green gourmet frozen yoghurt van.

Freeman describes the food Daisy Green serves as big with bold flavours, quality ingredients and layers of texture.

“I think of it as food you could do at home if you tried, but you just don’t want to do it, and it’s easier to go out,” she said.

Across the various Daisy Green venues there are constants on all menus including smashed avo, shakshuka, a fancy bacon roll, The Bondi (big breakfast) and Golden Gaytime pancakes. But no two venues look the same.

Freeman works with 25 artists, commissioning installations for new venues.

The Bondi Green venue in Paddington, which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited earlier this year, features a 3D felt Aussie supermarket wall by artist Lucy Sparrow that pays tribute to Australian foods, like Redskins, Milkos, Violet Crumbles, Tim Tams and Vegemite. It is Sparrow’s only work on permanent display.

Scarlett Green in Soho, which is ranked second on Trip Advisor’s Top Restaurants in London index, brings the beach to life with huge over-exposed aerial photographs of the Bondi waters.

This month Freeman opened the crowning jewels in the Daisy Green collection at the Portrait Gallery – Audrey Green and Larry’s.

On the gallery’s ground floor, Audrey Green pays homage to the West End – where Audrey Hepburn began her career on stage. The interiors are elegant and chic with curved velvet-lined booths set against the natural lines of the room’s cupola.

Audrey Green cafe.Credit: Melisa Coppola

But even in this most British institution, there are subtle nods to Australia. The bench at the back of the cafe is made from cement but fashioned to look like corrugated iron – a reference to Prue’s upbringing on a farm in Victoria.

And downstairs at Larry’s – cocktail a bar created in underground vaults never previously opened to the public – portraits of Australian icons including the late Barry Humphries and Kylie Minogue hang on the exposed brickwork alongside other greats of global popular culture.

The two venues manage to bring retro, classic and classy all in one and place Australian food and coffee at the heart of one of Britain’s most important cultural institutions.

Freeman’s success is no surprise to Jeffrey Young from Allegra Group, which began the London Coffee Festival in 2011. He has been observing the antipodean takeover of London’s coffee scene for a quarter of a century.

“They’ve got a real sparkle about them,” he said. “There’s an antipodean cheekiness to Daisy Green where they’ve said ‘I don’t have to play the rules – I’ll make them.’

“They’ve scaled up boutique, they’ve got a pizazz with the art, and what they’ve done by getting into the Portrait Gallery is really something and shows how far they’ve come.”

Freeman now employs 500 people but admits this has been challenging, with fewer Australians travelling to the UK and available for hire since the pandemic began.

“If we can, I do, yeah, prefer to employ Australians. They’re just fun and they do the job,” she said. “We’d love to get some more Aussies in.”

She is confident that the new working holiday visas announced in the Australia-UK trade deal will see an influx of young Australians to London.

And for those inspired by her success, Freeman has this tip: “My advice would be to have an idea and just go for it. Sometimes the best decisions are made on a shoestring and with a level of ignorance.

“But be flexible and prepared to change and tweak your idea over and over again until you find your magic.”

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