We were so chuffed to be part of the I Speak Music networking event yesterday. From a fairly gentle opening service last week to an auditorium full of hungry people on a late lunch in just one week... is pretty good going.
And the team looked like they’d been doing it for ever. Coffees and teas came thick and fast with no mistakes, and some of them even took courage to chat to the guests over the counter, leaning on the bar in conversation like seasoned landlords. Language development is such a crucial part of the Cafe Project, that these snapshots of interactions create joy for us. Likewise, the pleasure they expressed on spotting the familiar face of our Youth Intervention Officer from the police. We have worked together on several occasions, PC J and I, aiming to address the (entirely understandable) fears and misgivings many of our young people hold towards the police, mostly stemming from distressing experience in other places. Yesterday, however, the arrival of this particular officer caused nothing short of delight.
Muhammed, our Lord Falafel, and Jo, our Electric Theatre rod and staff, were as ever calmly brilliant and it all ran without hitch. Vicki and I were struck by the perfect falafel shapes emerging from the pan. I did try my hand at making one, but it flopped out such a distinctly odd and unappetising shape that J rolled his eyes at me, and said it looked like “something in toilet”. He then demonstrated how to use this magical little falafel gadget properly, but with such deft sleight of hand that I still have no idea how it is done. Still, overall, the only real snag of lunch was for the people looking hopefully, craftily and yet completely in vain for seconds, and that is a good thing, for us.
It was a pleasure to be able to run a training workshop for all the musicians - a happy, hilarious and hugely talented bunch who proved to have great multilingual skills. And the presentations from our great friends Jim at Surrey Music Hub and Darren at Crisis Classroom, and from Davina at the Arts Council, Jennie at the Academy for Contemporary Music and Surrey Police were both fascinating and thought-provoking in turn. We were honoured to be able to share the stage with them and incredibly grateful for all the positive feedback about Big Leaf Foundation, and the many offers of support.
For us though, the highlight was this: one of our Cafe Project participants took a deep breath and stepped onto the stage himself, to address the audience and introduce the project, and did so with such confidence and eloquence, that not only did he earn the loudest burst of heartfelt applause, but our workshop partner, Denise, who had worked with them on vocal confidence only last week, had to claim hay fever as the reason behind her sudden dive for tissues. Sorry to out you, Den, but your reaction sums it up.
The Cafe Project will be running again next Wednesday from 12.30 - 2pm. Please let us know if you plan to come - we might be able to bag you a riverside seat.
We opened, people came and we sold all the food. So that was a pretty good start day, all told.
We started early with barista training - 8 different drinks, with varying forms, from one machine, made by 7 different people was a reasonable challenge, but it also produced a lot of coffee. A general (and correct) consensus that we shouldn’t waste anything, and an enthusiasm for ensuring that I tasted everyone’s samples (“You tried R’s cappuccino and not mine!”) did however mean that by late morning I was 8 coffees in and temporarily able to match the boundless energies of the group.
Then Muhammed arrived and the roles were assigned. Pretty much everyone wanted to be in the kitchen, safely away from having to use English to a bunch of strangers, so we drew lots. The kitchen crew headed off, relieved and beaming - the reluctant front of house group looked nervous and waited hesitantly. There was a lot of last minute scribbling in notebooks of greeting phrases, and types of coffees, and a quick rehash of pronunciation of certain ingredients (especially after one bewildered customer asked with whether we were really selling something made from little yellow chicks and was it an Easter special?) and there were also a few attempts to hide as the first customers arrived, but within minutes, things were running just fine.
Of course there were hiccups, but not many. One cup of coffee was served ice cold, and none of us is quite sure how. One of our team came to me in panic having no clue what “lemonade” could be. Someone accidentally said “chicken piss” instead of chick peas and, on clarification, was appalled at his own mistake (even though it had of course utterly delighted his friends, and the customer). But that’s fine; you simply cannot learn another language without moments like these.
There will be a fair few changes for next time. After everyone had gone we went through the feedback slips and looked at what we could implement. From now on, we will let people choose their accompaniments by setting up a salad bar behind a protective screen and having two people serve. More interaction, more language practice, and that works for me, if not so much for them. We will also be able to serve more promptly, now everyone knows what they are doing. And since three people asked for dessert, we might even set up a baklava station.
All in all, we sold out and everyone left grinning. However, the very best thing was how patient and how positive everyone was who came to eat with us today. One young man told me he didn’t know English people were friendly like that and another said he was over the moon that everyone had understood when he had spoken to them. These things mean a lot.
Finally, Muhammed spoke to us all. “Like you, I arrived here with nothing” he said “but I am so grateful to everyone who helped me. There are so many people who will help you too. We couldn’t stay at home, and so we have to make our lives somewhere else. If you have an idea, and you want to do something, focus on that. You can do it, and we can do this.”
A huge thank you from all of us to everyone who made the opening day such a happy experience; to Richard, Akira, Denise, Andy, Jemma and Louise for all the help in the workshops, to Jo for all the smiling serenity around the coffee machine and the till, and to Muhammed for his inspiration, his skills and his incredible secret sauce recipe (which we will never stop trying to discover).
The cafe is closed next Wednesday (24th April) for a private function. But we're open again on May 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd from around 12 - 2pm. We hope to see you there.
Today started as enthusiastically as yesterday finished. Thank heavens for Louise arriving on time and sorting the teas and coffees. Louise now knows how dangerous it is to ask the evening before if any help might be needed; the answer is always going to be “oooooh, yes”.
With two more joining us today, we go through the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’ again, and look at language simplicity around pitching the project. Alliteration is popular. “Authentic and affordable”; “delicious food, decently priced”; “fabulous falafel, fantastic price”. The use of language is delightful. One participant reminds us it’s exactly a year since he arrived in the UK, and indeed I remember meeting him so clearly - he couldn’t say a single word. Yet today, he asks if “coveted” would be a good collocation for the word “cost”. It is nothing short of joyful.
Our second session starts with the very brilliant writer, musician, director, performer and generally excellent Denise, who forces us onto our feet and puts everyone through a series of exercises designed to break down inhibitions about speaking to people, and control the breathing when the nerves are up. Tongue twisters, vocal exercises, discovery of everyone’s special talent (Den can do an alarmingly accurate walrus impression; I can close my nose like a camel; M can stick one leg out in front of him and lower himself to the floor and back up again; R can lick his own elbow... and so on) and everyone is noisy and much, much more relaxed.
And so to practise customer service. Den’s game “Difficult Customer; Dream Customer” involves the customer choosing different scenarios, and the participants responding as best they can. “Your falafel is delicious” was greeted with “Yes, I know” from B, though we all then agree that “Thank you - do come again” is probably better. The example of “I don’t like falafel - can I have a burger?” gets short shrift from K (“Go to McDonalds”) and so we discuss the importance of always being positive to gain custom (“We do only have falafel - but why don’t you give it a try?”). When Louise, playing the Difficult Customer says “I forgot my money and I can’t pay” most of them agree that she could be allowed to pay next week because that might bring her back; S, however, is cynical, and demands she gives him her shoes. “She’s pulling a fast one” he whispers to me, and I am so bowled over by the use of idiom, I can only agree.
Over lunch, Andy and Jemma, from a well-known local company, come to give them the chance to practise their pitch on strangers. Two of them are brave enough to try, and Andy and Jemma couldn’t have been more positive. Talking to strangers can be hard enough if strangers have not always been kind. Doing it in a second language adds another layer of difficulty.
One more protracted debate over the horrors of hairnets, and one apron trying-on session later and we are pretty much ready to go. We will open tomorrow at about 12.30 at the Electric Theatre in Guildford. We have no idea whether we will sell out, or have no customers at all.
As A said earlier, that is all part of the fun.
Huge thanks to Louise, Denise, Andy and Jemma for all your help today, and to Jo at the Electric Theatre for her continued unflappable brilliance.
It seems to have gone well. Five young people turn up, with two more apologising and promising to come tomorrow, which means we have 7 participants, not 6, but that should only be a minor hurdle, and this blog post is perhaps a good way of gently bringing this particular surprise to the attention of our Treasurer…
We sit in the open space of the cafe and talk about what it might be. Everyone is hesitant at first, but I tell them the story of our brilliant chef, who has built his business up from scratch. Two years ago, forced from home, new to the UK and wondering what on earth to do now, Muhammed’s friend had said to him “You have a bicycle, so you have a business”, and now that business is indeed thriving. H looks more inspired. “We have a kitchen, and a place” he muses. We agree it should be ok.
The amazing staff at the Electric Theatre are so welcoming it doesn’t take long to feel at home. With everyone piled into the kitchen area, ideas start to come thick and fast. We can do Eritrean nights. There’s plenty of space to make injera. We should definitely do Kurdish barbecue - everyone would come for that. Can we have music? Can we have dancing?
When it gets to keeping our own goats, I feel bad but bring them back down to the more practical level, because we have several workshops to do. We start with talking about the idea. We now know what we are doing - but do we know why? The Big Leaf ethos is crystal clear in the minds of everyone on our team, but it’s absolutely not our place to impose it on anyone else. And actually we don’t have to. More occasions to speak English; the chance for training and work experience; the opportunity to try out news skills, to have something to do and not be alone in a room, to meet local people - all this is easily identified. “It could be huge” says B. “Like Nandos” says J. “But better”.
We’ve been so lucky to have such enthusiastic offers of help from friends and contacts, and today we had Akira, who is greeted with joy by the lads who were with us at Trill, and Richard who delivers a hugely entertaining and inspiring session on finding the story to make the brand. Richard is Head of Content at Tribal Worldwide, and shows us how stories can create the difference that enables a business to stand out. At the end of the session the teams decide that the way our cafe can stand out is by being "the place that brings people together". It is their idea entirely, and far better than anything we’ve come up with so far. Even Richard calls it “brilliant” and he doesn’t praise easily, believe me.
And so to food safety and hygiene. The laws and requirements around this topic seem endless, and I can’t blame them if their eyes glaze over occasionally. K comments somewhat darkly that there’d been no safety or hygiene in Calais and he “hadn’t died". But there’s no getting around this, even though these topics are complex enough without the barrier of the second language. Still, Akira and I are now expert at miming all sorts of problems symptomatic of food poisoning, and possible hazards in food.
ACM Head Chef Matt arrives to help. When talking about suitable clothing, he mentions casually that K’s impressive head of hair might require him to wear a hair net. Everyone who understands what a hair net is, agrees delightedly. K senses their glee, eyes them suspiciously and asks me what a hair net is. We google pictures and K’s eyes widen with horror. “THAT is very disgusting” he announces, ignoring the rest of them as they insist he choose a pink one. “I will shave my head”.
Tomorrow, we will make our first pitch to a very large, very local business. Next Wednesday we will cater our first event for 50 people. And this Wednesday we will open. Please pop in for a falafel and a coffee and support us.