At the bottom of Crystal Palace Hill there is a bakery so small and unassuming that if you blink, you might just miss it.
Wedged precariously between a laundry and a train track, a former florist has been given a shiny red makeover since Sian, the bakery’s co-owner, took a lucky punt on Facebook and enquired whether the space was available. Since then, it has become home to some of the most sought-after sandwiches in south London with a hungry entourage of loyal customers setting their clocks every week in anticipation of the latest drop of mouth-watering creations. The limited-edition sarnies can sell out in as little as six minutes and are only made once, with those who miss out made to mourn their social media footprint as reels of pictures flood in.
The bakery’s beginnings are rooted in the Covid-19 pandemic when chef Tom, the other half of the Chatsworth duo, was forced to shut up shop at his retro pop-up restaurant catering for the Waterloo and Lower Marsh lunchtime worker crowd. Left with surplus supplies the couple started to make local deliveries of sweet and savoury treats to raise money for charity before deciding, with no imminent return to work looking likely, to “bust out sandwiches three days a week” from their kitchen at home that were dispatched to locals who ordered via DM.
“We did everything from our home oven,” Sian told The London Economic following a typically busy Wednesday lunch service in the bakehouse. “Tom was getting up at 4am and doing the bread. He had to rotate it in the oven because we couldn’t fit it all in, so he had to get the bread ready, proof it, bake it and be rotating all the time before we hit the road”. The flat became a full-scale bakery, with the whole of the living room and kitchen area cleared for production. “That’s when we sort of were like, well, we’re gonna have to think about whether we’re going to keep this up,” Sian said, acutely conscious that she was at the time – and still is to this day – working full time at a video production company.
“And then I was on deliveries one day and saw this shop was empty. I pulled up in the van outside and Facebooked the name of it, messaged her and said ‘look, I’ve just seen your shop, I think it’s empty, I just wondered if you guys are still there or not?’ And then yeah, a couple of weeks later, we signed on it.”
The best sandwiches in town?
It was at the bakery on Anerley Road that I sampled my own first taste of Chatsworth Bakehouse, a sticky soy and sesame roasted aubergine sandwich served with spicy kimchi-style chopped salad, spicy mayo and crispy onions in a sandwich dubbed the ‘Kimchi Face-Plant’. Before the doors opened for collection videos appeared on social media showing the aubergine taking on a caramelised, bubbly sheen as a chef’s blow torch moved enchantingly across their surface. Their signature focaccia was still being sliced in half ready for filling in a door-step style as I arrived – not a moment after half 12 – and was handed a chunky bag branded with the bakery’s insignia.
Since then, the other sandwiches that I have missed out on (I’m never fast enough) have been as alluring as they are innovative. This week punters have been treated to the ‘Mofo Tartufo’, made of pistachio mortadella with creamed truffle and ricotta. It follows creations such as the ‘Diavola’ – prosciutto cotto with sharp provolone cheese and freshly-made basil aioli – and the ‘Seoul-Ful Sando’ – roasted chicken in a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce – that have all found pride of place packed into their freshly baked, panko-crusted bread.
The popularity of the Chatsworth bakes has been in no small way down to the quality of its produce. Put simply, they are quite brilliant – there is nothing else like them in town. But Covid, perversely, also had a role in the bakery’s success. In the early days of home delivery, Sian says that people started spending a lot more on food having been temporarily relieved of their other expenditures, and a lot of people appreciated seeing a friendly face at their doorstep and the opportunity to support a local business. It also gave people a marker in their week knowing that the menus would go live on a Monday and lunch would be delivered to them later on that week.
At the start, marketing was done by word of mouth, with people DM’ing their orders through to a frenzied Sian, who said her phone would “literally burn out” as people tried to secure their orders. Now, an online store handles the orders and social media does most of the leg work on the marketing front. Friday orders tend to sell out first, then it is Wednesday’s batch and Thursday’s, with last week’s Seoul-Ful Sando offering selling out in six minutes, Sian tells me.
You might usually associate that sort of popularity with central London stores with big footfall and high turnover. But for the Chatsworth pair, Annerley is definitely where they want to be. “My mum used to drive down this road,” Sydenham-born Sian says, adding that they have no desire to try fill a bigger space “not really knowing what we’re doing”.
“Ultimately,” she says, “Tom has always worked in kitchens and run his own thing and I understand content and all that kind of stuff. But it’s coming together and trying our best to start something we’re really passionate about. So, you know, we wanted to go small and do punch above our weight a little bit and try our best.
“It’s like this morning, people knock on the window and walk past constantly with their kids on their way to school. On Friday evenings, a lot of people wave and it’s just so nice to have. It’s so, so lovely having a place where people can come and sit outside. We’ve got a very small space, obviously, but people sitting on the bench on a Saturday, for example, and queuing over the bridge, which they have been doing for the past few Saturdays, is just lovely. And it’s just lovely to see people coming together and meeting each other.”
The future of the business feels less like expansionism and more like an acknowledgement of how they might better manage its popularity. Having somewhere off-site to run more ovens would be the next logical step, keeping the current unit to run as a shop with windows “piled full of bread”, Sian tells me.
Opportunities to do wholesale and take on a bigger headcount are also in the offing, but more than anything else their ambitions feel rooted in the role they play in the community. “We want to be very local,” Sian said, adding that they see the bakery as being somewhere that is “open to everybody to come in and feel welcome”.
As we emerge blinking into post-pandemic life, one can only hope that Chatsworth Bakehouse and other businesses that put community at their core continue to flourish. From baking bread in their kitchen to becoming stars of the high street, this small-batch bakery is a testament to what happens when great skill meets great intention. They aren’t just sewn into the fabric of their vibrant patch of south London, they’ve woven themselves into people’s lives too.
More power to them.