A haven no more.

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

For as long as I’ve been in Brighton, I’ve lived within spitting distance of a café which I shall henceforth call “the Haven”. The Haven is a cozy little independent establishment that has been part of the Brighton café scene for over a decade. It was strictly vegetarian and vegan until a few years ago, when it started serving fish as well. But despite the presence of dead animals on the menu, the Haven retains a resolutely right-on, hippy-ish feeling. Colorful, faux-Indian aesthetic? Check. Funky local art on the walls? Check. Flyers for yoga, Reiki and crystal healing on the windowsill? Check again.

The food I’ve eaten at the Haven has varied in quality from very yummy indeed to dull as dishwater. But the café does consistently tasty cakes, nice smoothies, and good coffee and tea, which makes it a big draw in the afternoon. It also stays open late serving beer and wine, and it’s been non-smoking for several years, so it’s a good place to go for a laid-back drink in the evenings as well. To top it all off, it has WiFi. So, on the surface, it would seem to be the ideal place to while away a few calm hours with a book, a newspaper or a little Internet action. A “haven” indeed.

But as it turns out, it’s not really meant to be a haven at all, because beneath its “come one, come all” vibe and its “linger over a cup of tea” atmosphere, there is a cold, hard bottom line in the form of a manager who is intent on discouraging lingering at all costs.

It all started with the WiFi, really. There are numerous establishments with free WiFi in Brighton, which is great. Unfortunately, most of these establishments are pubs - and in England, pubs mean smoking. So when the Haven got WiFi, it seemed like the answer to a laptop-toting non-smoker’s prayers.

However, the WiFi network is encrypted. Jeremy and a friend of ours had the opportunity to question the manager about the WiFi situation, and she was adamant that she didn’t want people hanging around the cafe with computers and nursing one cup of coffee for an hour (because this is apparently somehow different than sitting around with a free local newspaper and nursing one cup of coffee for an hour, or sitting around discussing your aura and nursing one cup of coffee for an hour). As it turns out, the computers aren’t the real issue - it’s the “one cup of coffee” thing. Apparently, a café is not the place you go to sit and have a cup of coffee and nothing else. Who knew?

When it was pointed out to the manager that, in an otherwise empty café, it doesn’t really matter whether a cup of coffee is downed in five minutes or nursed over the course of an hour, because it’s still another cup of coffee sold, she relented and disclosed the password so that we could use the WiFi. I thought that was pretty generous of her, as far as it went, though her attitude towards customers - get ‘em in, get ‘em to buy stuff, and get ‘em out again as fast as possible - was more than a little off-putting to me, not to mention more than a little hypocritical considering the whole “we’re a haven” thing. I mean, I understand that if you’re running a business, you have a bottom line. But geez: it’s a hippy café, not a McDonald’s.

Anyway, the knowledge that you’re not really welcome at the Haven unless you order food and don’t linger has kept me from going there as often as I might have otherwise. But the other day I was desperate. The neighbors were having some sort of very noisy construction done, which made it impossible to concentrate and was driving me absolutely nuts; I needed an Internet connection so I could email off the tons of work I had to do; the weather was miserable, so I didn’t want to venture too far afield; and since I was still getting over a cold, the last thing I wanted to do was sit in a smoky pub, WiFi or no. As a last resort, I decided to nip to the Haven for an hour or so to see what I could get done.

I had just eaten lunch and had a huge latte, so I passed up the cakes at the Haven and ordered only a big mug of tea. For the roughly 45 minutes I spent there, it really did feel like a Haven: my tea was nice and hot, the café was quiet (all but empty, in fact) and I was getting lots of work done. The manager was scuttling around the place, as she is wont to do, and though she clearly saw me sitting there with my laptop and my single cup of tea, she didn’t express any obvious displeasure.

Not to my face, anyway. But it wasn’t long before I heard her speaking loudly with some people sitting at a table not far behind me. She was apparently explaining what it took to work as a server at the Haven (the emphasis here is hers, not mine - the capitalized words are the ones she shouted through the cafe): you have to be a bit like a maitre d’, you have to WELCOME people with a big HELLO when they walk in, you have to get them to buy FOOD, you have to be on your toes and move through the cafe to see how people are getting on, you should clean up around them when it looks like they’re finished, and if you see someone just SITTING there with a CUP of TEA and not EATING anything, then you need to see if you can get them something else or get them to finish up.

Now. I do not honestly know if the tea thing was directed at me. It was the loudest bit of her whole spiel - certainly loud enough for me and the very few other people in the café to hear her - but when I whipped my head around in shock to look at her, she wasn’t looking back at me, so maybe I’m being paranoid. But as Jeremy pointed out, regardless of whether she was referring directly to me or not, the fact is that the manager of an establishment was being loud and crass in the presence of customers, which is unpleasant and unprofessional. And of course, on some level she was referring to me, because I was sitting there with a cup of tea and nothing else.

Needless to say, I did not sit there for very much longer. And it remains to be seen if I ever bother going there again. It’s just ridiculous: I’ve spent more money on food and drinks in the Haven than I care to think about. I’ve brought family and friends from around the world there, and I’ve recommended it to friends from Brighton. I’ve attended concerts there - heck, I’ve played concerts there. Basically, I’ve always considered it to be one of the nicest cafés in town. But Jeremy’s conversation with the manager, coupled with interviews I’ve since read with the manager in which she gripes about one-cup-of-coffee drinkers, coupled with the scene from the other day have all left a very bad taste in my mouth - and it’s not from the one cup of coffee. Basically, I departed the café feeling upset and insulted, and I’m not very anxious to go back.

So much for the right-on hippy café, I guess. From now on, I’ll go down the street to the huge multinational chain that is Starbucks. The WiFi isn’t free and the cakes aren’t as good, but I know I can sit there as long as I damn well please without being made to feel like a waste of space. And their eggnog lattes kick butt.



I think you should go back and say something, or at least write a letter explaining why you are not going to go back there.

I hate it when people have that attitude but unless it’s pointed out to them, they will continue to believe they’re in the right and they’ll just wonder why they aren’t getting as much business as they used to…

Posted by Cheryl


Jessica - call a spade a spade, it’s not as if you’re protecting the innocent (perhaps you’re trying to avoid being barred)! It’s the Sanctuary you’re talking about and I’ve had the same inexplicable experience.

As you know, in the early days of Clearleft we used to have a our monday morning breakfast meeting there, which would normally last about an hour. Regular as clockwork, at least two of us would have food and a drink (usually two) and would be made welcome by the staff. However once the manager started buzzing around, we’d be made uncomfortable and given the feeling that unless we carried on eating or drinking for the entire period of our stay, we were unwelcome; perhaps it was the laptops; perhaps we were cluttering up the nice empty room in the late morning lull.

The Sanctuary does of course have to make money, but it needs to remember what places it apart from the inexorable influx of brand name coffee shops. As you say, when was the last time Starbucks made you feel like you were outstaying your welcome? We haven’t been back to the Sanctuary for some time and we now go to Moments cafe on North Street. The coffee’s not as good, but the food is tasty (and ethical), the wifi is properly free and it’s cosy upstairs.


The older I get the more I realize two cardinal rules of life:

1) Nothing is free

2) Most of the world revolves around a single question - What have you done for me lately?

I can sympathize with the manager to a certain extent because well, nothing IS free, and she has to pay someone to provide the WiFi connection. She generates cash to pay them by selling merchandise and she is probably losing business to larger more competetive establishments.

Where she loses is in her attitude. What little customer basis she generates with good cakes and drinks, she loses with a bad attitude. She needs to work on her marketing skills to try to encourage customers to sit for a while when the store is empty and move on when crowded. All this can be done with a cheery attitude. I’ve been given the bum’s rush by professionals and never felt a bit put out.

I sympathize, Jessica, with your lamentations about the business you have brought their way along with the entertainment. Again, it’s too bad the manager can’t recognize her loyal customer base and work with it to increase her business overall. She is still caught up in looking for what you are going to do for her today … sad and stupid from a successful business point of view. Starbucks has learned this lesson well.

I remain a loyal albeit non-paying fan :-)


Posted by Michael


Okay, I’ve been outed - or at least, the café has! I knew it would be blindingly obvious to anyone in Brighton which café I was talking about. I guess I was trying to cover my ass a bit, which is stupid, particularly seeing as I don’t especially want to go back there anyway. And it’s not libel if what you’re saying is true…

I do indeed remember your Clearleft meetings there, Richard, though I didn’t realize that perhaps part of the reason you stopped going there was because you were made to feel unwelcome (I’m glad I’m not the only one!). And you’re right to point out that the staff has always been very welcoming and friendly. It’s just the manager who mucks things up.

I was as close as I’ve ever been to really letting someone have it in public, Cheryl, and if I had been absolutely sure that the manager had been talking about me - or if she had said something snotty to me as I left - then I would have flown off the handle and given her the speech I had prepared in my head. :-) But because the situation seemed somewhat ambiguous at the time, I decided to bite my tongue and let it go. You’re right, though - if everyone just slinks out like I did without saying anything, nothing’s ever going to change.

I do sympathize with the manager too, Michael, at least in as much as I know how tough the restaurant business is and how important it is to keep the money - and customers - rolling in (not that the Sanctuary has every seemed to have a shortage of customers). But it’s true: you can have a hard-nosed business attitude without having an attitude problem. And publicly expressing disdain for your customers is not the way to build up a long-term customer base…


Um, sorry for outing you Jessica. The whole ‘libel’ thing didn’t cross my mind. Can an opinion be libellous - isn’t it the same as a bad review? I don’t know. Either way your experience has been the same as mine.


No, no - no need to apologize, Richard! I actually might go back and just change "the Haven" to "the Sanctuary" in the post itself, because I don’t really know why I was half-heartedly trying to cover it up in the first place. I guess in part I was afraid of repercussions - but mostly I’m just pathetically non-confrontational, even in the virtual world. :-)

Posted by Jessica


I second the idea to write a letter, but I would send it to the owner and the manager.

It is not libel when you are writing your experience and opinion on the event. If it is a true event or experience, it is not libel.

According to my sister the lawyer, if it is true, it is not an issue of libel. Libel is putting someone is a false light in print, with the key word being false.



"the knowledge that you’re not really welcome at the Haven unless you order food and don’t linger has kept me from going there as often as I might have otherwise"

This is the critical detail that her business-minded attitude is missing.

Personally, I’d take the hippy line - if a small independent can’t do things in a friendly, non cut-throat way, then who can?

But even if you’re purely capitalist about it, there’s no argument for behaving the way she did, because it puts people off. If you can’t be genuinely easy going, you at least have to pretend to be - that’s modern business :O


I agree, it´s rubbish, and pointless from a business point of view.

I had a long conversation with the landlord of a pub I worked in (not in Brighton) about why he hated it when people ordered glasses of water. I can understand this (and have heard it from other pubs too) if the place is really busy and the same people always take up space, time, and never spend any money, but in reality it´s never like that. Somebody will have a glass of water one day, and 5 pints the next. Or there´ll be one person drinking water and 5 of their friends spending money.

I always try and be especially helpful when people order water, and give them ice and lemon, so they don´t feel bad for asking. I think with a lot of people, it´s a case of being in the same business for too long, and letting things wind you up day after day.

Posted by Catherine


Well, thank you for all your comments, especially you, Jessica, what is a shame is that you had to put it on a website, rather than talk to the owner of the Sanctuary Cafe. I would like to introduce myself. My name is Sharon Gordon and l am the owner of the Sanctuary Cafe. I have owned the Sanctuary for the past 7 years, and during this time there has been many many changes. Firstly l am not a business woman, l am a woman who had a dream of running a beautiful cafe, and having the best food and best service in town. My background is working with childen. I have an attitude, a big attitude. I am large jewish and loud. Everyone was welcome to use the (haven) as it was called, as it was a refuge, from the cold, a refuge for the drug addict, the acholic, anyone that needed warmth and nuturing. I opened the cella venue for groups, healing, AA NA. (Tweleve Step Programme). I opened my heart to all. Then the business started to sink into debt, and my energy began to drain, because the Sanctuary was not a cafe, it was a refuge. I had to change it, the chains appeared, more competition arrived, and the Sanctuary was sinking. I run my business very mindfully, and yes l talk to loud, and l am sure at times offend people, but that’s not the whole picture. The whole picture is I have no choice but to keep changing the way the Sanctuary is, because if l don’t ,l can’t pay my bills, and life is about embracing change, The complaints and unhappiness that l hear are rare, of course it happens, you can’t make everyone happy. But l try my best, and l make mistakes. What really really saddens me, is you, the lady that has so much time on her hands, that she can write this, and that she loved the Sanctuary so much, that l don’t know who you are, because if you were that regular, l would know you, because l know most of my regulars, as l am in the cafe nearly every day. Why when it seems the cafe was so very important to you, and you were so unhappy with me and the way it was run, why did’nt you take the time to speak to me??? I was deeply hurt, that if you were such a regular customer, that you felt unable to approach me and deal with me direct Maybe if you had spoke to me you would have been able to be a bit more open minded, and see what a good job l and my staff do. I look for a balance in the cafe, and if we all end up sitting alone bloging, what’s the point of the cafe, for me there would be no point, because l love to see the muma’s brestfeeding their babies, the business men meeting ( and using their comuters!) the mother and son meeting for lunch. The girls out for a coffee and a chat, l love it all. I wish so much that it could be a place that people could sit all day and hang out, and spend a couple of quid, but it does not pay the bills, and do you have any idea how much it costs to run a place like the Sanctuary NO l guess not. I apologise if anyone has been offended by my unprofessionalism, but do you know what, sometimes l am tired, and fed up, and l have to deal with rude, angry customers…….l smile most of the day, and try and be pleasant, and sometimes l have had enough. I have decided that the Sanctuary will go on the market in January, because it’s people like you, that l don’t want to do this anymore. I have built up an amazing reputation over the last 7 years, and it’s those few people that make the job so difficult and tiring. Who am I ? Well Jessica come and introduce yourself to me, l will buy you a coffee, and we can have chat, l would like to meet you. Unfortunelty l don’t like computers, l know they are an important part of our life, but what happened to the face to face contact. Is it easier for you to slag me and my cafe off, Jessica, when you don’t even know who l am. You might meet me and like me, would that change your opinion. Or is it better for you to keep it all anonomous?? SAFER!!!!

Guys if any of you have any complaint’s please come and talk with me, and l can tell you how it is, and l am happy to hear people’s views, and take stuff on board. Computers are such a cop out, come and have coffee with me, you will know who l am, becuase you will hear me. All my customers are important to me, just as my ethics for the way l run my business. What l realised is that l am not prepared to do is to keep struggling to make ends meet, and compromise myself and my cafe. I can’t make it in this cut-throat world, so l shall sell up take to the country, ride horses, and stop dealing with trying to make people happy, it’s just to hard. Thank you for reading, I look forward to meeting you Jessica

Warm regards Sharon Gordon Proprietor


Hi Sharon, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment here, I appreciate it.

No, you don’t know me as a regular customer because, as I said, I stopped frequenting the Sanctuary when I and my friends were made to feel unwelcome sitting in the café for any length of time. Though the Sanctuary is literally just down the street from me, my ill-fated trip there two weeks ago was the first time I had stepped foot in the place for many months.

I’ve never spoken to you face-to-face, but my husband and my friends have, and you made your position on the issues I’ve mentioned very clear to them. I didn’t approach you on the day in question because 1) I was pretty sure you’d tell me just what you told them (that you don’t want - or can’t afford - to have people just sitting around drinking the occasional coffee or tea) and, more to the point, 2) because you had just insulted me in a backhanded way, and I really didn’t want to sit down and have a little chat with you. If I had spoken to you that day, it would have been with a great deal of anger, and I’m not a fan of public spectacle. And what’s more, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to have it out with you - I had way too much work to do.

Yes, even I, "the lady who has so much time on her hands", must work. In fact, I was not sitting in your café twiddling my thumbs that day, I was sitting there working my ass off. I’m a freelance translator who works from home. My job is computer-based, and as such it may not meet with your approval or understanding, but it pays my bills, buys my groceries, and leaves me with enough pocket change that I can go sit in a café occasionally. My job is quiet and solitary - lonely, you might even say - and sometimes it’s nice to get out of my house and go to an environment where I am surrounded by the bustle and chatter of other people. I guess this is what made your comments on the day all the more painful to me: I had fled my house seeking a welcoming social environment in which to work, and I wound up trudging back home feeling belittled and unwanted.

So maybe you were having a bad day - well, I was too. As I said before, I have a great deal of sympathy for you as an independent restaurant owner. I do understand how tough and expensive your business is, and I do understand that you can’t have people just camping out on your premises all day long, day after day. I also understand how you could get very tired and frustrated dealing with people all day - I certainly couldn’t do it.

But please don’t blame me for making your job so difficult and tiring. Your job is difficult and tiring by nature, but it has nothing to do with me. I go to a café, I order something, I sit quietly for a while, I leave. I never make a scene about anything, ever (though I often wish I had it in me to do so). And I always smile and say "please" and "thank you" to boot. I’m the easiest patron you could possibly have, so it perplexes me to hear you say that it’s because of "people like me" that you don’t want to run the café anymore. Is that "people who don’t order enough food", or "people who get angry and hurt when they’re insulted and have the temerity to write about it"?

Either way, I’m sorry you feel that way, and I’m sorry you feel that writing this instead of talking to you directly was a cop-out. Maybe there’s some truth in the latter, only in as much as I’m not a "people person", I’m not confrontational, and I can express myself much better in writing than I can face-to-face. On the other hand, if you don’t like being "slagged off" online, then please don’t slag off your patrons in public - no matter how tired and frustrated you might be on any given day.

Sharon, you have a lovely café, and your staff have never been anything but friendly and helpful. And yes, I might well like you if I met you, but no, that would not change my opinion about the way I was treated. But ultimately, my opinion doesn’t really matter anyway. It’s your business, and you run it the way you have to. And I wish you success with it - whether you sell the Sanctuary in January or continue running it for the next seven years. It’s given a lot of people a lot of pleasure (myself included, despite everything), and the world needs all the good independent cafés it can get.


Jessica, Let’s call it a truce, my comment was not at you, or customers like you, my difficultly has only every been with the customers that sit for hours (yes up to 6 or 7) with one cup on a large table on a busy day treating the cafe like their office, and are often offended and rude when suggested that other customers need to be seated, and they are totally unaware. Jessica the comment was truly not aimed at you, many of our regulars come here daily with their computer for one cup of coffee, and they are most welcome. Your right l am a people person, as you state you are not, and sometimes that breeds mis-communication. Let bygones be bygones, and maybe you will have an open heart and forgive the Sanctuary owners loud mouth, and come by and use the cafe again.

Warm wishes Sharon


Hi Sharon - I agree, a truce sounds like a good idea. Consider all hatchets buried. :-)

Take care, Jessica


The haven sounds terrible and it makes me even more happy about my local cafe. When I first moved to Seattle I only knew one other person and not having an internet connection yet made me feel very much alone. When I finally found a local cafe with free WiFi I practically took up residence there. I started calling it the office because of the number of laptop wielding regulars that I got to know. The staff and owners were always so friendly and welcoming and weren’t bothered in the least by one cup drinking WiFi hogs. In fact, after getting to know me as a regular they often offered me a free cup of coffee and even sometimes a free donut. The cafe has really become such a community spot where people get together and relax, chat, and work. Each year the owners throw an Independence day party with, BBQ, beer, and music all for free! The community brings dishes and usually it’s hard to find room for everything. I think this is what a successful business looks like. One that isn’t only about the bottom line but cares for the community and the community cares back. Unfortunately I think this cafe may be one of a kind. If you are ever in Seattle (west Seattle) look up C&P coffee.

Posted by dave anderson


I take that back… after reading Sharon’s posts the Sanctuary sounds cool. Especially if the owner is bold enough to write a reply on a website voicing a gripe addressing what was perhaps a mere misunderstanding. Maybe cafe’s with involved owners and staff, cafe’s that are part of the community, aren’t so rare.

Posted by dave anderson


Wow …

I suggest everyone swear off the coffee and just have a nice glass of warm milk :-)

Life is just way to short.

Posted by Michael Ingram-Stahl

Sorry. Comments are closed.