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‘Personal imprint’: an interview with the founder of Tree Artisan Café

Kenny Cota speaks to Graziella Ascensao about opening a café during the pandemic and her customer-oriented ethos.

During exams, my friends and I formed a study group. While it took us three years to realise that studying might be important even for a History degree, the dread for our upcoming exams eventually sunk in. Amidst the panicked conversations about misogynistic late-Roman chroniclers (looking at you, Procopius) were the study breaks at some point in the day to visit a café. A European-style working day with a long lunch break was essential to feeling like a real humanities student, and spending on coffee or cake proved to be an excellent means of coping with exam stress.

Now that exams are long gone, I have found time to consider what I could write about that would allow me to reflect on my experience of Oxford as a city, and I was torn between pubs and cafés. However, having been teetotal for the first year of my degree, in lockdown for the second and a finalist for my third, my pubbing credentials are well below par. Being a sugar-addict, however, my café CV is brimming with relevant experience, and I felt the need to pay some kind of tribute to the coffee shop scene here.

Bored witless by the Law Library, I applied for a loyalty card at the adjacent coffee shop, Missing Bean, and I also occasionally resorted to the suspiciously cheap coffee in college, where the exciting catch is that the oat milk is off and the coffee tastes burnt. As Exeter’s Cohen Quad is in Jericho, Tree Artisan, located on Little Clarendon Street, became our most-visited café. To find out what coffee shop life is like in Oxford from the point of view of the owners, I decided to interview Tree Artisan’s founder and owner, Graziella Ascensao.

Tree Artisan Café now feels like a fixture of the Oxford coffee scene, but it faced challenges from the very start. Graziella moved to Oxford from Brazil at 18, and later worked in the service sector, as both a barista and a waitress, and began to save up until she could afford to open her own café. It seemed as if fate had conspired against her when the COVID-19 pandemic hit as soon as she had secured the lease for the premises.

However, consistent with the rest of her attitude connected to her work, Graziella approached the challenge with a positive mindset and turned it into an opportunity. ‘At that time, I saw it was the time to open,’ she says. ‘When people were in front of their computer all day, they wanted to pick up a coffee and go to the park’. While, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she found it harder to cultivate the atmosphere she wanted within the physical space, she managed to generate a small community of regular customers who appreciated the friendliness and good coffee on offer. ‘I found positivity in that. I am always trying to be a warm person’.

This attitude is Graziella’s main take on the difference between the culture of chain cafés and that of independent ones. She takes pride in buying everything from independent suppliers, from bread to coffee beans, not wanting to compromise the culture of a small local enterprise. ‘There is more love, more passion. With chains, whoever you are, you are a number. The staff are a number, the customers are a number, everybody is a number. It is completely different to when you have a focus on the people’.

This focus is arguably what makes Tree Artisan Café unique. After exams, my friend and I worked there one afternoon, while the café was quiet. As we worked, we noticed that the staff recognised and talked to almost every customer who walked through the door. For a generation that appreciates the personal experience afforded by food vendors, this kind of human interaction sets Tree Artisan Café apart from chain cafés, where the staff often seem stressed and keen to hurry along to the next customer. The feeling that you’re part of a community is a huge appeal, and one that makes sitting in Tree Artisan much more appealing than, for example, sitting in Café Nero.

While the independent café market in Oxford is crowded and competitive, Graziella does not feel this is a hostile environment, and rather sees a market where independent outlets do not have to try and beat each other down to stay in business. ‘Honestly, I respect all of them, because I believe in this world there is space for all of them. Tree Artisan has my biometric, it is different from all the others. It is my personal imprint on them. It is like my baby. I am not comparing to others; I love it because it is mine’.

This ‘personal imprint’ is a huge part of independent coffee outlets in Oxford, and Graziella’s experiences definitely shape how Tree Artisan operates. Having been vegan for three years, she ensures there are multiple dairy-free, gluten-free and vegan options on the menu. As a lifelong member of the allergy club myself, it is welcome to have actual choices, especially when they’re genuinely delicious and likely to even be bought by someone who isn’t allergic to the other options. The menu is also rotated regularly, according to which options prove most popular, which allows Tree Artisan to be customer-driven, rather than constantly supplying the same, bulk-bought generic options available at a chain.

Graziella’s enthusiasm talking about running her own café is infectious. ‘It is hard work,’ she tells me at the end of our interview. ‘I’m here at 4:30 in the morning every day, and I have gratitude to be here. It is my passion, I am happy to be here’. It is this highly personal desire to create a positive experience for every customer that sets Oxford’s independent outlets apart from their corporate competition, and Tree Artisan Café is the perfect example of this alternative, people-focused approach to growing as a café in Oxford.

Image credit: Emily Perkins.

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