This country's cafe culture is only just beginning to develop and is clearly a good 20 years or more behind that of New Zealand and Australia. When I returned to live in Cambridge in 2000, after spending 10 years in New Zealand, I was shocked to find there were no decent cafes around and nowhere could I buy a decent coffee. When I asked for a Flat White, I was greeted with a blank look and eventually given an over-extracted, cheap robusta, over-roasted blend with burnt semi-skimmed milk foamed to within an inch of its life with a lovely (not!) skin forming on the surface. I was heart broken. I love a good coffee.
It began to dawn on me that most people don't know they are drinking a bad coffee because they've never had a good one. I can't believe it when I hear people raving about a certain brand of coffee which I think is bitter and over roasted to the point of being caramelised (not a good thing in roasting coffee). But weirdly when I say no, it's not great coffee, it's foul, bitter and over roasted I get a relief response of 'but everyone says it's good and I thought it was just me who didn't like it'. Hmmm wonder how often that happens. A case of the Emperor's new clothes I suspect.
I suppose I opened the Cat because a) I blended and roasted my own coffee so knew I'd get a decent drinkable one that was 100% Arabica beans and b) I saw cafes would eventually take off here. True I didn't expect it to take so long especially as the Cat was busy and popular right from the start. And true it has faltered at times but here we are and still the busiest cafe on Mill Road.
There have been some tough times over those yearsl. These are probably the hardest things I've had to deal with although there have been others;:
- a manager who worked for 3 years from the first day I opened who I eventually realised was dipping her fingers in the Till. This realisation dawned the day I visited her (we had, I thought, become good friends) and when she made a drink asked me to get some cups from the cupboard beside me. I opened the door to see it packed with Black Cat crockery. After she left, my bread, bacon and egg order went down noticeably. My Till also began to balance. I then learnt she told customers we were business partners and it was she ran the Cafe. I guess it was Karma coming around when she left to open her own cafe and survived for barely 8 months. More to running a cafe than she realised! Or most people I suspect.
- the girl who stole the petty cash over a period of several months (slack of me because I only realised when I did the quarterly VAT) and who, when I made it clear I knew someone was doing this while naming no names, left and then took me to an employment tribunal for non payment of holiday pay.
- the Council deciding I had to apply for a change of use from A1 to A3 despite their inspecting me over the 7 years I'd been open and agreeing to let me operate as I was because I wasn't an A3. Not sure why they changed their mind but as I was told that I wouldn't get an A3, I applied for and was approved as a mixed A1/A3 class. In the meantime, I was approached by several people who said the Council had told them I'd never get an A3 and that (in one case) if I paid them a certain amount they'd take the lease off my hands! Two of those people now own their own cafe and another two were local traders. You know who you are so hey thanks for the support guys. It felt like the vultures were circling.
- Rumours: one persistent and difficult to deal with was the rumour that our service was really slow. Many people complained and circulated this for a couple of years via Facebook and Twitter. When we are busy we always give a 30 minute wait time so people have the option to stay or not. It didn't seem to matter what we did, this slow/slack service rumour kept circulating. Then one Sunday we had a couple who started complaining they'd been waiting 30 minutes for their toast. This was odd because it was only 9:50 and at the time we opened on a Sunday at 9:30 (it's 9:00 now) and I'd already made and served 2 other breakfasts for customers who came in before them. So we started putting down the time on the order. Oh what an eye opener. 'I've been waiting 45mins!' one young man claimed. It was 7. He'd waited 7 mins after being told it might be a 30 minute wait. People often only waited 10 minutes before claiming it was over 30. We timed ourselves. The longest anyone had to wait was 22 minutes and that was when we were packed. Funny when I put this out on Facebook, the whole thing stopped. People may remark occasionally but to us.
- The rumour that my staff were all on drugs spread by a friend, another local business owner. They weren't, at least not at work except one girl who was asked to leave because of it. It was hurtful because I thought rumour monger was a friend. I eventually heard other unnecessary, mostly untruthful but unpleasant things she'd said because, as is the nature of people, I was quickly told about it. Not easy to deal with but I worked out that jealousy and competitiveness are uncomfortable friends.
- Reviews: Fake reviews on TripAdviser and on our Facebook pages. This is always a difficult one as I tend not to look at TripAdviser but the Facebook one I can't avoid. I find it astonishing when I know other businesses get their bad reviews removed. How is that honest? You can review me but only if you say nice things. On the other hand, I know people put up fake reviews. We have had people come in and demand a free meal with the threat they'll give us a bad review if we don't. We don't of course. It makes a mockery of the whole review thing. Mostly I just avoid looking.
- Reviewers and bloggers. Well what can I say? It's very easy to criticise when you're on the other side of the counter. Try running business yourself before you start criticising the way someone else does it. It may be a bit of an eye opener. And then you might understand how distressing and hurtful it is when someone says/writes negative things. This maybe a business but it is mine and I feel it personally especially as no matter what, I always try to do my very best. And what is it about people these days that they are so narcissistic and think if we do something they don't like, it's personal! No it's not. Most of the time we don't know you and most of the time, unless you tell us, we don't know what's wrong. We didn't intentionally do anything to annoy you. Why would we? And here's a thought, if you're unhappy with something then why not mention it at the time rather than running away and writing a review, often exaggerated and not always entirely truthful. It's childish and cowardly. If you don't tell us something is wrong at the time, then we don't know to fix it. But also, don't complain, let us fix it and then still go and write a negative review.
But here are some of the good things...
- One customer who has been coming off and on for the last 10 years, tells me that he goes to check out other places but he comes back because we still do the best coffee and cake in Cambridge and he loves our 'innovative' brunches (get that 'innovative'). To be fair, he's not the only one. We have customers who have been coming faithfully and regularly since we opened. One also told me I should be proud of what I've achieved because I am
'the matriarch of the cafe culture in Cambridge'.
- My staff think that's hilarious and keep trying to put it out on Twitter and Facebook but I wasn't sure how to take it (I think I got hooked on matriarch bit making me sound old!). Anyway, I've decided to embrace it. So thank you.
- The Cat was in the vanguard of the cafe culture in Cambridge. No one else made a Flatwhite or roasted their own coffee, handmade cakes or offered a specific brunch menu until we came along. I remember customers asking us what French Toast was! Now it's on most brunch menus.
- We have in our time been voted Best Cafe in Cambridge.
- We were runner up in the regional (and now defunct) Local Food Hero award hosted by Gary Rhodes. He told me my Spiced Plum Syrup cake was 'absolutely divine' . . . praise indeed..
- Been interviewed and reviewed on TV and radio. BBC! Bet most of you didn't know that or you've forgotten.
- I have been repeatedly asked for my recipe for Rhubarb and Rosemary cake by a famous chef - I have made it for him several times. He orders it for his dinner parties.
- Jamie Oliver told us we make the best scrambled eggs and repeated it to another cafe in Cambridge who repeated it back to us (oh how small Cambridge is!).
- Other cafes have taken on the handmade cake baton and, although I would never have the arrogance to describe myself as the doyenne of cakes, I am amused nevertheless, to see others doing it. But whatever, I was one of the first to make it a USP for a cafe in Cambridge. And it is gratifying to see other's following in my footsteps.
- Despite the rise in the number of cafes in Cambridge over the last couple of years, The Cat is still busy, still popular. We do our own thing and we have no desire to be a part of any clique. We follow no one nor do we imitate anyone else. We do love it, however, when we see others imitating us although we know they would never admit it, we still know what we do and we soon notice. We often get told about how certain other cafe menus look a lot like ours. It reminds us that we still count.
So I guess, all in all, the good things outweigh the bad but would I do it again? Was it worth it? Who knows as I don't have a never owned Black Cat person to compare myself to. But I've done it. And after nearly 10 years we are still here, more than holding our own and still, I believe, a force to be reckoned with.
And here is a great big thank you to all our customers, followers, friends and fans. And here's to another 10 years. . . possibly :)