Apparently – to my great alarm – I am not alone in thinking that the breakfast ciabatta at the Tick Tock Café on Cowley Road is Oxford’s best hangover cure. The ciabatta is a piping-hot old-style tower of bacon, link sausage and grilled mushrooms, sprinkled with chilli flakes and finished with a gooey egg. The bread is fresh-made and always absolutely excellent. Go try it.
Tick Tock Café has expanded its repertoire considerably over the 27 years it has been in business, but it lives and dies by its breakfasts. The eggs are the personal favourite of owner Magdalena, a generous, mumsy lady with a perennially mischievous smile. “The eggs are special,” she tells me. “They’re egg-tastic. We have eggs every morning. A good breakfast sets you up for the day.”
This is true. I mean it as the highest possible compliment when I say that my mum would be very happy to know Magdalena is looking after me this year, as I, like so many students, have decamped to the wilds (by central Ox standards) of Cowley. Indeed, she occupies a special position in Cowley – as something of a community mother. After studying economics at university in London, Magdalena moved to Oxford with her husband; on their first date, they jumped on an impromptu bus tour to Oxford, which was the start of a love affair with the city. Shortly afterwards, they set up their café business in the small but iconic space at the top of Cowley Road in 1994. In its early days, the café was famed for its efficacy with telephone orders. Magdalena tells me, “People said, ‘you work like a clock, your clock never stops’. So that’s how we got the name.” Customers started bringing in clocks from different time zones, to represent their different countries of origin, and the tradition continued from there. At the last counting, the Tick Tock Café had a stock of 158 clocks.
The family is originally from Turkey, but the business is international, as are its patrons. Its aesthetic is inspired by that of an American diner. The menu has expanded to cover Italian and Greek dishes, among others. Often the staff bring their own influences. “We had a French girl, we had an Italian working… [and] a girl from Jamaica,” Magdalena tells me. “We had no discrimination here. If they don’t have a family here, we make them a family.”
The ideas of family and community are inseparable from the business of the Tick Tock Café. In the early days, children from the local schools used to come in to see the clocks and learn how to tell the time. When students came in, they were treated as members of the family – an opportunity especially valued by those like Chelsea Clinton, whose lives were all-too-often trapped in the media spotlight. In recent years, it has become more difficult to run a business on these family principles, Magdalena tells me. “In the time we are living [in], people are not too close to their families,” she says. “Before, people used to come at the weekends with their entire families. But now families are more split. The elderly are in old people’s homes…” By contrast, Magdalena’s brother, son and husband all work as a close-knit unit at the Tick Tock Café. Her mother, aged 77, still works occasional days; she particularly enjoys making the lasagna.
At the same time, the business has evolved since 1994. The café continues to expand the range of food it makes in-house, with recent additions including fresh-made orange juice. There is a wide range of vegetarian and vegan options, and gluten-free breads to cater for those with allergies. The café has also partnered with Deliveroo and Just Eat services, although Magdalena warily notes that these mega-businesses “have all the control on their side.”
The pandemic was not easy for the Tick Tock Café. With limited staff, the café was only able to access the lowest level of government-backed business support loans. Magdalena posits that the only reason the business is still going is because of its historical links to the Cowley and city community. There is a loyal customer base of local residents, as well as former students, who – while many of them are no longer based in Oxford – remember the café fondly. Magdalena tells me, “I saw some of them as students. Now they’ve graduated, they’ve gotten married, they have grandchildren. […] Everyone, up to a point, they all come back.” It’s on the basis of such goodwill that the Tick Tock Café will – we hope – be able to keep going for a few more decades. And you – especially if you’re one of those lucky students blessed with three years in a central college – should come and be a part of it. Who knows? – it might even help you to shake off that hangover.