Box Fresh: Edinburgh's Police Box Cafes

Just why is Edinburgh littered with great, tiny, on-street coffee TARDISes? We delve into the world of the police box cafe

Feature by Peter Simpson | 16 Mar 2018
  • The Counter

On a murky February afternoon, we're standing in front of something that's grey, incredibly sturdy, and weighs about two tonnes. The giveaway that we're stood in front of the Cheapshot Coffee police box near Edinburgh University and not a small African forest elephant is the fact that it is – to be polite – fucking freezing. Not exactly elephant weather, but ideal for a flat white, so we'll take it.

While the police box may have been a staple of British city life in the early 20th century before turning into 'that place that Peter Capaldi goes before fighting the space robots', Edinburgh is one of the few places to still have a large number of the boxes standing. After a number of sell-offs and refurbs they're now a staple of the city's food and drink scene, home to everything from Brazilian crepes and vegan soul food to coffee shops and ice cream stands. 

Their longevity in the capital seems to be down to a mix of principle and practicality, according to Cheapshot's Paddy Maher: “Because a lot of them are covered by conservation areas, everyone was less keen to trash them [than elsewhere]. And because they’re made of cast-iron,” tapping on the wall of the box, “they’re almost impossible to move.”

The 23-year-old Maher frequented the Cobolt Coffee police box in Marchmont 'religiously' during his uni days, so after graduation he decided to open a cafe to combine his loves for marketing, design and coffee. He then shelved the idea, only to pick it up again after being reminded of the police box option. So far, so straightforward, but there was only one problem: who do you go to when you want to rent a tiny box in the middle of the road? “It took me about three months to track down the owner of this box,” Maher tells us from his spot between Bristo Square and Nicholson Street. “All I had was a name, and a pretty generic name at that… it was only sheer luck that I managed to track him down.”

Sally McFarlane of The Counter – who operate a trio of police box cafes in Tollcross, Morningside and Lothian Road – also got into the world of the box after trying to find somewhere to kick off a coffee business with her husband, Ali. In their premises hunt, they learned two key things: rent is bloody expensive, but the boxes offer a good way to trim the fat off and still get things going. “We always wanted our business to be focused entirely around great independent coffee that was equally convenient,” McFarlane says. “Police boxes fitted this.”

They fit the idea, but in all honesty they don't fit a whole lot else. While there's a clear ingenuity at play in many of the boxes across the city, it's in the face of the fact that there isn't exactly a lot of space to work with. Maher reckons he has about two-and-a-half square metres to play with behind the doors of his box, and it's a snug fit back there, but he believes that the form factor of the spaces is in itself a positive. "I don’t find there’s many drawbacks to being a small operation," he says. "Creativity doesn’t so much come from having loads of space. It can come from having all these limitations; as long as it’s difficult, it’s always going to be interesting."

As McFarlane points out, another bonus to the police box's size is that it's a great deterrent against wasting… well, anything. “If it’s not great and doesn’t support our coffee business,” she tells us, “there’s no room for it.” That lack of storage space can also have a positive knock-on effect, as it forces ingenious solutions and encourages the kind of streamlined thinking that tends to lead toward deliciousness.

For example, The Counter’s most esoteric venture to date – a boat on the banks of the Union Canal – only came about because McFarlane and co needed somewhere to keep excess stock, before the boat attracted a cult following all of its own. If the swans thought the sight of the canal occasionally freezing over was confusing, imagine what they made of an eggshell blue canal boat wafting delicious espresso everywhere.

Which brings us to the ever-present problem of the Scottish weather. While our chat with Maher has an obvious focus on the perma-chill of sitting in an iron box in the middle of February, McFarlane points out that it takes "real skill and continual attention" to knock out great coffee when the elements are raging all around you. 

And yet despite those worries, the police boxes continue to be popular among baristas, entrepreneurs and the public alike. Maher notes that while the tourists who pass his way are often flabbergasted by the idea of a tinned man serving coffee out of a hatch, the locals (in typical Edinburgh fashion) have the insouciant air of folk who feel like it's the most natural thing in the world.

And as for moving beyond the box into a genuine cafe with doors, windows and chairs? “Now that I’ve opened this place up," Maher says, "I can see how much of a challenge and how many barriers there are to opening a ‘real’ cafe. I feel lucky that so few of those apply to me in this situation.” Thinking outside the box is often seen as the thing to do, but if Edinburgh's police boxes show anything, it's that there's plenty you can do inside the box as well.

Cheapshot Coffee, Marshall St, Edinburgh; The Counter, various locations, Edinburgh http://theskinny.co.uk/food