Compost, Farmers and Cooks: the re-opening of us
Back in March, when we were shutdown by Covid, I watched our friends (Alphabet Cafe, Bond St Eats, Lucky Duck, Gauge, Mongrel, Pie Town, Pipit) lean in to all the turmoil and anxiety and find opportunity. They were my super hero exemplars: how did they manage to be so clever? remain so beautiful? stay so open?
Because here was me, third person Ange, cowering at home with her compost heap, convincing herself she could stay piling up discarded bodies forever. Just add carbon.
Six months ago we’d started work on a massive pivot to our business. We were changing our service model, bringing in new food maker challenges, and creating a requirement that would mean all their ingredients would be sourced exclusively from the small local farmers we wanted to support. But Covid meant that just about everything we’d been planning wasn’t going to work. Our sourcing intentions were still solid, but without a bar, they were notions not actions.
Why? Because our bar’s financial success allowed us to overlook the lack of profitability in pretty much everything else we did. All our work with small food businesses was funded by bar sales, which weren’t allowed to flow freely anymore. So what remained? Five empty kitchens, and a reticent owner.
I didn’t feel strong enough to be Wandering Cooks’ boss lady anymore, to tear it all apart and start again like it was day one. Plus, 12 months and counting til they demolish our building… I mean, come on! Leave me alone.
So, we watched our friends be super heros from our homes: 13 staff on job keeper waiting for Ange to find a viable ‘reopen’ plan.
Instead, I composted.
Many times over these composting days, plans would surface. I’d brush off my hands and pull them out. We’d spend a few days playing with each other in a spreadsheet reality until they’d show their flaws and end up back in the heap with the others.
After 2 weeks of this, I told Mathew I might as well pack it in. He said,
Ange, you’ll find your mojo again. You always do. It’ll come. Keep composting.
And so I made another pile.
Brett became guardian of the bank account wrangling, while I dug in deeper. He called suppliers, turned off excess equipment and cold rooms, leaving just the bare minimum. We still had a few brave kitchen customers coming in every week: Bond St Eats, Camille’s Kitchen, Indietreats, Picklehead, making things work and keeping positive. They created food scraps, so I’d scurry in quietly and leave with full buckets, back to the digging and my new staff of worms.
By the 3rd compost heap, I’d ventured back into the kitchens myself, with co-conspirator Richard Ousby. We weren’t full of direction, just ankle deep in experimental enthusiasm. Plus, we’d bought 80 ducks at cost from the wonderful Shirley Harring of Hand Sourced, who was shouldering mountains of pre-committed product destined for suddenly shut down restaurants. We confited legs, hammed breasts, made stock from bones and rillettes from the remnants.
As we worked with no particular end in mind, we talked about all the products we could make now the kitchens were virtually empty. Later, I buried the spent bones into an older heap in my garden, and what I saw surfaced a little more Ange optimism…
the worms had been working without me.
By the 4th compost heap, Nims had settled her previous business affairs (The Jam Pantry sold just as lock down began), rested with her family, cultured much sourdough and surveyed her options. In a moment I will always cherish, she decided to keep working with us. Her faith in where we were headed helped me step away from the heaps and firmly into my business again.
First, she set to ordering our warehouse. All by herself to start. This self-orientation allowed her to move quietly into the beauty of things set straight. She packed away every table, every chair, and swept every corner. She turned us from a warehouse abandoned by its boss to a warehouse ready for its next assignment.
After a week of quiet planning and ordering, we called in the rest of the family, and everyone began stretching into their roles again. Plus there was cleaning, lots of cleaning. Managers, baristas and book keepers gurneyed out corners, dismantled excess shelving, spring cleaned files and bi-carbed walls. Dead corners turned into opportunities for conversation and smoothing of uncertainties. New roles were defined and ancient resentments dissolved.
I’d look up occasionally from the last chair and table left unstacked, spreadsheets open before me, my rotting optimism and ramblings gradually forming into something that just might work…
We have 5 kitchens for another 12 months. Currently simmering away on the back burner is our next location. It’s a secret, but it’s there. Of course, it may or may not come off, so whatever we do needs to be moveable, quickly, to anywhere.
I can’t invite back in enough dining and boozing to make a whole heap of food maker pop ups part of our business in this time frame. Plus, we’ve already established that the bar covered the costs of this previous party. And, the world is changing. It will now be full of kitchens for lease, so our small food businesses will have many more options for their own venues. This is a good thing. It’s their time to take big leaps and fly away.
Incubation will still be at the heart of what we do, and so will other food businesses, but stronger still will be our focus on making products ourselves. This will allow us to act directly on the opportunities for small farms we want to see proliferate in this post Covid world. Their successes will be our successes. We’ll employ chefs, we’ll partner with others, and we’ll nurture new food business dreamers, like Thilakshi Munasingha, by employing them, so that their food becomes our food. Together, the farmers and this team of Cooks, will bind our stories together.
And so it begins again, gradually at first and then furiously until our end at Fish Lane and beyond. The Tommerups, Echovalley, Piggie in the Middle, Neighbourhood Farm, Falls Farm, and many many more, will help us become the kind of Cooks that small scale, regenerative farmers need us to be.
From Friday June 12th we will be open for one night a week only. The rest will follow quickly.