Sam’s Cafe on Brixton’s Acre Lane celebrates 20 years of trading there this year. Simone Richardson asked Ali Ciftci how it all began
Ali Ciftci’s family, who have been running Sam’s Café on Acre Lane in Brixton for 20 years, originate from the state of Aksaray in central Turkey.
From the 1960s to the 1990s thousands of Aksaray’s population emigrated to western Europe. Ali’s dad, Avni, was one of them, arriving in Camberwell when he was 12 years old.
“Aksaray’s population was migrating for a better life,” says Ali. “A lot went to Germany, due to the industrial boom.
“However, my grandad Durmus and his mates ended up in London.
“Their plan was always to work for a couple of years, build a new house back at home, buy a tractor, and move back.
“But I can confidently say no one ever moved back.
“They got too deep into life abroad in the European cities and their children were too far into school to move back.
“Yet, even today, their only dream is to move back to their ‘motherland’ – it’s like a diamond in their eyes.”
Avni sold Durmus’ cafe in Camberwell after his sudden death and officially opened the door of Sam’s – named after an uncle of Ali’s – in Acre Lane in 1991.
Ali helped out: “My early memories of work in the café are washing dishes, brushing and mopping the shop.
“I feel like this built my foundation over the years and every year my skills grew.”
Born in King’s College hospital, Ali grew up with his mum Mihritan and Avni in Elephant & Castle, until he moved to Dulwich when he was 14. “Moving to Dulwich is maybe what kept me off the streets,” he says.
“Although I went to secondary school in Peckham, I grew up in the football cages of apartment blocks of South East London,” Ali continues.
“That’s where we learnt how to survive.”
At school, his favourite subjects were engineering and history.
“Coming from such a rich historical background as the Ottomans, I would always get goosebumps when I took my history teacher off topic from the curriculum – which was the world wars and the great depression in America – to talk about them.
“When I finished my GCSEs, I went to college in Westminster, doing a level 3 course in civil engineering.
“Growing up close to the city centre, I always watched the building of famous skyscrapers and it inspired me to get into engineering as I believed that I would build something monumental on the London skyline.
“After two years of my course in Westminster, I achieved a very high grade and I entered university.
“I had many options and offers from universities, however I decided to go with Kingston, as it was convenient for me to get to from Sam’s in Brixton.
“I did a construction management course for my bachelors degree and then topped it off with a masters in project and infrastructure management.”
“I really believe I can do anything in this world,” says Ali. “Maybe not everything successfully, but I will give it a shot and try my best.”
Before, after and during all Ali’s studies, he says, his dad told him that Sam’s Cafe – his father’s focus – was a really popular place to be.
“When my father arrived to open the doors at 5.30am there would be a line of bin men and builders outside.
“Back then, as it didn’t close till 6pm, the same workmen would be in for breakfast, lunch and dinner!”
Ali brought his management skills to Sam’s, arranging better delivery systems while at university.
“Using Uber and Deliveroo before they got very big built a very good reputation, which kept us ticking over while we couldn’t have customers dining in during lockdown,” he explains.
“During lockdown me and my father decided to give the place a facelift to keep up with the demand of fast-changing Brixton.
“Reopening our doors to customers was a huge success and it has been non-stop since.
“We are grateful and, as usual, committed to providing the best service we can. However, we do still have a question mark in our heads: is another lockdown on the way?
What he enjoys about working in and being a Brixton local “is the community we have here”.
Ali explains: “It is honestly such a rich cultured community. I can stand outside Acre Lane and there would be three generations of people that I know and that I’m connected to.
“And these generations of people are from all different cultures and backgrounds.
“We have all put it into Acre Lane and now we live in our Acre Lane culture.
“Acre Lane culture is that we respect every business on the street and we work all together.
“Acre Lane culture is helping the elderly aunty carry her groceries from the local Lidl.
“Acre Lane culture is standing there and five people yelling at you ‘WASSUP SAM’.
“Our café is more than just a place to come and get food – it’s almost a place where the Acre Lane and Brixton community come to be in good company.
“I’ve been living five minutes from Brixton for all my life, however I have only recently started to go out in Brixton.
“Ever since taking over the business from my father, I have realised the importance of supporting local businesses as we are one of them.
“But what I really enjoy about going out in Brixton, such as Brixton Village, is that I know so many people, so there’s always people yelling ‘SAMMM’ at me.
“Also, I feel like I’m at home in Brixton, which helps with feeling anxious about getting home.
“When I’m out in Brixton, I would be sipping my beer and just visualising business opportunities to build my family business bigger.
“What we have now is enough for my father, but for me the sky is the limit.”
Go and meet Ali at Sam’s Cafe and enjoy a breakfast, a cuppa or whatever you fancy on the menu.
Sam’s Cafe, 85 Acre Lane, SW2 5TN.
It’s not needed – but you can, if you want to, book in – or just to find out more on 020 7274 4215.