Posted by: Iain Chambers | January 9, 2010

A busy week, and now it’s time to think

Well that was quite a week, one that was meant to be a return to some sort of normality, but thanks to the cold and snow was anything but. Doesn’t Jack Frost know I’ve got a business to run? The persistent icy weather has really changed the nature of how we are living, hasn’t it? It reminds me of being in Cuba weirdly enough. You see people walking everywhere, and the shops are haphazardly stocked (depending on whether the delivery lorry has made it on time). I quite like it really. There is also more contact between people I think. Neighbours are helping each other out, or throwing snowballs at each other. People are chatting about how they are coping. Our lives are so well provisioned most of the time that I think it’s good to be reminded not to take that for granted. And if the irritation of missed deliveries or slipping on the ice starts to make me pine for a return to the usual winter blandness, I try to think of how my kids will look back on this cold snap. I wouldnt be surprised if it imprints on their memory in a similar way to the long hot summers of the mid-70s imprinted on mine.

Whilst the description slick is still some way away, I am starting to get the rhythms of short-order cooking. As Magic said, it is important for me to become comfortable with this process. The most important thing is to prepare properly, setting out all the breakfast ingredients close to the griddle, and then starting each ingredient off on its journey towards hotness. It is essentially a simple thing to do, but like any skill it isn’t too easy to master. One of the things I have thought about a lot recently is appreciating the talents of other people, whether lauded by society or held in little esteem. Life is hugely improved when people make an effort to do whatever it is they do well, whether that is customer service via a call centre helpline, driving a cab, arranging flowers or running a city council. That effort is oil on society’s gears. Compare that to the irritating grit of those detestable bankers, handing out bonuses after all they have done. Wow, this post has gone drastically off-piste into Tunbridge Wellsian rant-mode.

The week brought visits from friends and well-wishers, the very satisfying return of lots of customers, and an astonishing booking from France, giving me the conundrum of cooking breakfast for thirty one students and staff  in my fifteen seater cafe, two mornings on the trot. If anyone fancies helping out, let me know. A word of warning though: although on the first day, the first students will sit down at a relatively civilised 7.30 am, on the second day, they sit down at 6.30 am, which means a 5 am alarm for yours truly.

This week has also brought home the need to take the plunge on certain decisions, most of which involve spending lots of money. Whereas six weeks ago I was all gung ho with the idea of changing this and buying that and moving this, I am now much more circumspect, and aware of the need to be governed by the balance sheet. So a nice new laptop, the very one on which I’m tapping out this blog, will require the cooking  of about several hundred of my delicious big breakfasts to pay for it. I need the laptop, but six weeks ago I was of a mind to buy a MacBook. Now, I’d much rather buy a really good toaster and dishwasher, because that will make each hour in the cafe easier. The customers will benefit from those items, but their meals wouldn’t arrive any quicker if I had a Mac instead of an Acer.

The very physical and direct nature of catering is good for financial discipline. The raw ingredients are there on your shelves and in your fridges. You’ve paid for them, and if you don’t cook them and sell them, you have to throw them away. You don’t want to, but there’s no choice, unless you want to risk poisoning your customers. It’s all very immediate. This is so different from selling books, which is what I used to do. In bookselling the risk regarding the raw ingredient, the book, is usually with the publisher, and a well-organised bookseller will return unsold stock for a full refund! Similarly in bookselling, the reaction to your recommended read has to come after your customer has left your premises, found time to read the book and then hopefully return to your shop to pass comment. It’s a contemplative, drawn-out process, and can be immensely satisfying one, as you may get to truly share the experience of reading a book, the very same book with the same words and/or pictures, and the same ideas and artistry. In the cafe, it’s all in your face, or rather theirs, as you get to see, and hopefully hear, their reaction as they eat and pay. And on their plates, or better still not on their plates, if you see what I mean. Each meal is different, especially if the cook uses ‘real’ ingredients, even with a straightforward dish like a cooked breakfast. Each customer visit is unique, an opportunity to enchant them or send them away vowing never to darken your door again. If they don’t like a book they may well blame the author; if they don’t like your food, there is nowhere to hide. It’s quite a ride.

Posted by: Iain Chambers | January 2, 2010

Into the frying pan…

Wow! What can I say?

Firstly, sorry I haven’t blogged more regularly. I wish I had because blogging does give you a great opportunity to gather your thoughts. It’s been a fascinating, exhausting, revelatory, scary, frustrating yet satisfying first couple of weeks. I’ve metaphorically thrown my business plan in the bin and retrieved it several times (it might help if I actually wrote one). I’ve had moments when I’ve questioned my sanity in doing this, although this is strongly connected to waking up to the morning alarm while it is still dark. And I’ve had moments of deep, deep satisfaction, usually when a customer has praised my food or my coffee, but occasionally just because I’m chopping away at a carrot or mushroom or whatever, and it feels good to be doing so to earn a crust.

The biggest surprise is coming to terms with a change of career. Having thought and planned and dreamed for so long of opening my own food joint, it is weird to finally be here. And odd too to no longer be a bookseller, which is pretty much what I have done since 1990, give or take a spate of child-rearing and a manic diversion into shopping professionally at IKEA. It is very strange to be back in the world of not really knowing what I am doing professionally, a feeling I haven’t really had for quite some time. Luckily parenting is quite good preparation for this, as that particular practice remains a mystery to me after a full decade of experience. But having taken the plunge of both changing my career and becoming self-employed, I can simultaneously see why people often stick to what they know whilst wishing I had done this earlier.

There has been an element of fantasy or unreality about the whole affair, mainly because of the newness of the project, but this has been magnified by the festive season. So Jenni has been on holiday and looking after the kids full-time, and many of the days the cafe has been open have been ‘unusual’ days, which don’t really give a good guide to what an average week is likely to bring. I have also been waiting for some of the more tiresome elements of starting a new business to fall into place, such as bank accounts, refuse collections, utility provision and phone lines (don’t get me started on this last one!). A very clever person should start a business that starts businesses for people like me, i.e. does all the tiresome stuff mentioned above to leave one free to do the good bits like making cookies or buying new pans. Suffice to say that the business feels a lot more real now that I can bank my takings and stop paying for things from our joint bank account.

I think the real Up of the business so far has been the tremendous encouragement I’ve received from friends and customers. People clearly feel genuinely pleased for me to have reached a long treasured goal, and also seem to relish the idea that I’m having a go, taking a chance. This encouragement is hugely important, because there are downsides to this project that can give me the collywobbles at times, and it’s vital to me that I feel the uplift that being part of a community brings. I’ve also really enjoyed the interaction with other small businesses, mainly suppliers who are making their own way as self-employed, self-reliant people, and as such understand where I am in my journey. The one-to-one nature of these relationships is so different to the interactions with bigger corporate bodies, which get caught up in their own cultures, and the ‘individuals’ within them don’t seem to have any notion of how embedded they are in those cultures, and how alienating it is to deal with those cultures from the outside. A free tip from me to the big businesses of this world: there are few things more annoying than listening to recorded messages boasting of the brilliance of your customer service whilst being on hold trying to get some even half-decent customer service.

The first twelve days of being open for business (interrupted by some festive activities planned long before the cafe popped into our lives so suddenly) have been not so much a learning curve but a learning waaahh!what’s happening?!? Whilst it is possible, and indeed highly advisable, to envisage outcomes, make plans, write lists etc., it has been my regret at times in the last couple of weeks that I didn’t try to get myself a job in a kitchen before taking the plunge myself. Doing my diploma at Ashburton Cookery School in February was a bloody good idea, and gave me a great grounding in the discipline of cooking professionally. But it’s not quite the same as the real thing: making five different breakfasts for nine people simultaneously, and trying not to drop anything, or burn myself, or burn the food, or forget the coffee, and trying to remember to smile and be hospitable and actually make the food well, and present it well, and check the loos, and turn up the extractor fan, and refill the reservoir in the coffee machine, and… all the other things I’ve forgotten or not remembered or don’t know yet. It’s been great fun, and scary as hell.

At this point I’d like to say a big thanks to Majid from the Blue Man Restaurant, or Magic as everyone calls him. Magic came into the cafe on the first or second day, and I managed to not really get round to making his breakfast while trying to be pleasant and chatty to my other customers. He postponed his breakfast order to another day, told me who he was, what he did now, and what he used to do: run a breakfast cafe all on his own. He offered his help and advice free of charge or obligation, and a couple of days later I popped in to see him at The Blue Man. It was an invaluable hour that has already made my life a lot easier, not least his advice on pre-cooking the mushrooms and adding a little lemon to preserve their colour. I know I’ll be calling on him again in future.

Magic’s wisest piece of advice is to keep things simple. Get good at one thing first: making breakfasts. The premises in Ship Street Gardens have housed a breakfast cafe for the best part of twenty years and I’ve already had customers telling me of its past incarnations. There have been many people already saying they are glad the place is open again so that they can get a good, hot breakfast in The Lanes. And that really is what people have wanted so far. I’ve cooked stew, ratatouille, soups etc but what people are asking for, expecting even, is a cooked breakfast. Magic’s point was that if I concentrate on getting that right, becoming known for a great fry-up or an irresistible bacon sandwich, then the core of the business will be secure. Not only that, becoming comfortable with the task of bringing the familiar ingredients of a Big Breakfast together onto a hot plate will allow me the time to deliver the other, intangible side of the bargain: hospitality. It is so easy to overlook this indispensable ingredient when juggling plates and pans and cups and cutlery. Magic explained that in the long run that is what people keep coming back for: the patron, not just his or her food. And this reminded me that hospitality is my first love, more profound even than cooking. For a long time I never planned to cook in my own gaff, envisaging being front of house in a bigger restaurant. Seven Bees has thrust me into both roles (and many more besides, not least chief dishwasher. On second thoughts, do make that least – washing dishes sucks!), and as things stand the vital thing for me to master is how to prep for, cook and deliver the menu to the table. But I look forward to the day when I feel relaxed in performing those tasks, as it is then that I will be more able to enjoy the role of host. Le patron.

Posted by: Iain Chambers | December 13, 2009

The Bees was buzzin’

I am bleary eyed, exhausted but happy. The cafe is open at last, and the first hour was pretty eventful – more of that later. Since my last post a few days ago, I have spent much of my time on the herculean task of cleaning the cafe. Each investigation of another nook or cranny revealed more grease or grime. Each new purchase of storage containers or crockery meant another load of washing up to freshen them up for use. How the previous owners operated without a dishwasher I’ll never know. Installing a commercial one, that does a rack of plates in three minutes, will cost a packet (they cost easily ten times as much as a domestic one) but will be worth it. I loathe washing up. I think a main motivation for my cooking urge is it usually gets me out of the dirty business of washing up. I love it on Christmas Day when I can sit back with an aching stomach and watch everyone else clearing the table and washing away at all those troublesome trays, bowls and glasses. No matter that the meal took me hours to cook.

The cleaning is now done, and even though the cafe will of course become dirty again, at least I know that if I keep on top of it, the job will be one of maintenance rather than overhaul. The shopping for new stuff was fun. I have gone for an eclectic mix of TK Maxx and Habitat. I love TK Maxx. In lieu of Brighton’s appalling lack of a proper market, TK Maxx offers a similar experience. Full of tat and has-beens and never-will-bes, it has hidden gems if you dig deep, as well as the kind of silly stuff I will no doubt come to regret buying, but enjoyed the hunt even so. I bought some Laguiole (pronounced La-yoll) cutlery, because they have bees stamped into them. It’s not the real mccoy (despite the bogus authenticity leaflet included) as I couldn’t afford that, but I still like them.

And so to today. After a couple of 16 hour days trying to get everything sorted, it was time to take the plunge. As I dragged myself out of bed at 7am on a Sunday, I questioned the wisdom of this whole thing momentarily, but lingered longer over the wisdom of going to a party til 1.30 am this morning. But the party was great and everyone was so full of encouragement and heartfelt congratulations for going for it. People have been bloody nice to me these lasts couple of weeks. Thanks! I grabbed some bread, butter and juice from the Co-op, and a real gent at the other Co-op at Seven Dials swapped me some change. I got to the cafe and marked up my freshly painted blackboards with some brief menu details. Between one thing and another (most notably a troublesome printer) I havent really got a proper menu printed up, so I winged it today. Big breakfasts were a fiver, pancakes with bacon and maple syrup £3, hot drinks all £1.50. Those prices can’t last, but for a soft opening they’ll do nicely.

I toddled along the alleyway to put up my A-board, and set myself for what would probably be a quiet morning getting stuff done for the week ahead. Within 15 minutes I had seven customers! Ay caramba, trial by fire, or, more accurately, by griddle. A combination of mild panic and slight dithering gave way to a more pleasant feeling of ‘You can do this, me lad’. A sudden pop from the hot water boiler was a cause for concern, but no time to worry about that now, as I tried to remember who wanted what (made mental note:  there is a reason why waiters write these things down). The food and the service was far from perfect, but it wasn’t too bad at all, and there was a really nice atmosphere in the cafe, with people saying hello and chatting across the tables. You have to learn to walk before you can build Rome in a day. Or something.

In no time at all the morning had passed into afternoon and the sausages were running low! It felt great, and not even the realisation that the boiler was indeed kaputt, and so the pile of plates and cutlery and pans and serving spoons would need washing with kettlesful of boiling water, put a dent in my smile. It also helped that Jenni (my wife) came in and got the Marigolds on (Thanks Jen). As I cleared up and set the kitchen to rights, it did dawn on me that this is a relentless occupation (what do you mean ‘I should have thought about that already?’), and I had a lot to do to get myself set for tomorrow and the next day and so on. But nevertheless I felt that a rubicon had been reached and crossed. Off we go! And off to bed.

Posted by: Iain Chambers | December 5, 2009

Scrub, phone, email, quote, scrub, phone etc.

Wow, the last few days have been full on.

I was aware that a lot of – how best to describe this? – stuff needs doing when you start a business, but the actual doing of it was still quite exhausting. In the last couple of days, in between scrubbing the once filthy kitchen and replacing my broken mobile (with an iPhone – now I too get to refer to ‘my iPhone’ rather than ‘my mobile’), I have engaged suppliers for gas (Shell Gas Direct), electricity (Opus Energy), telephone and broadband (Chess Telecom); used sub-it.co.uk to look for a waste contractor; asked Magpie to pick up my recycling; got quotes for the extractor system to be steam cleaned; went on a mini-spree in Habitat in their 20% off everything sale (ends Sunday – some top bargains to be had); taken an online bookkeeping tutorial; engaged an accountant; and… oh yeah, and signed a three year lease on the cafe. Hurrah! And also Phew! No turning back now amigos.

All this activity has meant that my efforts to get the cafe even a little bit open have had to be put back. I was always being unrealistic, and knew it, but it’s sometimes good to light a fire under yourself. There is also the inconvenient thing called life, in which clothes continue to get dirty, fridges continue to empty themselves, and pesky kids insist on frivolities like needing to be picked up from school, eat food and be noticed. Don’t they realise Dad is on a mission to bring the finest vittels and smoothest coffee to the people of Brighton? And finally, there is the ongoing discovery of more and more surfaces that need a combination of wire wool, green scourers, hot soapy water and sanitiser to return them to the kind of cleanliness that will have the Environmental Health Officer beaming like a Cheshire cat rather than reaching inside his or her briefcase for a closure order. Man, this place was filthy!

However by Wednesday (9th December) I hope to get that front door open and welcome you all in. I’ve aimed for Wednesday partly to give myself a little room to breathe, plan a menu and source the ingredients from my chosen suppliers, and partly because I have to be closed on Tuesday anyway for the deep clean of the extraction system. By that time I hope to have another coffee machine to replace the one reclaimed by the coffee company. It was on loan to the previous tenant. I should be getting a Fracino Little Gem on a temporary loan from the lovely Zena (thanks Zena). That will keep me going until my brand spanking new Wega Pegaso 2-Group arrives in the New Year. Ooohheee, that’s going to be great! In fact I think that if any of you are coffee hounds, and want to come along to a grand unveiling in the evening, we should do that (email me at  iain@sevenbeescafe.co.uk).

Right, that’s enough of that. Off to bed to dream of Marigold gloves and gleaming stainless steel.

Posted by: Iain Chambers | December 1, 2009

Quite a day. Got little done, yet felt great.

I think today was maybe the day when this dream started to fall into place. I got very little done in terms of cleaning, with just a fridge and a freezer cleaned and sanitised to show for my efforts. But I spoke to more than a dozen people for one reason or another, and those conversations made me feel that the cafe was for real. Bit by bit, decision by decision, the business takes shape.

On the one hand there was the nitty gritty of talking to insurers to get quotes, and utility brokers to sign up for gas and electricity contracts, and another grease duct cleaning firm for another quote. Those callers were asking me whether I was authorised to sign contracts on behalf of my company, and I thought to myself, “Yes. yes I am. That’s me: Iain Chambers – cafe owner, decision-maker”. It felt good. One of the things that worried me when thinking about starting a restaurant or cafe business (and it’s been in my head for the best part of seven years!), and I’m sure I am not alone in this when it comes to business start-ups, is the nagging thought that bad decisions will be the end of me, and with me would go my business, and maybe worse than that my security and, worse still, the security of those around me. So I became cramped and unable to take the plunge.

This opportunity at Seven Bees has found me feeling ever more decisive and confident. The process of seeing the premises online, viewing the premises in person and making the winning offer for the lease lasted three days. Three days! Jenni (my wife) didn’t even step foot inside the cafe until after I got the keys. That’s incredible trust placed in me on her part, and I would never have reached this point without her. But now I have stepped over the edge, it feels exhilarating to be free-falling,Johhny Utah-style, and finding out what a rush all this is.

I am fully aware that there will be difficult times ahead, but that makes days like today ever sweeter. It makes sense to enjoy the high today.

The other side of today was even more pleasurable: chatting to my new neighbours in the alley, talking things over with the landlord, talking shop with the guy taking the old coffee machine out, talking to a bright-eyed couple of local workers who were peering through the open door, and best of all having a visit from Hannah and Bosie, who called in to wish me luck. I’ve known these two from the time I worked in Ottakar’s bookshop in Duke Street, just yards from Seven Bees, about 20 years ago. They, like many of my friends, have heard my various schemes to open this cafe or that mobile coffee van over the last few years. Nobody ever discouraged me, and it feels great to have friends visit and be full of excitement.

Wow, time has flown. Better feed the kids. More later.

Posted by: Iain Chambers | November 30, 2009

Nice and greasy does it

I have spent a lot of time in the last few days scrubbing, washing, scraping and scratching at various greasy surfaces. The main reason I have had to do this is because the extractor system in the cafe hasn’t been well maintained. And by that I mean that it appears not to have been cleaned professionally for years. So grease that should have made it’s way out of the building, has instead adhered to every surface, and with it that familiar smell of old fat.

A small place doing regular fry ups all day should really have its grease ducts (if you click the link, play the video on the home page, with your sound turned up) cleaned every six months, a year max. A busy McDonalds would be looking at every two to three months. But it isn’t cheap. You really have to bring professional deep cleaning companies in, who will use steam cleaners to get rid of baked on grease from inside the ducts, going right up to the fan on the roof or side walls, via access panels. Failure to do so is likely to mean no insurance pay out following a fire caused by poorly maintained extractor ducts.

It’s one of those costs that is easy to forget about, annoying to pay for (as customers don’t see a benefit, though they may smell one), but stupid to ignore. It also is probably a good explanation as to why greasy spoons are so greasy and, frankly, smelly. The blocked filters are keeping a lot of those grease-filled droplets in the cafe, rather than them being sucked up the vent. That might not necessarily be so bad as a paying customer, perhaps even part of the attraction, but it must be pretty unpleasant to go home from work every day smelling of that.

So to complement all my scrubbing and rinsing , I have been getting quotes for a deep clean of the whole system. That will mean not only having the ventilation shafts steamed, but having proper access panels cut into the shaft, and the current, horrendously clogged filters replaced with metal baffle filters, which can be removed and washed in the dishwasher to keep them clean and thus efficient.

Now this may all seem a little dull to some, but it serves as a reminder to customers of the costs that have to be borne by a cafe or restaurant before the food hits your plate. I find it all pretty interesting because it’s an important part of the world I am stepping into. It’s the unsung lungs compared to the more lauded heart (taste) or pretty face (look) of your dish.

Posted by: Iain Chambers | November 29, 2009

What do you wish was always on the menu at any cafe?

Posted by: Iain Chambers | November 27, 2009

I’ve been and gone and done it now!

Today I have handed over a chunk of change and got me some keys to the cafe. It feels unreal at the moment, mainly because I had to dash off and do the school run as usual, but also because the lease only gets signed next week. But essentially I am a cafe owner and small businessman. Phew! Or should that be Aaarghh!!? I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

What lies immediately ahead is a weekend of extreme cleaning as the place is filthy at present. It has been closed for several months, and there are some scary moments lurking in the cupboards. Disposing of the trays of six month old eggs, and finding a way of getting a big steel tub full of what I hope is lard and oil (as opposed to something even more heinous) to the tip are my top weekend treats. However there is also the more pleasurable task to be tackled: constructing the first menu. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

At some point I also hope to fit in a first attempt at baking Yotam Ottolenghi’s Clementine and Almond Syrup Cake. That photo sure is a drooler.

Posted by: Iain Chambers | November 27, 2009

Buzzing about the name change

After a discussion with Jenni (my wife), we have plumped for the alternative name: Seven Bees Cafe. I stumbled upon this name when having to decide in a hurry whilst incorporating the limited company online – you have to call your company something. The cafe address is 7B Ship Street Gardens so Seven Bees came to me, without the intention of trading under that name.

I quite like the name Hideaway Cafe. It has connotations of being castaway, in a secret idyll, a respite from a busy world. But it wont travel if I ever have to move premises, unless I confine my future property searches to obscure alleys and ginnels.

No, we’re going to start afresh, and what better symbol for a food joint than the mysterious (where do they live? You see them in your back garden, but where do they go then? And dont say ‘their hive’. What hive? Where hive? Ooh do bee hive yourself missus), marvelous, miraculous, magnificent bee?

Posted by: Iain Chambers | November 27, 2009

A day of two halves

The Weald Smokery

As the crunch moment of signing the lease for the cafe approaches, my nerves are jangling. I had a great morning doing more of the fun bit of the start up: sourcing produce. I visited the Weald Smokery in Flimwell, on the East Sussex/Kent border. The owner Chris showed me the hot and cold smoking ovens, containing venison, beef and sides of scottish salmon. It’s timeless stuff. The prep areas may be full of gleaming silver steel tables, and spotless tiles, but the method is ancient: get a hunk of good flesh and hang it over smoke until it’s done to a tee.

Ringden Farm

On the way back home I called in at Ringden Farm, where apple and pear meets press for some serious juice action. Their apple juice with ginger is heavenly. A very nice bloke (Stuart I think – I am so bad with names) showed me round and offered me a couple of samples. More small business enthusiasm – great stuff.

Back in Brighton I picked up the keys to the caff from the agent, and met my friends Daz and Zoe there for a poke around. Daz is always a good go-to guy for a seasoned eye on wood and other practical skills that elude me (it’s genetic – you can’t fight nature). They were both excited for me, and Zoe gave me her loo view – make some more space in the little room that can make or break a cafe or restaurant. As I drop the keys back at the agent’s office I think to myself: I might not have to do that next week. They’ll be mine for three years. Let’s hope so anyway.

I headed off home to pick up the kids with my thoughts swirling round, largely concerning the current state of the cooker and the extractor canopy. An exchange of emails with the landlord followed, the upshot of which is likely to mean spending more dosh. It leaves me in a bad mood, but I shouldn’t let it get to me. I’m sure they’ll be plenty more up and downs to come.

D-Day tomorrow!

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