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Leaf turns 15: how tea and a trip to IKEA started one of Liverpool’s most-loved venues

9 months ago

Leaf turns 15: how tea and a trip to IKEA started one of Liverpool’s most-loved venues
LEAF, Bold Street

Fed up of sad-looking second rate brews, Natalie Haywood decided to create a new kind of tea shop that turned the traditional image on its head.

With £5,000 and a few newly-bought chairs and lamps, she and her brother Graham opened the first LEAF pop-up at the Static Gallery by the Bombed Out Church.

Fifteen years later, LEAF has served more than a million cups of tea, grown to five locations and become one of the city’s most-loved venues. 

Now, as it celebrates its landmark birthday, the latest offspring Little LEAF is about to join the family in November.

It’s been a decade-and-a-half that’s seen stand-out moments including the Wu Tang Clan’s GZA playing in a chess competition in LEAF Bold Street, a pop-up street orchestra and big names like Mick Fleetwood, Sister Bliss and Mike Skinner performing.

Natalie Haywood
Natalie Haywood

And, when hospitality was facing a crisis in the pandemic, Natalie became a voice for the industry, speaking to Prince William about the impact Covid was having on businesses.

LEAF has come a long way from its first low-key incarnation in 2007, but the concept and inspiration remains pretty much unchanged. 

“The reason behind LEAF was I’d stopped drinking coffee and I was just so annoyed by going into coffee chains and paying a fortune to get a cup of tea with a teabag in that you had to dump next to the side of your cup,” she explains. “It just felt like a poor experience considering it’s supposed to be the nation’s favourite drink.

“We started in Static Gallery with £5,000 and a trip to IKEA where we bought some fluorescent pink chairs, some fluorescent lime chairs, a table that had lots of little compartments to put tea in and really nice pendant lamps that used to hang over the bar. That was about it.

LEAF - Static Gallery, early days
LEAF – Static Gallery, early days

“The idea was to challenge the perception of what a tea shop was and create a space where you could go at any time of the day that felt vibrant and interesting and more of a European style than what was in Liverpool then.

“Having music, events and cultural things going on was as important for me as the actual tea and good food, and I think that’s allowed us to sustain ourselves for 15 years because it’s given people an extra reason to come back.”

Natalie, from Aigburth, was encouraged to bring something new to Liverpool after working with venues like Alma de Cuba, Korova and Baby Cream in her previous marketing manager job. 

“I learnt a lot and it did shape how I approached LEAF because it was very much about trying to do something unique.”

After a year at Static Gallery, they moved to a bigger site in Parliament Street, broadening the programming to host pudding clubs, album launches and vintage markets, then on to Bold Street in 2010. 

“Everyone thought we were mad to take on that building because it’s so big, it had been empty for about a year and at that time Bold Street didn’t really have an independent identity, it was just finding it,” says Natalie. “But my philosophy was go big or go home, to take a gamble, because I knew we had a great concept.”

The gamble paid off and Natalie and Graham have gone on to open two more LEAFs on Smithdown Road and in West Kirby, and One Fine Day on Old Hall Street.

LEAF - Parliament Street, early days
LEAF – Parliament Street, early days

They also brought the LEAF ethos to Oh Me Oh My opposite the Liver Building to create an affordable city centre wedding venue and popular afternoon tea spot, alongside its Goodness Gracious rooftop bar.

Covid was tough, especially for an independent business responsible for a staff of almost 200, but they’ve adapted and found ways to bounce back.

“The pandemic gave us a lot of time to reflect on what people like about us and what we could do differently. It made us take stock of the essentials and see how we could make ourselves stronger.

“For a long time, the fun stuff was taken away and it was like having our wings clipped so it felt super-exciting to be able to be creative again.”

Next up will be Little LEAF, opening on November 6, which will move into One Fine Day with a simplified daytime version of the classic LEAF menu for breakfast, brunch and lunch, plus events. 

“It feels like a nice way to mark 15 years, bringing the best bits and the essence of LEAF into the commercial district,” says Natalie. “And we want it to be a place that’s the heart of the community which is what we believe our other LEAFs are.

“That’s one of the things we’re most proud of, we just love the fact that we’ve got a really lovely community of diverse customers, all different walks of life who seem somehow of a like mind.

“Being in Liverpool has 100% made a difference to us being able to create that because it’s such a collaborative city and the people are really loyal, warm and supportive. They’re also very generous, they really just want to go out and have a good time so I think Liverpool is the absolute best place for a brand like ours.”

For more info on LEAF click HERE.

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