Don't let them guess it's healthy

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The Independent Online

Continuing our occasional series of:


No 81: A Woman Who Runs a Health Junk-Food Bar

Shirley Granola is a woman used to getting her own way. When she was a teacher, she insisted school meals should be made more healthy. When she was sacked for all this insisting that school meals should be made more healthy (understandably, perhaps - she was, after all, only the history teacher), she went ahead against all advice and opened her own health food bar for teenagers. And against all expectation, it succeeded.

"That's because I didn't make the mistake of all other health bars in setting up an atmosphere of antiseptic goodness," she says. "In every health food place you go into there's a feeling of desiccated devotion and discipline. Have you noticed that in a health food shop everything comes in packages and tubes and little boxes? It's more like a chemist's. You're lucky if you see anything as fresh as a vegetable or a loaf. There's something terribly joyless about the average health food place, and what teenagers want is a fun place, a loud place, so I thought to myself: why not sell teenagers healthy foods using the same techniques as the fast-food outlets?"

And so was born the first Groovy Spoon bar in the West End, where veggie burgers and apple crisps were dispensed with loud music or MTV on the overhead monitor. Health drinks were sourced from round the world with exotic names from exotic fruits, so teenagers thought they might be getting something clandestine. Shirley also sells burgers, but there are two differences. One is that they all come from farm-grown beef and are incredibly tasty. The other is that she serves them in fun buns - ie buns dyed weird colours, with more exotic names.

"I also decided to market teas along the same lines," she says. "The odd thing is that many tea names have the same overtones as marijuana - Golden this and Magic that - and I found that if you sell Lapsang, for instance, as a brew with a 'forbidden smoky flavour', kids think there may be something vaguely hallucinatory about it. Maybe there is, for all I know."

Another thing Shirley Granola latched on to was the liking that teenagers have for dispensers - drink automats, drinking straight from the tin, that sort of thing - and she has stuffed her Coke dispensers with anything but Coke. People, she says, get pleasure from getting the drink from the machine - not from drinking Coke, specifically.

"We sell fruit the same way," she says. "There's nothing new about selling fruit in a café, of course. Even the lowliest station buffet has a bowl of apples and bananas. But don't they look boring! Don't they look like dead fruit!"

And that's why, at the Groovy Spoon, you use a fairground toy with one of those miniature cranes in a glass case to pick the fruit you want. They sell a lot of fruit that way, even if the pears get a bit bruised.

"When I called it Groovy Spoon," says Shirley Granola, "I was thinking of the legendary attraction of the old greasy spoon caffs - though I have to say I never quite understood why it was the spoon that was meant to be greasy. Do people eat all-day breakfasts with a spoon? Anyway, the name worked - we now have four Groovy Spoons and we're expanding with more."

A Groovy Spoon is certainly the only health food bar where you are hit by a wall of music - and of smoke. The vexed problem of whether to allow smoking has been solved by restricting it to herbal cigarettes, of which a big selection is on sale. For a while they also sold Indian leaf cigarettes called bidis, thinking they were healthy.

"Then I saw a report on bidi smoking, linked to the awful amount of oral cancer in India, and I cut them out," says Shirley. "But I am always on the look-out for harmless smokes. Right now, I am looking at a possible revival of snuff...