Friday, October 21, 2011

The birth of a social enterprise

Before SourdoughBaker Cafe came into being, I had been working with a few foodie friends to establish a food producers cooperative here in Newcastle. The idea was that people with food skills and passion for food production would cooperatively establish an enterprise to cost effectively produce and market our goodies. This idea took hold once we decided that a bakery was the ideal vehicle for this to occur.

My background in bakeries taught me one thing though - bakeries, like farms, are twenty four seven operations. You can't just hang a sign on the door one day and say 'Gone Fishin'. They are really a continuous process, involving people all around the clock. If one bit stops, the whole thing slows right down. If one thing fails, it's likely to effect everything else. And above all, it taught me that bakeries are a lot of work.

That was my hesitation from the getgo. Someone tends to have to carry the whole thing physically and mentally, and that someone, I was determined, was not going to be me. I have already lost a marriage, a house and quite a few good years to bakeries. On the lighter side, I'm probably ideally suited to do it, because the risk of losing these things doesn't exist if you have already lost them!

Adding a cafe to the equation seemed to be a good idea - we had skills within our group to do this, firstly, and secondly, it meant that the focus wouldn't be on the bakehouse alone. This, I thought, would mean a kind of 'lifestyle' business - a bit of baking, small volumes and high quality bread, lots of great coffee and food baked in the oven. Perfect.

I could have time to run workshops, play with woodfired ovens of my own design, and get some perfect sourdough happening.

As one after another of my compatriots worked themselves out of enthusiasm for the idea, I was left to, ahh, carry the whole thing - physically, financially and mentally. This would have been an easy task if no one cared - I could just quietly tuck it away and move back to real work once the going got too tough. But I discovered every day more people who cared, some people who would actually put their time and their money into this crazy dream. And others who just got inspired by what we were doing, and who faithfully returned, often with friends and family in tow, to provide said entourage with a dose of hope for the future and some yummy bread to boot.

So I was obliged to keep going, despite the obvious flaws in our plan. And that obligation has, once again, sheared a few more years off my personal mortality timeclock, and left me just a bit worse off than when I started, financially and materially.

But mentally and emotionally I have been completely energised - by the things we achieved in a short eighteen months, and by the love I have received from all manner of people, for all manner of reasons.

I'm left with a deep sense of humanity at work. It really isn't just me. It's actually everyone doing what they can. Some did more than others, but everyone who has been involved in this thing has given generously, and with love rather than avarice. I've deeply connected with such a broad range of people doing equally interesting and innovative things, as well as people who just do their thing in their own very special way. I'm left awed and amazed by this town, it's spirit and its unmistakable attitude. Thank you, Newcastle, for taking me and my band of social misfits into your hearts.

And that's the thing. I have observed that everyone who has hung in with this 'community enterprise' as it has grown has one thing in common - we have all survived. All of us have had to overcome something big to just turn up at work each day. No one walked in with a silver spoon - or if they did, they pretty quickly took their silver spoon elsewhere to dip in someone else's sugary gravy. Not in our slow food cauldron of flavour and meaning. Our enterprise worked on us to evolve and to become stronger, not the other way around.

I thought it was to be a community enterprise. I was wrong. It's a social enterprise, which just happens to be owned by the community.

And now, that community has taken us in; really given us something to hold on to, and to build.

I can't reveal the exact nature of the evolution of the SourdoughBaker experiment that's coming, but I can say it puts meat on the bones of the idea we had going. And it will enable me to take this thing to the next level - a social enterprise for Newcastle to be proud of. Stay tuned as the story unfolds...

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