Now that the heatwave is over, and we’ve regained a sufficient amount of bodily water content – we spoke to co-founder Valentina of Morena.

Immediately you’re taken back with the beauty of this place, it really is an Instagramer’s paradise. The Southern American inspired cafe boasts an amazing breakfast, lunch and dinner menu – taking your average cafe to the next level. 

When speaking to Valentina, you can really see the heart and soul that went into building this place. We spoke about the struggles of opening during the pandemic and the current recruitment lull that’s effecting businesses all over the UK. For only being open for 2 years, this staple of Victoria is not a place to miss. Hope you enjoy the read! 

Where did Morena come from?

‘I started the business 2 years ago with my sister, we always wanted to start our own business together but we saw the London space was very saturated with coffee shops. In order to stand out you have to do something different. Being from Columbia, we have the best coffee in the World and we thought it would be the perfect inspiration to start with. However, when we first started we soon found out we couldn’t survive on just serving coffee. So we then decided to incorporate an older dining style of American restaurant, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

The coffee is single origin from Columbia and the food takes a big inspiration from Latin America. It’s not 100% authentic but we put our own twist on it. We have our own third party roasters who cover us on the bean front.’

What was it like starting the business? 

‘We had been planning the business for 4 years and we just had to jump in, with Covid we had to face the challenges of actually getting people through the door, and Brexit has also caused us problems with shortages in stock as well. So it has been a bit of an uphill battle. 

The big increase in prices has also been challenging, thankfully we have a good loyal customer base who understands this, I mean everyone can see that prices are going up just from walking into the supermarket. We also rely on quite a lot of people who work in offices, with Covid they weren’t there, and that was a big hit for us.’

Why London? 

‘We definitely wanted to be in Zone 1, but we didn’t want to be around Oxford Circus and the really central places, as we found it too commercial. We did view a couple of properties around Victoria, but as soon as we saw this place it felt right, it was modern and really matched our brand. 

The biggest thing that stood out for us was how modern the property was, it’s in a nice area with nice people. What more could you want? The property came in ‘show’ condition so we had to completely change the place, we used a designer who was amazing, unfortunately the builders were not so great.’

What was the biggest learning curve you had to face? 

‘I think that things are never going to go to plan, there’s always going to be external factors that you need to take into consideration. There will be things that don’t arrive on time and especially doing this during Covid tested my level of perfectionism. We had to take all of this into consideration and everything simply can’t be perfect. 

Even finding the right people was a learning curve, you need to make sure that you’re choosing the right people and we like to take the time to train our staff properly.’

What are the qualities you look for in your staff? 

‘I think this was one of the hardest factors about starting the business, we had never done this before. It was good that our families have had previous businesses, but nothing to do with food or hospitality – but then they gave some advice dealing with staff. 

When we began hiring we did prioritise experience, but these days we look more for how nice people are and how responsible they are. You do get some people with great experience, but aren’t the best face to face with customers. For us that is quite important and it is a customer facing environment, also with those with loads of experience, it could be they’re just not the right fit – which I think people need to remember. We look for people who are young, willing to learn, positive and have the right attitude, we’re a small team and everyone needs to get along. 

At the moment it is hard to find anyone with more than a years experience, we’ve found we have been training a lot.’

What’s it like getting staff in at the moment? 

‘It’s been really tough, we’ve tried absolutely everything. This meant we had to step in and do everything, even at the beginning we used to be here 7 days a week. In order to grow a business you need to delegate, otherwise you will burn out and make mistakes. It’s good when you begin getting those staff members in, who you can trust, and it’s great to make sure that people know not everyone is perfect and people will learn!’ 

How did you go about staffing Morena? 

‘For front of house it’s been ok, but in the kitchen it has been difficult. It’s great at the moment because a lot of places are paying a lot more. We found in the job description we like to keep it simple and make sure those applying don’t feel like they can’t do it, with chef roles for example we made it really simple so we can have those apply with less experience and develop their skills on the job. 

Larger organisations can afford to give big staff benefits like gym memberships and so on, for smaller places like us it is hard to do that. It’s competitive and overall most places are struggling with this, but our biggest benefit is the people and the work environment. Even some places are sponsoring Visas which is quite crazy.’

What did you do beforehand? 

‘So I just finished my masters in Fashion Marketing, my sister also in management. We split the tasks, so my sister is good with the numbers and I do more of the day to day tasks. Very different, but skills are always transferable – with this job we learn something new each day and it keeps it really interesting.’

What’s the next steps? 

‘Once we’ve recruited our full team, we’re planning on opening a second smaller store. We’re thinking more just coffee and cakes as we cook all our pastries. The struggle with recruitment has had an effect on this.’

What do you look for in a coffee shop? 

‘I think it’s good to look for somewhere that feels pretty, don’t get me wrong I get the minimalist coffee shops that want the focus to be solely on the coffee. But for me, I like it when things look nice. I think the coffee as well needs to be good, as there’s so many places here, you can’t be serving bad coffee. I love it when the barista has a smile on their face and looks like they’re enjoying their work, and I guess good quick service is always something I look for.’

Will you be continuing with the Southern American theme? 

‘We definitely want to continue it, we have created a brand around it, and that is one of the hardest things when there are so many things to do on the side. When creating the brand, the most important things for us was to be different, even down to the small details like the coffee cups, the way the food is served as well as the coffee. Don’t get me wrong you can have a pretty cup and horrible coffee, you need to make sure these aspects need to match. We wanted a place where someone can come and take pictures and enjoy their time here.’

Words and images by Curtis Connor

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