Happy Birthday to us! Celebrating togetherness over a cup of coffee…

This second birthday is a bit of milestone for us. We have not only survived but enjoyed, truly enjoyed two Winters and two Summers. They say it takes two seasons to know if you like a place. Two years today we had our first ‘open day’. We opened as softly as we could. We didn’t want to shout, we definitely did not want to scream from the rooftops, “LOOK AT US, WE ARE A NEW CAFE IN WHITSTABLE AND WE’RE SERVING A DELICIOUS BREAKFAST!”.

We fully admit it now; we did not have a clue what we were doing! I am sure the trustees of The Umbrella Centre won’t mind me revealing that they chose our brief over others because ours sounded the most ‘enthusiastic’.  Enthusiasm we certainly had in buckets, experience we were somewhat lacking. Luckily one of us had had a slightly more senior role in a previous cafe cooking, and knew how to put together a menu and make an amazing pie, otherwise goodness knows what you would all have been eating two years ago! Yet, we are pleased to report, people came, and they kept coming, and they still keep coming. We’ve learnt quickly, on the job, and we’re still gaining knowledge every day. We like to think that perhaps there was a little bit of inbuilt cafe knowledge already in there, waiting to get out! Mostly, we are winging it, and we love that so many people have come and stayed on this journey with us.

So now that you know that we did not set up The Umbrella Cafe with the premise of it being a flashy, come and look at our amazing catering experience and what we can do to your tastebuds sort of establishment, you might be thinking what on earth were we doing opening A CAFE. That place where most peoples’ thoughts to turn to food and their stomachs start rumbling on the walk hoping they’ll grab a table at their favourite one in town. Well, we had this crazy idea that as three folk with not a load of catering experience, and pretty much no social policy experience, perhaps, just perhaps we could open something that was more than a cafe. What we wanted to create was a space, I suppose the buzz word for this is ‘hub’. We knew that there was already a lot of cafes in Whitstable, many we loved ourselves. But we felt there was a need, a demand even, for somewhere that offered more than great coffee and an instagramable lunch.

Ray Oldenburg discusses the premise of ‘The Third Space’ in his 1989 book of the same name. It is a space where you feel comfortable, can relax in and is affordable, away from work and home. Most favourite cafes, bars, cinemas etc… we have in our own lives are like that. We all have a handful of places we can go to where we feel instantly relaxed, are in good company and come away from feeling uplifted. However, what we were suggesting in our tender to the trustees was not just a third space, but a third space that also included those more vulnerable in society.

Fast forward two years and we feel we are certainly living (working!) this dream. Don’t get us wrong, we absolutely love it when a customer (especially if they say they are Italian!) says “wow this is the best coffee I’ve had in the UK for ages”, someone Instagrams one of our lunches or we receive an email asking for a recipe. These are all brilliant slap ourselves on the back and say good job done to us affirmations. And we could not run a cafe without being social media aware, knowing how to make a great flat white or actually able to cook some decent food!

But looking through the window to the garden and seeing two customers, who happen to be rough sleepers, eating their pay it forward breakfasts, sitting in the garden with all our other customers. Watching our staff deal flawlessly with a disabled customer and communicate brilliantly. Knowing that one of our regulars set up a bereavement group in the cafe because he knew it would be a friendly space to hold such a group. Observing one of our volunteers who has severe autism connecting with a member of staff and asking to take a plate of toast out to a customer, because he feels comfortable in our space. Assisting students from Canterbury College Supported Learning Department and watching as they grow. Having a really good working relationship with The Umbrella Community Centre and enjoying putting on community events together. These, these are the things that get our hearts, keep us coming to work everyday and make us ecstatically happy to be celebrating birthday number two! We’ve got a lot to learn, a lot to gain, but also more numbers on the birthday list to tot up. Keep ‘em coming.