Image Credit: @bisonyork on Instagram
Whenever I have a guest around, I make sure Bison Coffee House is on our agenda. Their food and atmosphere goes unrivalled and the staff are incredibly welcoming. Plus, they are both vegan and dog friendly.
After reopening in 2017, I became an instant regular. I never imagined myself getting so attached to a cafe, but the number of iced coffee and salmon and cream cheese bagels I have consumed here begs to differ; so when I heard that no student press has reviewed this wonderful place, I was eager to spread the word.
Its charcoal-facaded home is situated on the delightfully convenient Heslington Road and is run by mother and son duo, Hilary and Joe Walker. Joe, the cafe’s resident barista, spoke to Nouse about how the Bison we know and love came about and what it was like adapting their business during the pandemic.
When Bison first opened in 2011 with its original owner, Hilary Walker was a regular customer: “It was a place my mum always enjoyed visiting” Joe says, before explaining that the change of ownership happened whimsically, “she was in there one day and the owner said he was thinking of selling it and out of nowhere my mum just thought she would buy it and give it a go. She took over on 1st January 2017 and kept all the decor and everything as it was because she loved it so much.” The moment Hilary went in for a coffee and came out with a coffee shop (a running joke in the Walker household), Joe was backpacking in Asia and never hoped to get involved. However, soon after he started to help out, he discovered that coffee was his true calling; today, Joe finds himself a well-seasoned barista.
But how did Bison establish itself as an independent business amongst many others in York? They gained a solid fan-base over a short period of time and championed a well-deserved 4.8/5 rating on Google. Plus, they feature regularly on local guides as one of the best eateries in Yorkshire. In fact, their success has led to an opening of an additional floor just over a year ago. Joe says that “there are so many great independent businesses in York and you do need to try and stand out and have your own unique qualities.” He attributes their coffee rota as their star feature: “we’ve really focused on the coffee side of things and started changing the coffee we use every few days to really show the diversity that coffee can have from around the world”. This is a novel way of keeping their offerings fresh to customers; you can try different blends supplied by Hasbean, an independent coffee supplier, each time you visit: From Palma Violets and Pace Honey to Strawberry Jam Rum and Bonfire Coffee, these aromatic coffees are the Jo Malone of hot beverages that will leave you singing high praises.
Their cool vintage decor doesn’t go unnoticed either, and the cafe is always cosy and candle-lit: It is truly a prime space to catch up with your pals, and pre-pandemic, a study-hotspot. Joe says, “as we are in a predominantly student area, and Bison is an old converted terraced house, I think it feels like a second home for a lot of students whilst they're in York. I think my mum is probably one of the friendliest people there is, so that probably helps with the welcoming and friendly atmosphere.” Whilst everything he said is true, I can absolutely vouch for the latter half of the statement: Joe and Hilary’s warm welcome at Bison has led many of us, humans and canines alike, to become diehard fans for the past four years (and counting).
This naturally led on to my next question: how has it been navigating the cafe through the national lockdowns, and what was it like adapting to these circumstances?
“I think we've managed to adapt quite well to the constant changes in regulations. In the first lockdown we implemented a click and collect service that we have kept in place the whole time. That really helped us at the start because everything had to be preordered and it meant we didn't need someone operating the phones the whole time... Our entire menu was already available to take-away anyway, even before all this happened, so we already had all the packaging etc. to implement take-away, plus we didn't need to adapt the menu at all.”
Bison’s products are mostly supplied by independent businesses. Joe’s own project, Abstract Coffee Roasters, is the latest addition to its ever-growing menu. Joe points out that the pandemic has proven the cruciality of supporting local suppliers, and the relationship they built with them over the years has proven helpful for both parties. Since Hilary took over Bison, they have built both strong business and friendship with Brown & Blond (Bison’s brownie supplier) and Hasbean, who often pops into the shop to check that everything is going okay for them.
Joe thanks the cafe’s customers for supporting them throughout the pandemic, which further allows them to support their suppliers and keep orders going: “that's why the local community is so important, it’s a chain of support that goes right through the supply chain and helps out so many people along the way.”
So if you haven’t ventured to Bison yet, now is the perfect time. Actually, I am urging you to try this hidden gem (Joe recommends a flat white, a turkey and avocado bagel and a peanut butter brownie). Not only will you be supporting a wonderful family-run cafe, but also their suppliers.
Bison embodies what I love about York’s independent shops: it’s not merely a business, but a place where the owners are genuinely enthusiastic about ensuring quality experience for their visitors. By offering delicious food and friendly conversations, they became something of a local landmark. The community’s support allows them to carry on strongly and Joe offers his gratitude for this: “Thank you to everyone who has supported us this year, it's been really unbelievable and wonderful to see so many people coming out for a coffee and a brownie week on week.”
I would also like to give my personal thanks to Hilary and Joe for their endless kindness throughout the years, for keeping me sane through countless essay seasons, and for their love of my dog, Alfie. I will sure miss everything about it dearly!
You can find Bison Coffee House on 17 Heslington Road.
Their social channels can be found below.
Introducing: Yijae Kim's dog, Alfie! (image credit: @bisonyork on Instagram)