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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Rant Alert!!

It is nearly time to put my X on a piece of paper again. Whereas I should be proud that I am able to do this at all, this particular X on a piece of paper type exercise has even less meaning for me than usual. This is because it is a local election, and whoever I vote for, IF they win, will end up on Darlington Borough Council – an organisation that I have very, very little respect for. Recently I was asked to put some of my experiences into writing for a councillor seeking re-election, so here goes.

I mentioned in my last blog post about the Coffee Festival and how it was all done *despite* the council, not because of them. The original idea was to hold a few coffee themed stalls in the market square along with a latte art competition. So, since I wanted the market square, on a Saturday when the normal market is on, I asked the Markets Team. They immediately told to talk to the Town Centre manager. She sounded enthusiastic, but told me to contact the Events Team. The one person I met from the Events Team was also very enthusiastic, but then got me to fill in all the paper work. To hold a ONE DAY EVENT, which, lets face it, was never going to attract hordes of people anyway, I had to write an entire Event Plan, complete with risk assessments (“people may spill hot coffee on themselves. Risk allieviated by not selling to STUPID PEOPLE”?!), fire safety plans, and a to-scale plan of how I wanted my stalls laid out. I also needed to find a qualified first aider, and have a plan for Crowd Management, and then they sent my plans back wanting me to mark on where the public toilets would be (erm, it’s your town centre/market square, do you not know where you put the loos?). Then to cap it all, they wanted me to prove I had TEN MILLION POUNDS of public liability insurance. I have £5m for my cafe and from when I used to trade on the market, but that wasn’t enough to actually organise an event. I phoned round and phoned round and couldn’t find any company willing to cover me for that amount, for a one-off event. So I called the council back and threatened to cancel the whole thing, and suddenly, they “realised” my £5m cover might be enough…. Even then though, my ‘Event application’ still had to be approved by the committee, and they also wanted me to get back in touch with the Market officers to find out how the actual stalls were going to be erected and insured…
At this point, I really was ready to give up – wouldn’t you be, dear reader? But I did contact the market officers again, and they said “why don’t you just add the stalls on to the end of open market?” that way, all the risk assessments/insurance etc would be covered by them. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH. That is of course, what I ended up doing, but had they just said that SIX WEEKS PREVIOUSLY when I’d first asked, it would have saved me so, so much time, effort and stress!!! And typically, they still charged ALL the stall holders £20 for the stalls even though I’d pointed out numerous times that this was a charity fundraising event, AND they stuck us right up on Blackwellgate out of the way with little passing trade. All in all, the council did not help one iota with any publicity for this either, so if either the markets or the events team claim ANY credit for this in all their promotional stuff for the election… HEADS WILL ROLL.

*deep breath*

All this shows that the council departments DO NOT TALK TO EACH OTHER. There is a ludicrous amount of red tape and very little common sense to the point where it seriously discourages anyone from doing anything out of the ordinary. Most importantly, when it comes to events and the markets in Darlington (which supposedly attract tourists etc) there is little initiative within the council itself – no one seems to have the ambition or imagination to do anthing to regenerate the dying market or hold any new events themselves, and yet when members of the public try and do it for them, they are met with the above level of unnecessary, soul-saping bureaucracy. More to the point, it shouldn’t be up to us to design these events for them – surely, this is the job of the market officers and events team themselves!?

I have traded on the open markets with two different stalls – my Cyberllama business selling Peruvian jewellery in 2005-2006 and with my Dr Coffee van from 2009 until just after Miranda was born last summer. Neither was a particularly successful venture, but I do maintain that both would have been infinitely more profitable had I attempted them outside of Darlington. Darlington open market is NOT the place for unusual jewellery and not even the place for high quality coffee. I was told repeatedly with the coffee van that my coffee was pricey – I was still undercutting Starbucks/Nero/Costa by between 50p and £1 per cup, but the average market customer expects Ne$cafe instant in a polysterene cup for 50p. Highest quality direct-trade espresso is not really appreciated by people just after something Hot, Wet and Caffeinated. This is an issue with my business model, I accept that, but even so, I am still confident I would have done better in another town, and that is mainly due to the way the markets are “organised”.

My Cyberllama stall was actually on the Market Square, back in the days pre “Pedestrian Heart scheme” when the market had a proper home. But, the infinite wisdom behind the decision to redo the high street and pedestrianize it meant that all the bus stops moved away from the Market Square itself, and suddenly, there footfall in the market decreased dramatically, killing off quite a few of the stalls in the process. I had given up by the time they decided to move the market up on to High Row. I started the coffee van on High Row, and was squashed on the end in Blackwellgate, which not only gets minimal passing trade, it also never gets any sunlight, and acts as a wind tunnel in bad weather. My coffee van is tiny – this was not the best, most visible spot by a long way. Then it got worse. With the absolute bare-minimum consultation with the stall holders, the Monday market was moved down to the bottom of Northgate. The decision was actually made by the Council before it was properly discussed with the traders. To be fair, there is higher footfall in Northgate, but there is not a lot of space. The market is crammed in and looks squashed and untidy because the street in narrower, and worse, it is completely hidden from the main high street meaning you have to know it is on to go there, it is not going to get accidental visitors. I went round with leaflets for my business around all the shops on Northgate after the market officers informed us they’d consulted with the shops there, who were happy that the market was moving. I quickly found that the majority of shops on Northgate had absolutely no idea the market was moving and had not been privy to this consultation at all! After all this, I only ended up doing two more stalls on the Mondays. The reason being, my new pitch was right outside Starbucks, and only 100 yards from Costa. Even though my coffee was cheaper, (and certainly higher quality and more ethical!) I couldn’t compete with fashionable, established huge brands, and not with having warm places to sit down! One time I took £17 all day, not even enough to cover the stall fee. I did ask if I could move my pitch – it wasn’t going to happen. They just weren’t interested enough in the stalls to support individual traders.

The stalls are also prohibitively expensive. I had to pay £25 per day to park my van on the market. It was *just* for parking it. I had to get my insurance independently and provide my own generator and fuel for it because the required. They also charge you for the full day even if you don’t stay all day. Because I was “mobile” and “self-contained”, I also never got a gazebo like all the rest of the stalls. This was NOT fun, especially in mid winter or when heavily pregnant. One day it was raining so hard, all my cakes and jars of tea got soaking wet, no one was about and I hadn’t made a single sale all morning, so I packed up and went home. I STILL got charged the full £25 even though I’d only been there for 3 hours and hadn’t made a penny!! Not impressed. I had several days getting utterly drenched and selling nothing, because no one wanted to stay and drink coffee in the pouring rain. I asked repeatedly for a gazebo, but they could only give me one if it was on the end of a row of stalls, and there was never space for this apparently.  I feel strongly that £25 a day is too much for a stall even with the perks of a cover, given the terrible location, the lack of passing trade and the total lack of promotion of the market done by the Council. When you are selling coffees for under £2 a cup, that is A LOT of sales before you make any money back from it!

I had a long discussion with MP Jenny Chapman about the markets prior to the general election. With the best will in the world, she had little clue of what trading on the market is actually like. Her solution to the falling trade in the market was to encourage market traders to get card machines to enable them to take payments by debit card. Obviously she has no idea how expensive and unreliable those machines are to use – and really, people aren’t going to put £1.65 for a cappuccino on their card, are they?

This is, of course, just my experience and personal opinions but I am very aware that I am not alone in these views. Again, my personal circumstances dictated that I either did my market stalls or signed on the dole: I’d really expect the Council to support fledgling small businesses like mine, and actively encourage enterpreneurship instead of making starting a business harder and even more complicated than it needs to be. The markets need a shake up. To my mind, it needs to be moved back to the market square where it is at least visible, obvious and attractive. It needs investment – the stall fee needs to be reduced, and the costs of running it need to be subsidised by the council without those costs being passed on to the stallholders. Most importantly, it needs to better advertised and promoted around the region. More ‘special’ markets need to organised – the market officers and events team need to come up with some more unusual festivals to draw people in, and if members of the public have ideas for events, these should be far, far, easier to achieve with councillers supporting the event planning, rather than just bogging us down with red tape or charging this ridiculous “rival market” fee (another story altogether!). On a smaller scale, the market officers need to justify the stall fee, by actually taking an interest in the stalls, helping and supporting individual traders when necessary especially new start-ups. Darlington is traditionally a market town, but it is going to lose its market entirely if something isn’t done to regenerate it very soon indeed.

 

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Posted by on April 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

North East Coffee Festival

Well, I survived!! There are still three charity collection cans floating around in Afternoon Tease cafe because I haven’t yet heard whether UK Coffee Week HQ want me to send back the whole cans, or just write them a cheque.

For a first attempt at organising something like this, I think it went really well. In the end, only five places in Darlington actually signed up with the UK coffee week, and of those, one completely ignored my attempts at getting them involved on a local level. But to be honest I am quite glad about that because I had plenty to deal with as it was. Plenty of places got involved without actually signing up officially though, which was great. I did a coffee ‘treasure map’ sending people to seven different coffee shops around town (including Caffe Nero and Clervaux) and finishing at Afternoon Tease, where I gave the first person back (Congrats to Robin Ellwood!) the “treasure” – a bag of organic single origin Costa Rican beans, the most enormous coffee mug I could find and a cafetiere. Because if you’ve managed to get round seven coffee shops in a week, obviously you must be in need of more coffee!!

The ever-enthusiastic Neil at Golden Brown cafe roasts coffee on site, and did some roasting workshops for interested customers – I met a few who had attended and said it was ‘fascinating’! I was a bit gutted I couldn’t make it to them myself. I don’t know how much Neil raised but hopefully the roasting workshops and the treasure map boosted his sales as well.

I did a poster for the Vitae Public Engagement competition, all about coffee quality (as usual) and hosted in Durham. The idea was the explain people’s academic work to members of the public, so I thought I’d do my bit since the event happened to coincide with coffee week. I didn’t win, but I didn’t really expect to, and I did get to talk to a lot of interesting people, including Kathryn from Allegra (organisers of UK Coffee Week) who had made it all the way up here from London for the day. Really nice of her to make the journey!

Annette at Sublime Coffee Corner, who sells a huge range of different coffee beans on the indoor market, did a coffee tasting session as well as being featured on the treasure map. She said it went well enough, and certainly got to enlighten people to the joys of Kopi Luwak coffee, ahem 🙂

I ran a short barista class at Afternoon Tease on the Friday, which was so much fun! Two who had provisionally booked couldn’t make it at the last minute, but the crowd I got in were brilliant, asking me loads of questions, really getting in to it and most significantly, not being afraid to have a go on my machine. One said she was blown away by the tiny margin of error, how the tiniest thing can make such a huge difference in how the espresso tastes. For my part, it was exhausting! I did get to drink A LOT of espresso, tasting all their attempts no matter how bad! However, as usual when I try and ‘teach’ something I am passionate about, I vastly over-ran and talked solidly for the best part of three hours.

Finally, on the Saturday, we held a few coffee themed stalls in the market square (the back-story for this deserves a blog post in its own right, but in simple terms, this was achieved *despite* the council, not exactly with their help!). My beloved coffee Ape van has now been sold (waaaaaaa!) and I sold it on the understanding that its new owners came to the coffee festival. They did, in fact, the festival actually became the launch of their new business. Apey boy is now called Little Coffee Van, and although nervous, they managed some pretty decent cappuccinos! On a less positive note, they also go a taster of the local open market – thus producing another one joining the campaign pressuring the council to invest in the market and breathe some life in to it, I hope!!
We also had beautiful cakies from Cupcake Kisses, Golden Brown cafe came out and sold freshly roasted coffee beans and gourmet chocolates, Tea Experience came all the way up from the other side of York to pacify the tea drinking half of the population, we even had a massage stall called Reinvigorate for when people had had too much caffeine! I tried to do a sort of information stall, using some of the posters and displays I’d done for uni and some coffee paraphenalia I’ve collected (of which I have A LOT nowadays!). However, Afternoon Tease was open at the same time, and I couldn’t leave Carl manning the place on his own. My parents came up for the weekend to help out with Miranda but I still ended up pedalling backwards and forwards between the stalls and the cafe on Betty the bike. I also did a short but live radio interview for BBC Radio Tees which was terrifying, but at least it wasn’t as awful as the mugshot in the local paper. Ugh.

Anyway, things have been learnt. Kathryn seems pretty keen for me to do this again next year (!!!) but that will depend a great deal on how cooperative Darlington council are feeling because there were parts of the initial setting up of the festival which I have no desire whatever to repeat! A budget would be lovely too… However, moans aside, I really do enjoy doing things like this, hopefully all involved benefitted from it, it was something very different for Darlington, we raised some money for a good cause, and we all got a lot of very very good coffee. Which is the main thing, for me at least!!

Here’s some pretty pics from the week:

Afternoon TeaseGusto ItalianoOrigin cup!Cafe PregoClervauxSeasons

Costa CoffeeGolden Brown CafePoster of Coffee QualityEspresso served in Turkish IbrikDay 8Rachel and Nyx Chapman

Stalls at the Coffee FestivalTea ExperienceFlowering TeasCoffee Information StallCoffee paraphenaliaBeans!

Day 9Cupcake KissesReinvigorateThe Little Coffee VanLittle Coffee VanBaby Coffee

North East Coffee Festival, a set on Flickr.

Some photos from the participating cafes and the main even, 4-10th April 2011.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Following Thingies.

I have been charged with (re)writing my thesis introduction … again. Apparently I am not supposed to launch straight into Coffee Stuff because, heaven forbid, some people – namely, my examinars, may not actually be interested in coffee. Infidels. It does beg the question, why read it in the first place? But no, in university terms, this means I have to ‘contextualise’ the chapter, and explain how it fits in with, and contributes to current geographical theory and debates. I find this sort of thing extremely difficult to write. Obviously my whole thesis is heavily influenced by whatever I’ve been reading, but pinpointing exactly which parts can be attributed to what author remains a mystery.

In very loose terms, this whole coffee project is based around explorations of commodity chains, trade networks, food production techniques and to some extent, commodity fetishism. I am lucky in the fact that Ian Cook has done several extremely useful blogs and papers about these topics, and so I can start with his ‘umbrella’ paper called/. ‘Afters’ which discusses all of the above. Cook also championed the idea of ‘following’ – as in, tracing a ‘thing’ back through its production process from consumer back to producer. This is really more of a method than a theory, (much like ANT, actor-network theory -which is similar but not a theory either,) but it is the idea of ‘following’ that has shaped my own research the most. Cook’s first example was papayas, and he did go into some detail about the people who worked with papayas. Mine got a lot more involved and sort of turned into an ethnography of the ‘coffee people’ because I have always been far more interested in the PEOPLE, peoples’ attitudes, peoples’ way of life, their politics, economics and preferences, how they affect the little bean and how it affects them, than the physicality of the little green/brown beans themselves.

Following the beans’ journey does throw up some useful stuff, besides straight-forward ‘this is how you make coffee’. Cook’s  -and others’ – papers cover the idea of ‘transformation’, I can talk about the huge difference in what people mean by ‘coffee’ – are they talking about the plant, the beans or a drink? Raw, green coffee beans bear little resemblence to the average cappuccino, so somewhere in this journey, the Thing, ‘coffee’ is created and transformed.

As soon as you get into the coffee production process, you can’t help but get bogged down in the ethics of the industry – and fortunately this applies to plenty of other food industries, (like papayas) so I don’t have to mention the C word too soon.  Lyon talks about commodity chains and Fairtrade initiatives attempting to ‘shorten’ and ‘strengthen’ the links between producer and consumer. Supposedly if we understand more about where our food comes from, we ‘engage’ with it more and it is ‘defetishised’. In simpler terms, by raising awareness of how our food is produced, it ceases to be mysterious, special or exotic, bell hooks calls this “eating the other” – as in, consuming “ethnic” foods because they are unusual and exotic which brings a whole new meaning to ‘consuming culture’. (I had to look up why bell hooks does not capitalise her name. It is a pen name, and she doesn’t use capitals to differentiate herself from her grandmother, apparently). Being aware of the producers is not the same as actually engaging with them, however. Strengthening the links in a global commodity network is not necessarily the same thing as breaking down the power  and economic inequalities between first world/western consumers and third word producers. The results of this ‘following’ would vary considerably depending on who does the following and their position and vantage point in the network.  Being aware of the production process may shorten the links and maybe ‘defetishize” the commodity to some extent, but it does not change the manner in which is it is produced or consumed. I’ve written a lot on fair trade and I reckon I don’t have to go into it too much again in this introduction, but one area that I haven’t really touched on is who actually buys it. Certified food – be it fair trade or organic or whatever, is generally more expensive. Thus, it tends to be bought by people who have more money. So in turn, buying ethical food (or any other products) becomes a luxury in itself. Sometimes (like my primark t-shirts) it is not lack of awareness that leads to inethical consumption, more, it’s a case of not having the money to shop ethically. This is one of the major criticisms of alternative trade models – they are not necessarily accessible to all.

What else? Commodity networks, fetishism, ethical consumption, ‘becoming food’. Think that’s about it and hopefully I can then get into COFFEE and the interesting stuff!!

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

A really lovely letter

Hello Annabel,

My name is ************ and I am the volunteer coordinator of Building
New Hope (BNH) in the states. Donna (our mutual friend and
crazy colleague) asked me to write to you because I am known as the
coffee guy. Inspired by the beautiful bean from the El Porvenir
cooperative in Nicaragua, I started my own espresso/cappuccino
catering business here in Pittsburgh and it is a phenomenal success
and a blast to do. I love it. I also supervise all the packaging and
coordination of coffee orders for a wonderful and loyal fan base for
BNH.

It is a delight knowing you are in another part of the world working
in coffee and taking your time to volunteer for BNH. If you are ever
in Pittsburgh, look us up and we can do some kind of barista
fantastical event. Just wanted to say hi and thank you for your kind
of support of the organization.

Fight the power, keep the peace,

http://www.beancatering.com

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized