Friday, September 9, 2011

A perfect storm blows the cafe out of the water

There are times when things compound upon one another, like a perfect storm.
SourdoughBaker Cafe has just been becalmed by one.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it...
We're gonna have to move, though we don't know where just yet.
How could this happen? It feels to us like we've just hit our straps, after a year and a bit of getting our bread, coffee and food into people's mouths. Newcastle is telling us how much it loves us, we're getting great media coverage. Yet we have to close our doors next week. What gives?

Pretty much everything, all at once. Here's a blow by blow breakdown of the perfect storm, as it happened to us:

Blow number one: Four weeks ago, the rooftop exhaust system stopped working. In June last year we replaced the old unit. Now the new one stopped too. The cafe filled with smoke, and it took us three days to repair. During that time, we could bake tiny amounts of bread in Bertha, very slowly. Otherwise, the shop would fill with smoke. The bread was VERY crusty, as a result. Tally up a thousand dollars in costs and lost sales, give or take.

Blow number two: Three weeks ago, the chimney leading to the rooftop exhaust system released a large clump of creosote into the rear chimney of Bertha, unbeknownst to us. This caused Bertha to overheat, as flue gases turned back into the firebox, thereby dramatically enlarging a small pre existing hole in five millimeter steel. 
The effect of this was to render Bertha almost unuseable, as the crusts on our bread simply charcoaled instantly, due to direct exposure to the flames in the firebox. 
It took me another day to figure out what had happened, and another few hundred dollars in lost bread sales. And the cafe was still filling up with smoke as well. We managed to do a makeshift repair to Bertha, and clear the chimney. 
Back in business. Kinda. Bertha was still leaking, and baking bread with a cloudy crust. The oven doors had fatigued due to previous blast of heat, and had burnt off their seals. We would have to pull Bertha right down ASAP and install steel sleeves. This job had to be done with a cool oven, so we began to plan for a day's closure to properly repair Bertha.

Blow number three: Two weeks ago, the hot water system started to put pools of water on the floor. There had been a small leak, and we had purchased a second hand dishwasher some months earlier. Thus, on the day we closed to fix Bertha, we could fix the leak and install the dishwasher. A logical plan. 
However, upon closer inspection, we noticed that the old fashioned particle board laminate had actually rotted below the surface. Then we noticed the extent of the rot - a whole new side bench would be needed. And new plumbing.

Blow number four:  A week ago, a council visit highlighted the presence of cockroaches, which we had been fighting on a daily basis. Guess where they like to live? In moist particle board.  
The need to do this work urgently trumped the fact that the bank account was floating not far above zero at the time due to the previous repair issue. 
We allocated a Tuesday, and about eight people, to this working bee. 
Tally up another thousand dollars in lost sales. 
Might as well add another thousand in materials, including second hand hardwood, bricks, steel, paint, filler, fasteners, brackets and the like. 
Then add another seven hundred for plumbing work. 
Then, three days later, we were still not ready to reopen. 
K'ching...add another few thousand dollars worth of lost sales to the tally. (During this whole time, all our people and helpers volunteered their time - some of us worked for three days averaging twenty hours a day. I have to especially thank Serge and Tom, as well as our whole team - I have to say, we were magnificent). 

The job blew out, as these types of jobs often do, and by the time we could partially reopen, we were all totally exhausted. Me especially.

Blow number five (the killer punch): Then, on the Friday we limped to reopen, our landlord appeared with an order for back rent, totalling some seven grand. This had been a problem for us for some time, but we had been managing to keep it under control by paying our rent each week, plus a little extra when we could. As far as our long suffering landlord was concerned, this wasn't enough - and the recent repairs had not helped our case with the him either. He apparently required notice, so that he could grant us 'permission.'

So if it IS broke, and so are you, what do you do?
Which brings us up to the present. With some seven thousand dollars over the past four weeks in added expenses and lost sales, a rent bill (much of it disputed, but that was for a later occasion in court) due at the end of next week, an exhausted team (did I mention we just lost two more staff in this period?) and still more renovation and repair work to do, we've decided to hit the pause button until we can find somewhere better to live. 
This landlord does not love us, even though Newcastle seems to. 
I worry about our neighbouring shops too, who rely on the daytime traffic we attract for some extra business. Who knows? Maybe the next tenant will be an even better cafe! 
Anyway, stay tuned - I'm working out a way to make bread for everyone again as soon as I can. The rest of our team are going to take a break for a month or two. Then we'll hopefully regroup, with some fresh energy and a better location and maybe a bit more capital behind us. In the meantime, thanks Newcastle for all the amazing support you have given us. All the equipment will be relocated and rolling again as soon as I can get it set up, including Bertha.

All those who have invested time and or money, our investment is safe - kinda - just awaiting redeployment in more favourable circumstances.

And down the track - well, let's just say that, God (and you people) willing, Newcastle will have its SourdoughBaker back.


  1. Warwick, so sad to hear your news. Perhaps this is a chance to find an ever better location? Perhaps consider Kickstarter? Small business is a tough gig and it may be hard to think why now, but shit like this happens for a reason.

  2. That's right Siobhan. Shit happens for a reason. So far, the lessons learned are coming at me thick and fast. However, I'm learning that 'community' does exist, and I'm keener than ever to uncover more of it right here. Newcastle is truly an amazing place full of amazing people. I'm really happy and grateful to feel a part of this community.