My first memoir, Tea In The Library, was published in 2007. It’s now a little hard to find, but I’m working on a second edition, with a new cover and a few typos corrected, but otherwise the same wry story of opening – and closing – a cute bookshop café in the heart of the city. Meanwhile, if you’d like to get your hands on a First Edition – hey, they could become collectors’ items! – just drop me a note in the comments.
To celebrate the return of TITL – and don’t we all wish it would come back? – I’m posting an excerpt for your delectation….
Life at Tea In The Library settled into an eccentric and chaotic “routine”. I use the word loosely. While there never was assembled a more likeable, quirky and interesting bunch of employees, unfortunately it soon became clear that something was missing. Equally clearly, that was a strong and capable leader.
….In the kitchen, things were worse. Our café manager and chef, Jo, continued to turn out exquisite dishes, the likes of which had not been seen in a simple “light meals” café, and, trust me, won’t be seen again. The cost of producing our menu far outstripped what we were charging. It gradually dawned that the dishes we were offering, while wildly popular with our customers, were far too labour-intensive to produce, and our suppliers were far too numerous and our stock too complicated to properly control.
Take the duck wraps, for example. This was a top-selling item, with the critical ingredient being Chinese roasted duck. One serious draw-back of the dish was the intense labour required to roll the ingredients in individual rice wraps, which was very time-consuming. We must have hand-rolled thousands of those duck wraps. Additionally, while everything else in our kitchen was delivered, the Chinese roasted duck had to be fetched. So every day during a quiet moment Jo or one of her helpers would set off to China Town a few blocks away to fetch the duck. It became common to hear that Jo or Chloe or Kate was off on “the duck run”, rather than in the kitchen or café. As if this wasn’t inefficient enough, one day I was bemused — no, gobsmacked — to learn that the duck had, that day, been delivered in a taxi, since no-one had had time to go on the duck run. And you, the lucky customer, could purchase a plate of delicious duck wraps for a mere $6.95!
At this stage, we had about fifteen or twenty different café suppliers. Wisdom has it that three to five is an optimum number. The invoice handling, sorting out of seven-day accounts, monitoring returns and food items not received or accepted — all this was multiplied unacceptably. We had lovely jams, unusual breads, gluten-free cakes, ham off the bone, smoked salmon flown in daily from interstate — it was ridiculous. No wonder our café was popular!
…At this early stage, we were ambitiously opening for breakfast, as well as manning the coffee cart at street level. Chloe, bless her, was a stalwart back up in the kitchen. Her experience in hospitality came to the fore most spectacularly when disaster loomed. She had a technique she called “customer recovery”. When there had been a delay or other poor service issue, and customers had complained, Chloe leapt into action. News of the complaint would reach the kitchen, Chloe would roll up her sleeves, head on out with her best smile plastered on, and proceed. Customers were showered with apologies. Everything was our fault. We were distraught that this had happened. Free bottles of wine were produced. Free meals dispensed. Boots were licked and forelocks tugged. Nameless staff members consigned to the fires of everlasting perdition. Customers invariably relaxed with smiles after this treatment, the day was saved, the reports passed on about Tea In The Library were favourable, if not glowing, and Chloe had earned her wages tenfold.
….During this time, and extending right throughout the time we were open, we often had need — urgent and un-planned-for need — of a chef. If you have only one chef, you are obviously sunk if he or she doesn’t turn up for work. The show can’t go on. After facing this crisis unprepared for the first time, I came up with an agency for casual chefs, and we relied on them more or less heavily throughout the life of the shop. If need arose, Kate would call the agency, and a chef would be miraculously produced at short notice. Whew! Sometimes we would continue to hire the stand-in for several weeks or even months, depending upon the relative desperation of our needs. There was one young man who became quite smitten with our Kate. When she asked him to stay on to fill a need, he, in a word, asked that she fulfill his. The Casting Couch of the hospitality world. Kate rebuffed him, and reported this incident at the weekly staff meeting. We looked at her with varying reactions. He was a good chef, and we were desperate.