Steve Gray on a Prague cookie business with royal connections

11-07-2016

Královské (Royal) Cookie is a shop on Prague’s Vinohradská St. with a number of regal connections. The district has traditionally been known as Royal Vinohrady and, says UK-born co-owner Steve Gray, there is also a link between the business and the Queen of England. Gray runs Královské Cookie – whose flagship huge cookies are decorated according to customers’ requests – with his Czech boyfriend Petr, whom he met in London. When we spoke recently at the cosy shop, the Englishman filled me in on its origins.

Steve Gray, photo: Ian WilloughbySteve Gray, photo: Ian Willoughby “Královské Cookie, Royal Královské, sprang from an occasion in 2012 when my mother was invited to receive the Maundy money purse, which the Queen gives annually on Maundy Thursday, which is the Thursday before Easter.

“It was to be handed over at a ceremony in York, so my mum, my sister and I travelled to York for it.

“The day after the ceremony – we’d stayed in York for a few days – was my birthday. And my mother being my mother, and not being able to make me a cake herself, decided to buy me one.

“What she chose was a huge, sort of pizza-sized cookie, sold by a man at a stand in York station. She asked him to write, Happy birthday, Steve on it, which he did.

“I took it home to Petr, who instantly fell in love with the idea. And for two years or so we planned to bring the idea, and cookies, to Prague.

“I know that cookies were here already, but these are our cookies: královské cookies.”

What is this Maundy money?

“It’s a symbolic gift. I think the history behind it is that the king originally started on Maundy Thursday choosing a certain number of poor people and they were given some money.

“So the queen comes and passes the money over. It was given to my mum in recognition of her work over the years with various organisations, such as the NSPCC, the National Trust and, most importantly, the Mothers’ Union.”

Is there a connection between that gift from the Queen and your shop’s name?

Photo: official website of Královské CookiePhoto: official website of Královské Cookie “Absolutely. Completely. It’s the idea behind the brand, our shop, the design of the shop, the design of our logo, which is a royal seal with the silhouette of a devil’s head.

“The shop has many pictures of kings and queens, Czech kings and queens. Also the symbol of St. Anthony, who I believe is the patron saint of bakers.

“So there’s a connection springing from a royal occasion in York in 2012 to our symbols throughout the shop and our logo.”

Was that why you chose this part of Prague? Vinohrady has traditionally been known as Royal Vinohrady.

“If it had been by design that would have been wonderful, but that is purely a coincidence. A very good coincidence. We were very lucky in finding the property we found.”

If I understand it right, you do huge cookies that can kind of stand in for a birthday cake and are designed with a decoration on top?

“Absolutely. They’re called our královské cookies, because they’re royal, they’re big. They’re 32 centimetres and come in a presentation box.

“They can be decorated with basically any design that you would like. The decoration is done with egg white, which is basically royal icing.

“We can do any design really, from Darth Vader and other Star Wars characters through to the two Prague football teams, Slavia and Sparta, which we have done. We can do anything really.

Photo: official website of Královské CookiePhoto: official website of Královské Cookie “We also do regular, small-sized cookies. They’re available in 11 flavours, from basic chocolate through to a new one we have, hemp seed.”

What’s the strangest design you’ve been asked to produce so far?

“The first one that springs to mind was for a lady who was in a ballet at the National Theatre here in Prague. It was for Valetine’s Day and she asked for a reproduction of an anatomically correct heart with a sword stabbing through it.

“We weren’t quite sure what the reasoning behind it was, but it came out very, very well.

“Other strange ones we’ve had? We’ve been asked to do a hovno, a Czech shit – I don’t know if I can say that on the radio! – on a cookie.”

Do you know why?

“No, we still to this day don’t ask our customers. We’ll do basically anything –obviously nothing offensive politically to anybody else, but otherwise, sure.

“We’ve also been involved in some protests of our own. We made a reproduction ourselves of the Tibetan flag when the Chinese president came to town and put that in our window.

“But we didn’t get a visit from the police, unlike the college [FAMU film school] here.”

Do you feel a little bit political? I walk past here quite often and I’ve seen in the window the gay flag, the Czechia sign or, as you say, the Tibetan flag.

Photo: official website of Královské CookiePhoto: official website of Královské Cookie “Sure. We are both avid followers of the news, news addicts, and we’re both interested in politics.

“And yeah, why not? In a way it can represent to people that we are prepared to do whatever they want on a cookie, and it shows our abilities.

“But yes, it’s a way for us to make a very small statement. Nothing ever offensive, but yes, absolutely.”

Beside us in a glass-topped table there’s quite a distinctive looking cookie. Could you please tell us what the symbol on it is?

“What you see is a flagpole flying a pair of bright red, very large, older gentleman’s underwear.

“We produced this and put it in the window at the time that the guys climbed up Prague Castle and flew the underwear as a protest toward Mr. Zeman’s policies towards Russia, etc.

“That was one we weren’t quite sure about, because we weren’t sure of people in the area’s reaction. Because everybody has their own political views and whatever.

“But it was met very positively – people laughed and came in.”

Do people come in specifically when they see something in the window?

“Absolutely. Especially at the moment as we have many hearts in our windows and they seem to be very popular. People come in and say, I want that one.

“I have to say all of the decorated cookies that we have aren’t kept in stock – they’re done to order.

“The minimum is 24 hours. We don’t keep them because obviously they need to be freshly done.”

I guess in this part of Vinohrady we’re quite close to what they call the Gay Triangle, with the bars near here and so on. Is that part of the reason that you chose this location?

Photo: official website of Královské CookiePhoto: official website of Královské Cookie “No, we just found the property.

“All of those things, like being close to what’s considered the gay area here in Prague and, as you mentioned earlier about the name, were all fantastic coincidences.

“That all went together to make it the perfect location for our business. Absolutely.”

Coming from London, how do you find living here as a gay man?

“Living here as a gay man? Life is a lot quieter [laughs].

“I am a gay man who’s happily partnered, so my experience of the Prague gay scene in particular is probably quite limited.

“Also the fact that I’ve spent the last year and a half working basically every single day of the week has meant that my social interaction is limited.

“But my experience is very, very positive. I don’t feel any more or less discrimination – I don’t know if that’s the right word – here than I would in London. No, not really.

“I would say one thing. I think perhaps things like services for people with HIV or whatever are maybe not quite as good – I don’t want to use the word good – as maybe you would find in the UK.”

As you say, cookies were already here before you guys arrived. But I still would imagine that maybe some people of a certain age wouldn’t be familiar with them. Do you find that you have to kind of explain what they are to people?

“Absolutely. From the day that we opened people came into our shop very, very warily.

Photo: official website of Královské CookiePhoto: official website of Královské Cookie “People didn’t know whether we weren’t a grow shop or a herna [gaming] bar. Everybody walking in was asking, What do you do here?

“It’s generational. Younger people and the people who live in this area, Vinohrady, know what cookies are. They’ve travelled or whatever – they know them.

“But older people come in and we still need to explain it to them. But they’re very positive and they always buy one to try.

“It’s a business that’s growing extremely well.”

11-07-2016