Casa Leeds: Meet the couple behind the gluten-free tapas restaurant that started with a humble coffee machine

The couple behind Casa Leeds didn't plan for their restaurant to be a gluten-free destination.

By Abbey Maclure
Sunday, 26th June 2022, 4:30 pm

In fact, they didn't plan to start the business at all.

David Nkengma, then the owner of a textiles factory, got chatting to a man in a pub who he discovered had a coffee machine gathering dust in his garage.

“I hired a van, drove six hours to Sussex to collect the thing and brought it back to my factory," David, 68, told the Yorkshire Evening Post.

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David and Marta Nkengma, the founders of gluten-free tapas restaurant Casa Leeds (Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

“People wondered if I’d gone bonkers."

David had initially planned to sell coffee from his factory, but as he worked up to 16 hours a day, the machine was untouched for two years.

After finding an advertisement in the business pages of The Sunday Times, he later founded Casa Leeds, then Casa Colombiana, in the former Handpicked Hall in the Grand Arcade.

“I arrived with my roaster under my arm and we started roasting coffee," David said.

David started his business from a humble coffee machine - and Casa Leeds is now a destination for gluten-free diners (Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

“At that point, I had no idea it would eventually become what it is.”

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When Handpicked Hall, home to a collective of small businesses, closed down - David was offered a permanent unit in the Grand Arcade more than seven years ago.

He jumped at the offer, despite having no experience in the hospitality industry and much hesitation from his wife Marta, and started selling food from Latin America to accompany his Columbian coffee.

On the Casa Leeds menu is a wide range of gluten-free tapas, and a cheekily-named 'not tapas' section, as well as cocktails, beers and wines (Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

The restaurant is "accidently" gluten-free, using maize flour in all its dishes, and Casa Leeds has now become a popular choice for coeliac and gluten-intolerant diners.

“I had a eureka moment," David said.

"I put together an A2 poster - shouting that we were gluten free - and put it into the window. That caught the attention of a number of people.

“One coeliac sufferer saw the poster, came in and was beside herself with excitement.

"She could not believe she had an entire menu to choose from and took it on herself to tell the world that we were there."

David and Marta have built up a loyal customer base over the years and around 60 per cent of their clientele are either coeliac sufferers or gluten intolerant.

On their menu is a wide range of gluten-free tapas, and a cheekily-named 'not tapas' section, as well as cocktails, beers and wines - and they even boast a nightclub upstairs.

“Customers say they feel like they're on holiday, or they feel like they're at home," David added.

“We want the experience to feel like you’ve been transported to anywhere in Latin America.”

When David purchased the lease to his unit, he sat on the street, looking at the tired building, and wondered what he had done.

But despite the challenges and mistakes along the way, Casa Leeds has stood firm as the Grand Arcade sprung to life around it - and David loves every minute of running his business.

“I talk too much,” David laughed.

“And if ever there was a forum for somebody who loves talking, the restaurant setting lends itself to that.

“The breadth of people that we meet is fantastic, ranging from babies and youngsters to students and lawyers.

“And I know that the food, particularly now, is the best we’ve ever offered - because we now know what we are doing.”