Campaigners in the Hampstead Heath cafe
Campaigners in the Hampstead Heath cafe

People power usurps Hampstead cafe tender process

Hampstead Heath café owner Alberto D’Auria was horrified when he discovered the City of London Corporation was evicting his modest business after 33 years to make way for an outpost of high street eatery Benugo.

But the resulting furore at the unpopular decision may have far-reaching implications for the corporation, specifically its approach to future tender processes.

In what’s been hailed as a victory for people power over corporate clout, loyal customers rallied against the corporation’s decision, causing Benugo founder Ben Warner to pull out of the deal to take over the site at Parliament Hill Fields.

In a statement Warner expressed disappointment over the abandoned venture, but conceded the swell of public opinion against the deal was too vigorous to ignore.

“Having listened to the opinions of local residents and people who use the Heath, many of whom are existing customers of ours, we have paused to reconsider our position.  Having given this a lot of thought I, and my colleagues at Benugo, now firmly believe that the right thing to do is to step aside,” he said.

D’Auria (pictured with campaigners) is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, the result he says of good honest food that’s reasonably priced and excellent customer service. He’s adamant, however, that the situation would never have arisen in the first place if the corporation had taken customer opinion into consideration during the initial tender process.

“They didn’t ask customers at all, and nobody had a chance to say what they think,” said D’Auria. “They [the corporation] were obviously very surprised by the support we got afterwards.”

This unprecedented support for D’Aurio has certainly caused the corporation to sit up and take notice.

In the wake of Benugo’s withdrawal from the deal, the corporation is in the process of drawing up plans that will rewrite how they go about managing the Heath. Under the proposals, which are being presented to Hampstead Heath Management Committee (HHMC) in May, Heath users will be directly consulted about their refreshment requirements via a comprehensive survey.

Customers will be also invited to share their views on service levels at the various cafes on the Heath, which will be presented to leaseholders at quarterly meetings.

Virginia Rounding, chairwoman of HHMC, said: “We are listening and learning from the views of our visitors.

“We have heard the concerns expressed at last week’s public meeting and we understand the feedback we have received from a range of Heath users. We now look forward to working together in the best interests of the Heath and its visitors.” 

Procurement professional and Heath user Egbert Smit is one of D’Auria’s satisfied customers, and believes there could be wider implications for tender processes in general following the corporation’s change of heart.

As maritime commercial excellence manager at Shell, Smit thinks customer consultation could play an increasingly important role in corporate decision making, especially given the public’s ability to mobilise opinion via social media.

“I believe customer consulation should at least be part of the strategy. In this day and age where it is so easy to organise ‘people power’ and start petitions.

“It should certainly be part of the evaluation model, and the weight it gets in the evaluation should depend on the importance of customer buy-in and current customer satisfaction. Ignoring customers could lead to unexpected outcomes later down the line.”

For its part, the corporation confirmed that a decision on whether to reopen the tender process for D’Auria’s café, as well as two others they lease out in nearby parks, will be made “in due course.”

That decision will be made by HHMC. D’Auria’s loyal customers will be waiting.

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