It’s a Friday evening in east London, young couples, hyper kids and the occasional solo customer, are kicking off the weekend at their favourite late-night haunt. But rather than Camden Hells this bar is serving gelato on tap. Candy, warm waffles and chocolate sauce waft through the cool air so that the whole place smells like a winter walk down Brighton Pier.
This is Creams, the dessert behemoth taking over UK high streets. From creations as wacky as blue bubblegum gelato sprinkled with acid-bright hundreds and thousands to the comparatively austere Kinder Bueno-filled crepe, its menu is stacked with more than a hundred dessert options.
Creams is what would happen if Willy Wonka opened a cafe for the TikTok generation: booths decked out in purple and black; slogans like “Eat like no one’s watching” and “Quiet zone (yeah right)” stencil-sprayed on exposed brick; faux Pop Art canvases and shiny-new skateboards, scrawled in street art, hung up everywhere. And ice cream. So, so much ice cream.
Creams was founded in 2008 by entrepreneurial buddies Balal Aqil and Adam Mani. They saw a gap in the market: high street chains like Nando’s and Pizza Express were churning out well-loved mains and sides but their desserts were an afterthought. By the time they’d opened their first store, in Woking, in 2012, the Ilford-born pals already had a factory in Dagenham, churning out homemade, lower-fat gelato.
And it’s fast become a full-fat success story. The UK high street is shrinking (for every three new shops that open, another five close) and amid swirling rents, falling demands and Brexit gloom, restaurants are among the hardest hit British businesses. Yet Creams recently posted sales figures of £40.1m – up 37 per cent – and a cool £1.6m in profit after opening 21 new stores. On average, it’s serving nearly a million scoops of gelato every week, from Bournemouth up to Glasgow. And they aim to have 300 cafes by 2022.
But then, Creams isn’t just for people with a sweet tooth. Young people are drinking less than ever before. According to one study, nearly 30 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal and pubs are now closing down at a rate of two a day in Britain. And it seems to be dessert parlours which filling-in as the choice hangout for the non-pub crowd.
On the fringes of Shoreditch sits Creams Whitechapel. It’s open later than all the nearby bars: until 2am an impressive seven days a week. But who’s eating sticky toffee pudding on a bleary-eyed Tuesday night? “I come here usually with friends at least once a week – typically after 10pm,” says devoted customer Syed, between mouthfuls of crepe and custard – a personal favourite. “And I only leave at around 1am.”
Like most Whitechapel residents, Syed, 45, is Muslim. For him Creams offers an alternative social space if you want to stay out past 10pm and not be surrounded by alcohol. “The Muslim community or people who don’t drink had limited places to go socially, and it can get boring going to the cinema every week,” Afters Original owner, Kais Niaz, told The Guardian. “This was kind of a replacement.”
Catering to non-drinking cultures and communities is a key ingredient in the Creams recipe. The first shop opened in Southall, home to London’s largest Sikh population. Others soon cropped up across the capital, in areas like Ealing and Wembley – which both have large Indian communities – as well as Whitechapel.
“I think they close even later during Ramadan,” adds Syed. “Plus, it’s all halal ingredients – so Muslims naturally feel comfortable here.” Yeakub, 24, is another regular. “It’s my favourite dessert place. I can’t find a place that does cookie dough and sundaes like Creams. It’s chilled, and the food always comes picture perfect.”
But it’s popular among those who simply want a booze-free Saturday night, too. “As someone who doesn’t really drink, I always feel a bit uncomfortable when there are loads of people drinking around me,” says 27-year-old Emily, who’s eating a vegan banana crepe. “So, it’s nice coming here – somewhere that doesn’t sell alcohol. It makes me feel much more relaxed when I eat.”
“It’s an alcohol-free nightclub,” declares Creams’ commercial and operations director, Elton Gray. “It’s somewhere for everyone to celebrate, party and enjoy good quality produce.” Although not quite a sober, sundae-serving Fabric (there’s definitely no dancefloor), Creams does share the late closing times and pumping beats. The heaviest it gets here though, is sugar highs and E numbers.
In Creams’ London Bridge cafe (its sole Zone 1 store) is packed with kids wolfing down waffles, tourists making milkshake pit-stops, and the occasional ghoul wearing Halloween make-up – the London Bridge Experience is just outside. It feels like a cool American diner – a cheap place to eat where you feel in no rush to leave.
Noticeably, there aren’t any calories on the menu. “They should be really,” adds Emily, who is a personal trainer. “Even McDonald’s has them. It’s partly why I only go to Creams once in a while – it’s only fair that those who want a treat know what they’re eating.”
Gray says Creams is working on a calorie crackdown. “We’re always looking to reduce content,” he says. “People are knowledgeable, they care about what they’re putting into their body. We have a vegan menu, but we absolutely want to get to sugar-free and gluten-free, too.”
“Whatever the dessert industry is worth, we’re nowhere near the limit,” Gray says. “The bread industry is worth nearly £4bn in the UK – we want desserts to be chasing that figure. The market is there, otherwise you wouldn’t have the likes of Mars and Nutella constantly innovating and developing new products.”
There are plans to open Creams in the US, Europe and the Middle East. There’s a long, delicious history of gelato parlours on the continent, and many are family-run. Will Europeans take Creams to their hearts – and stomachs – the way Brits have?
“McDonald’s took its time in Spain, but now, you can’t turn a street corner without one there,” Gray says. “We want to be the number one brand all over the world. People deserve some skateboards, loud music and ice cream every once in a while.”