We spoke to the accidental shopkeeper and Suma customer Sally Butcher from Persepolis, a vegetarian Shop and Café in Peckham about her business and her most recent book.
Please tell us a little about your business.
Persepolis has been purveying the pick of Persia to the unsuspecting people of Peckham for over twenty years now. And the restaurant was ten in December 2022. We opened the restaurant initially as a way of testing recipes for our cookbooks, but it kind of grew organically from there.
Persepolis is half a Persian bazaar, half a portal to another dimension, with a restaurant thrown in. It’s a bit off the wall! We’ve also just opened a roof terrace, which offers an amazing space for all manner of events. As an outsider to Persian culture, I found I would go ‘wow’ at so much of it, so we have made it our mission to convey that wonder to our customers.
What inspired you to open the shop and café?
When we first went into business together we were distributing Middle Eastern products all over London and the South East. But life ‘on the road’ is very hard, and so we found ourselves looking at ways of anchoring our business to one spot. We ended up running a café and shop in the same space. It’s unusual, but it works. We opened in 2001, and the area did not enjoy a good reputation. Nowadays it is one of the safest areas to live in London, the sense of community is second to none.
How are you and your other local independent high street retailers fairing?
Peckham is an amazingly entrepreneurial place (and no: we’re not channelling our inner Del Boys) – its economy is founded on independent trading and small business and there are very few chains here. We have survived the last few years because our operation is so diverse – we have a well-established mail-order service, a shop, and a restaurant.
What kind of products can we buy in your shop?
Our shop sells all the ingredients you need to cook Persian food…but it also sells loads of other Middle Eastern ingredients, plus a very self-indulgent selection of my favourite things. We also have a selection of Persian cookware, handicrafts and musical instruments.
What’s on the menu?
We have a core menu which changes about three times a year. But our pride and joy is our sharing menu, wherein we go pretty off-piste and cook all manner of seasonal oddities. For a set price customers get to enjoy an astonishing array of savoury dishes, desserts and soft drinks.
What’s your favourite thing on your cafe menu right now and why
Fattet is a perennial fave: posh fried bread with chickpeas and spinach, all tossed in tahini sauce. It is based on the classic Middle Eastern idea that it is wrong to throw any food away if you can reuse it, and so there are many dishes which are designed to use up stale bread.
What are you most proud of about your business, and why?
I am very proud of the fact that our business has grown almost organically. We weren’t a well-financed start-up – we just let things that seem right grow by themselves.
What drives you?
I genuinely love cooking and have an insatiable curiosity to find out what everyone else is eating. I am also what my husband calls a ‘bit of a busybody’ – I think he means it with affection but I am never quite sure.
You’ve written another cookbook – Veganistan. Please tell us about it.
It was a no-brainer as I felt so sorry for our vegan customers as they combed our two vegetarian cookbooks trying to work out if there was anything in there for them. What was particularly interesting was the fact that I was forced to deal with my previously sceptical attitude to fake meat and realise that it is a great vehicle for showcasing the rock and roll flavours of Middle Eastern food.
Tell us a little about your other books. Do you have a favourite?
Veganistan is my sixth book. The other books are Persia in Peckham (for authentic Persian food), Veggiestan (the first vegetarian book), Snackistan (Middle Eastern street food/informal dining), Salmagundi (a cornucopia of salads) and Persepolis (the second veggie book, reflecting what we cook in the restaurant). I don’t have a favourite, but I am probably most proud of Salmagundi as so much research went into it.
We are looking forward to playing with our new roof terrace in the summer – it more than doubles the number of customers we can seat. I’ve already started writing my next book.