Shop Local: Islington Caribbean food stall at centre of community during pandemic
- Credit: Archant
A decade-old Caribbean food stall has been providing free meals to Islington locals throughout the pandemic, despite it being a tough time for business.
Charm Bonaparte, owner of Caribbean pop-up Mama Gee’s, has provided free Sunday lunches and cooking classes for residents of Elthorne Estate over the past year, as well as free lunches for children during half term.
However, she has also seen business decline, moving to one-day delivery during the first lockdown before reopening in August but on reduced hours three days a week.
READ MORE: Second lockdown could signal the final death knell for some Islington businesses, warn tradersNonetheless, she said: “I might not be making a lot of money but I’m better off than a lot (of people) that I know.
“A lot of people have lost their business due to this pandemic.”
For the latest lockdown, she has decided to stay open as a takeaway.
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She said: “Business is much slower but I’m still here because it’s like a little drop-in thing.
“People passing for a walk pop in to say hello, see how I am, have a little natter. It’s almost like a little hub.”
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But no matter how quiet business has been, Charm has kept her kitchen busy with community work.
For over three years she has worked with community group Elthorne Pride, after getting involved at the suggestion of one of her customers.
When the pandemic hit, Elthorne Pride chair Sandi Phillips asked for her help.
“I jumped at the chance,” said Charm, who began running a Sunday kitchen, cooking and distributing free food to anyone in the community who wanted it.
The service provided not only much-needed food, but also the crucial social interaction of which many were deprived in the early months of the Covid-19 lockdown.
“Sometimes I was the only person they’d see for the whole week,” she told the Gazette, “I used to have 10 or 15 minutes on the doorstep talking to them, and you could see the impact it was having on them mentally.
“Every so often people will pop in and thank me for the food that we provided during that time.”
Sandi said: “Charm and the team at Mama Gee’s have been a real lifeline during the Covid-19 pandemic to many of our residents, including our youngsters during half term.”
Last month, Mama Gee’s was one of many local businesses that stepped in to help after government MPs voted down a proposal spearheaded by footballer Marcus Rashford to offer free school meals through half term.
They distributed out of the pop-up itself, and when huge queues developed, instituted a text-based collection system to preserve social distancing.
“That really took us by surprise, we were really not expecting those kinds of numbers”, she said.
As if that was not enough, she has also been running online cooking classes for local children.
Youngsters collected bagged ingredients which they could use to make jerk burgers and pineapple slaw, under Charm’s live video instruction.
Charm said: “I’m quite camera shy but I enjoyed it.”
More classes are planned and some of the children have gotten in touch to tell her that they have made the burgers again since.
Mama Gee’s has been serving Islington a fare of jerk chicken, oxtail, pumpkin and rainbow carrot soup for ten years now, having begun as a delivery service.
Around five years ago, Charm set up as a Friday pop-up at Islington Boxing Club, which quickly snowballed into a six-day-a-week food stall.
But restrictions on businesses - like the boxing gym - have a frustrating knock-on effect for places like Mama Gee’s.
Charm said: “Quite a few of my customers used to come out after training, used to come in here and get something to eat.”
Relentlessly optimistic, Charm has found the positives in the new normal.
She told the Gazette: “I’m not so rushed, I’m not getting the same customer load that I was before, so the pace is much slower, which lets me think and come up with other ideas and new dishes that I want to create.”
She would not be drawn on the details of these new creations, however: “It’s top secret.”
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