Coffee, cuppas and community from Brixton’s cafés

Through two lockdowns, the doors of Brixton’s wonderful family-and-friends cafes were open for coffee and cake collection and more. Simone Richardson (a decaf latte) pays tribute

people behind a cafe counter
The San Marino team

Along with those cafés famous all over the world, Brixton’s deserve publicity too …

San Marino in Brixton is nearly ready to celebrate 30 years of keeping our coffee, cake and carb levels where we want them.

Since 1993, the Schifanos, a Sicilian family by origin, have brought the best decaf latte and much more, with paninis and other Italian food to Brixton, which the family now call home. 

Since 2009 San Marino has been in its current premises on the corner of Brixton and Brixton Station Roads. Its original home was nearby on Brixton Road too. 

During the first, way more strict and longer, lockdown the family and close friends who work at San Marino took the time to recreate the cafe with colour and style inside and out.

Nicholas Schifano, who has worked there for two years, expresses his admiration for his Uncle Mario, saying: “My Uncle Mario made San Marino what it is today.

man in Covid mask
Nicholas Schifano

“He did that with his mindset. He put his mind to it. He knew what he wanted. He visualised it and he got it where it is today.”

Nicholas explained how his uncle and his brother (his Dad) and his Nan grew up on the Stockwell Park estate – Brixton to them.

Nicholas lives in Croydon now, while his uncle is nearer to Brixton in West Norwood.

He totally understands why they still think of Brixton as home.

“I love the hustle and bustle in Brixton,” Nicholas says.

two men in cafe
Nick Schifano with Rabah Younes who is like part of the family – he has worked with them for more than 20 years and, personal preference, makes the best decaf latte in the world

“You could go somewhere else, in Croydon or Streatham, and it just isn’t the same.

“Brixton is Brixton. There is no other place like it!

“That’s what my Uncle Mario tells me and that’s what I say – it’s true – it’s very unique.”

Inspired by his Uncle Mario, Nicholas would like to be a manager there, and maybe later have a franchise.

woman and father
San Marino cafe owner Mario Schifano and his daughter Davina Schifano, who says: “I have loved it all my life – I was helping the family business since I was eight years old, putting bottles in the fridge.”

Before the pandemic, the family was considering another cafe near the Town Hall in Brixton, but due to the present situation at present they are focusing on San Marino.

Coffee from Colombia

Travel from San Marino along Brixton Road to no 272 and you will find another lovely place to pick up a coffee, served by Ana Cardona.

She has travelled across the world from Colombia and been a leaseholder and in charge at La Tia Cafe for over two years. She has lived in the Brixton area for more than 30 years.

woman in kitchen
Colombian coffee chief Ana Cardona at Tia Café, 272 Brixton Road

Living and working around the corner, she says “What more could I ask for”.

As the weather gets colder, Ana talks of the human warmth she has felt throughout lockdown, saying: “A normal day in the coffee shop is working hard selling my Colombian coffees, of which I am very proud, to be able to give my customers a taste of my land, most of whom are my neighbours. I am so grateful for all the support they have given me during these difficult times.”

‘I fell in love with Brixton

A walk further along Brixton Road takes us to another part of the world, with Brazilian Claudia De Oliveira and Pipoca Vegan Cafe.

She moved to London in the late 90s, and says “I fell in love with it”.

She has lived in Shoreditch since 2000, and has worked in Brixton since 2010 when she and her husband Elieser Fernandes opened their first place, Senzala, in what is now Brixton Village.

“Brixton Village was a very different place back then,” says Claudia, “with a lot of empty shops, a couple of nice cafés and restaurants – different business activities happening there.

“It was a place with a good vibe and very welcoming as well, with a great sense of community. The mix of different cultures and people from many walks of life made me feel like I was back home.”

three women in shop
Claudia De Oliveira (centre) with colleagues and friends Fanny Jarl (left), originally from Sweden, and Lara Pereira from Portugal

Claudia feels Brixton mirrors Brazil with its great mix of cultures and people.

So much so, it is like home to home for her. “After working here for such a long time, I don’t think I have seen similar areas in London in that respect,” she says.

Pipoca Vegan – a café and store – began life in 2018. “It wasn’t an easy journey,” says Claudia. It didn’t go according to the plan – from the refurbishment to actually running the place. 

woman with flowers
Claudia De Oliveira: ‘Selling plants has always been on the agenda, as we value nature so much here’

“It was a very stressful project to take on. I had thought of giving up after six months, as things were much slower than I had predicted.”

Running a business on the high street, she says, is ‘‘a totally different game than in the market”.

But Claudia has succeeded through “building a strong customer service to survive”.

She worried that people thought she was “crazy” for opening a vegan restaurant and a zero-waste shop in a quiet part of Brixton Road that “seemed to be a daunting place”.

Claudia grew up surrounded by nature, says this explains why plants and flowers, as well as coffee, are available to customers of Pipoca.

“Selling plants has always been on the agenda, as we value nature so much here,” she says.

woman outside shop

“I grew up in a ranch kind of place and I spent my childhood climbing trees, running around, eating fresh organic fruits, playing football and doing every activity I possibly could. Plants are somehow part of me.’’

The environment is so important to Claudia that she declares: “We aim to work in the near future only with plants that come without plastic containers.

“We are already working with some companies that are packing them in a more sustainable way.

“I wish we really had more companies trying to do their best in that sense.”

Claudia says the first lockdown was much harder as it lasted longer but, fortunately for both her and the customers, the café survived. The second lockdown was “much more calm and customers didn’t have to rush to stock things up so much.”

For Claudia, Brixton is the best area in London to be in. “It’s very cosmopolitan, people from all over the world, different cultures, backgrounds, but once we know each other it seems like a big family.

“It has a great sense of community and I have met a lot of like-minded and interesting people.

“I have made a lot of friends here and got a lot of support from the brilliant community in these 10 years of working in Brixton. I am so glad I ended up here. I love Brixton!”

Great to hear and good to go and visit all three cafes on a walk down Brixton Road towards the Oval.