Sunday, 27 October 2013

A Year In The Life

I have often been heard lamenting my own neglect of this blog in the past year and a bit, so, my apologies for taking so long to do something about it. I’ve had quite a year, biting off, if not more than I can chew, then certainly enough to stop me being able to talk. The last many of you will have heard from me, I was freshly returned from Paris having been filling my days with macaron missions, baguette brilliance and pastry passions. My Gallic adventure taught me a lot about myself, not least being that somewhere, there is a career in food for me to knead into shape. So when I returned I had the good fortune to hear about, apply for and win a new post with my old employer running a training cafe in their flagship centre.

I hope you’re strapped in and ready for a whistlestop tour of my past year in the food industry to make up for my silence. It has certainly been a bumpy ride and regardless of whether I’m driving or not, I remain in the dark not only about the destination, but sometimes also about the general direction I’m travelling in. There are no emergency exits.

Here we go…

August 2012
First day of the Olympics.
Also first day in my new job managing a training café within a centre designed to help the unemployed back in to work through a variety of skills programmes and vocational qualifications.

In Stratford.

Attached to the Olympic park.

A View from the top on another 'quiet' August 2012 day in Stratford.

My first two weeks are spent getting to grips with the challenges of a commute to and from the Olympic Park, as well as those facing the café as a business, which include an embargo on advertising outside of the building, a high proportion of young people on low income from one of the most ethnically diverse London boroughs and revenue targets that can never be achieved without several other income streams. I earn my Level 2 Food Hygiene certificate and get to grips with flashy equipment that has been gathering dust for a year before recruiting my role seemed like a good plan. No coffees are made for two weeks until I manage to persuade the airport-style security in place in my building that I have no intention of manufacturing a bomb from the espresso machine cleaning powder. I sell a few kitkats and cokes that have been bought in from the local cash&carry and start making demands for useful equipment like a stock cupboard, a hob, a freezer…  

No suppliers are in place so I build these contacts from scratch and negotiate shopping trolleys full of stock across the bridge to the Olympic village while juggling running the café, writing a café manual and dealing with stock spoilage issues inevitable not only due to the low levels of traffic but also from nightmare delivery logistics due to the Olympics. And then the Paralympics.

September 2012
The centre’s cleaners hand over to me full cleaning responsibilities for the café and I become even more militant about access to the kitchen and cleaning logs. Café staff uniform is organised even though I remain the only staff member, and my Mum is put in charge of sourcing thread to match the logo and getting them sewn up. I win the fight for the e-POS till from the training shop to replace the corner-store style carbon printer till system and get to grips with programming the expanding menu onto it. I quickly learn to triple-check my shopping list against a delivery note and the delivery itself, that relying on others to sign off cash requests inevitably leads to significant personal spend and that non coffee-drinkers can still make a reasonable latte under my instruction.


And in my infinite wisdom I decide to fill it with ice and smoothie fruits.

I also acquire a hob and can stop using the combi-oven to melt things.

Having become a feeder with my reliable homemade flapjacks and banana bread it is decided to launch the café in an official capacity with a MacMillan coffee morning. A week of evenings alone in the ‘office’ late at night in an icing-sugar fog produces a dazzling display of cupcakes, brownies, cookies, biscuits and muffins, especially considering they’ve all been made in a combi-oven that barely fits two trays of cupcakes. Nearly everything sells out and a handsome cheque is sent to the charity.

Sadly, due to an oversight, the photos and quotes about this never make it into the company magazine.

By this point, it has become clear that the original design for the café and the use to which it has been intended by the Powers That Be are somewhat at odds with each other. A catering space with a two-shelf combi oven, no integrated hob and one food prep work surface was never designed to be a fully functioning bakery-café. Especially one made of white surfaces blemished by the merest whisper of a caffeine spillage. This notion is quickly put out of mind while catering orders start coming in thick and fast, meaning I find myself at times juggling running the café, baking for the cake sale and catering for a business lunch for 40. And just like that, the advert for an Apprentice is finalised.

October 2012
The menu expands according to customer feedback and a large volume of multi-portion soup pouches are bought in. Spare space in the freezer is rapidly filled with part-baked rolls, pizzas, sausage rolls and batch-baked cakes. Surprisingly, customers don’t really enjoy waiting for their sausage rolls to be baked to order. Soups sell at a rate of about a portion a day resulting in huge wastage. Apprentice applications are not hugely forthcoming to start with but finally result in a few in-depth interviews and day-long work trials before selection of what I hope to shape into my mini-me.

Loyalty cards arrive to encourage the drinking of proper coffees and with the help of with a good number of freebies, these begin to take off. My colleague on reception burns through almost a card a week from this point on and we quickly develop a routine few understand where the response ‘Yes Please!’ is elicited either from simply saying his name or by asking ‘Mental?’, otherwise known as his daily three-shot latte. On a bad day, it’s time for a ‘Totally Insane’ four-shot. The arrival of a chalk board sees me getting creative drawing suspect-looking chocolate chip cookies in what soon appears to be permanent marker on the price board. I nervously hand over the daily routine of getting the staff hot drink station set up to the centre manager and leave the country for a few days to indulge in the gastronomic and oenological delights of San Sebastian and Rioja. Bar a massive clean up on my return, nothing goes horrendously wrong.

November 2012
Mini-me starts, and not a moment too soon. I am left to get by while she completes a two-week hospitality training programme to get her covered for food safety. By her third full day in the café I am having to deal with the guilt of abandoning her to customers while still so ‘green’ while I prepare lunch platters for 40 people. Mercifully, this is an otherwise quieter month, allowing me to concentrate on getting mini-me fully inducted into the company and café ways of working, set up with the best and most relevant units for her apprenticeship and experienced in as many aspects of café life as possible. 

Which is just as well, because torrential rain in the West Country means I am stranded, albeit creating a lovely long weekend with my partner, and off from work for the 30-person meeting that needs catering for one fateful Monday at the end of the month. She takes it all in her stride as though she had been taught like a pro.

December 2012
A trainer from the coffee company arrives and changes my cappuccinos, for the better, forever. Not only do I learn that coffee bean quality deteriorates months before its Best Before date but I finally achieve a silky mouthfeel to my steamed milk that I still believe only a few independent coffee bars can match. The resulting stronger sales mean that the till float has to be increased for the first time and the café’s image as a ‘tuck shop’ begins, slowly, to wane.
Got milk?

Now that I can do latte art properly I entertain a couple of requests. Admittedly, my latte boobs need a bit more work.

Increased sales mean the first signs that the café was not designed to be much more than a training facility begin to show. Aesthetic but un-hardy cupboards begin to suffer, the very real need for increased storage and worktop space is demonstrated during the chaos of a lunch rush and the domestic-style dishwasher breaks down. In the absence of any other solution I am also forced by necessity to buy a second microwave to cope with the volume of staff lunches that need heating, mine being the only food preparation space in the centre.

Ahead of the Christmas do, a secret stash of wine is passed to me to chill in the fridges. Nobody remembers to count them first. I call it my Christmas bonus.

The best day of work this month comes on that peaceful day between Christmas and New Year when most staff are still on leave. I come to work in my chef’s trousers and bake all day, undisturbed, content in my quest to stock the freezer with homemade cakes for the next few weeks.

January 2013
Slow sales at the start of the month due to post-Christmas cashflow issues and good New Year resolution intentions are predictably short-lived. My cakes are blamed for the lack of will for a good proportion of my colleagues. I make use of any quieter time brought about by these good intentions to address improvements necessary to café layout, security, maintenance and equipment. I start investigating takeaway packaging now that interest from the other office on our floor has coincided with a noticeable number of un-returned plates.

Mini-me’s diligence at working on her Apprenticeship units cannot change the fact that my ambitions for her were slightly out of her reach, as well as not being entirely feasible given the café’s setup, and her programme is adjusted to become more achievable. Keen to ensure I support her the best way I can, I start a teaching qualification which also gives her the opportunity to run the café alone one afternoon a week. We get the year off to a good start by logging many of her daily tasks to provide evidence for her portfolio and I get her creating adverts for some of the café’s products.

I manage to forget to turn to page two of a refreshments booking form for a meeting of important delegates and have to leg it to M&S to buy sandwiches, cut them in half and present them on a platter once they point out lunch is half an hour late. Thanks to marathon training I manage to do this without looking too much like I’m about to pass out.

February 2013
Perfect Valentine's Day fare...
I learn that if you add red glitter to stuff, people will buy it in the name of Valentine’s Day. Likewise if you stick a chocolate-dipped strawberry on top. Or pink buttercream. Or make anything with edible hearts.

Colleagues start to notice my London Marathon sponsorship forms papered around the centre and some deduce a link between this and my occasional agony whilst walking.

After much wonderment and many random mid-afternoon outbursts of ‘did-you-know’-isms resulting from researching McGee’s Food and Cooking, I complete my teaching course by delivering a training session to my peers all about the wonder that is the humble egg. I continue to this day to hope that their apparent enthusiasm was not solely caused by the peer-criticism arrangement in place for passing the course. In return, I have sat through a training session on the Offside rule and learnt how to bellydance. Partner weeps with joy.

March 2013
Five months in to her apprenticeship, mini-me’s performance starts to become a little erratic. Now fully into the swing of things, tinges of boredom are beginning to set in, resulting in an increase in lateness and extended lunch hours. Mini-me and I have a meeting to address her dissatisfaction at having to repeatedly carry out cleaning tasks, sometimes while I get on with accounting or liaising with suppliers. Along with my own manager, mini-me is given the sort of short-course in ‘Life 101’ that I wish I had had by her age:
  1. Life is unfair.
  2.  In order to achieve your ambitions, you will have to work hard, and start from the ground upwards.
  3.  Nobody is going to be your salesman for you like you can be for yourself.
  4. When you are given a rare opportunity to work in a supportive and nurturing environment, utilise, but don’t abuse.

The café caters for its first evening event, providing a selection of hot and cold canapés and wine for 50 people, and we work well as a team. The bruschetta I stayed late to prep the night before is a particular success and I spend the rest of the week devising ways to use up two kilos of wholegrain mustard. Chocolate-dipped strawberries are reprised as cake toppings to use up the excess from my slight overcatering issue.

The microwave breaks through the sheer volume of staff food being reheated in quick succession during the lunch service. The small mercy is the time I can drag out not reheating any more while I await the recalled receipt from head office archives for a replacement. I am amazed at how much emotion this stirs in my colleagues, as well as how many of them manage to actually have a lunch break.

April 2013
Most of this month is taken up by running, carb loading, and preparing for the Marathon fundraising bakesale. Themed bakes such as Rocky road bars, cheesey feet biscuits and ‘Marathon’ brownies go down well and help me to exceed my fundraising target. The fact I broke the office printer by trying to print my sparkly glitter iron-on name transfer at work almost goes by unnoticed. Ottolenghi’s carrot cake becomes the stuff of café legend. The sale does at least make it into the staff newsletter this time, but not before a minor dispute between accounts and marketing over who gave it the original go-ahead in the first place, making me wonder for the merest second why I bothered. I have my first family visitors to the café to support the sale, and get another glimpse of just how helpful advice from a third party can be when you are so immersed in running the show you lose sight of what it’s like to be in the audience.  

The dishwasher breaks down. Mini-me and I both quickly arrive at the conclusion that washing everything up by hand in one sink is not as much fun as Fairy adverts would have you believe, nor does it make your hands as soft as your face, unless you are House. On my day off work after the marathon, my reward for being able to move is, naturally, taking advantage of someone else’s cakeshop. It might have even been two…

May 2013
Being personified in icing should be
on everyone's bucket list!
I reach a landmark birthday and indulge in much wonderful baking from others: fresh and hot madeleines from St John Bread and Wine and a wonderful personalised birthday cake.
I even manage to treat my poor feet, overworked all day for the past nine months as well as put through over 500 miles of running, to a rejuvenating pedicure. I take the opportunity to consider how lucky I am to be in a position where I can still explore what career path will make me happy, and to have such wonderful and supportive people around me.

Plans are developed to extend the café’s training offer to include short-term work experience placements for young people about to embark on hospitality apprenticeships. I set about designing a training programme for these placements to include all the key aspects of working in the café as well as experiencing a variety of different shifts.

At the end of the month, I learn my saddest, but most valuable lesson in the Hospitality industry so far: you can trust a member of staff completely, pour your energy and what you have learnt yourself into training them, supporting them, giving them experience and responsibility that they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy at such an early stage in their career, sing their praises, and they can still let you, and themselves, down in the most heartbreaking of ways.


June 2013
I am back to working as a one-woman band in the café, for the foreseeable future. It is around this time that the Powers That Be decide that the café is not generating enough of a return on its investment and opportunities for putting it to use as a revenue-generating training facility need to be maximised.

My line manager leaves the company. Suddenly staff begin ordering toast first thing in the morning again, now that they are no longer banned from eating at their desk while they check their emails.

Post-marathon, I am keeping fit by repeatedly having to carry up to 36 pints of milk at a time from ten minutes away. All well and good unless any or, as is often the case, all of the below apply:
a) it’s raining and windy – quite a likely occurrence in London, 
b) all the elevators between the café and the supermarket are broken 
or c) the milk starts leaking on the way back all over the bread, sandwich fillings and me, causing a mini meltdown while I empty my shopping bags of purchases to pour away the spillage and almost actually cry over spilt milk.

July 2013
Preparations are underway for the next phase of café development and I work on advertising opportunities to increase footfall and give the prospective trainees more customers with whom to practise their skills. The menu is refreshed and packed lunches grow in popularity despite questionable British summer weather. All that frozen fruit finally gets put to use in smoothies and berry muffins. The café gains a working glasswasher, a stock cupboard and a long-awaited second kitchen worktop. I see in my one-year anniversary on a well deserved holiday.

And so, into Year Two...
Since my one year anniversary in this role, I have thought a lot about the future. The café has been my baby, brought up from birth in the most part by a single parent, and I have learnt a lot, grumbled often and shed blood, sweat, tears and pounds through my work. I am proud of what I have achieved, never satisfied with how things are and at times frustrated in the lack of vision surrounding me at the potential of what I do. I have been steadfast in my belief that giving customers what they think they want is not always the right thing to do; I have resolutely resisted pressure to stock energy drinks, burgers and high-sugar chocolate cakes despite knowing how much the younger, seemingly more solvent students want them. I have been truly touched by the colleagues that recognise my hard work, the smiles I elicit from a regular customer when I have their order ready before they ask, the opportunities I am given to help someone make a healthier food choice. I know that I still have so much more to learn. Getting on with the pressures of running the café on my own risks making me blinkered to what can be done to improve the customer experience, how I can innovate, how to give customers more of what they want without jeopardising café values. Every now and then, as painful as it is, circumstances force me to take a step back and consider the café in its own merits as if as a customer, and it is hard not to take its shortcomings personally. And then I am reminded of the magnitude of the task at hand. I may not take as much money as I’d like, but I am solely responsible for opening, closing, running, stocking, administering, buying, controlling, cleaning, regulating, presenting and personalising that café, and it is a labour of love. Or madness. 
Or both.

Where I go from here, however, is bewildering. At some point it will be time for me to move on, but in what direction, only time can tell.

1 comment:

  1. wow, great post! such an achievement. also some of the insights into the corporate side made me giggle :)