While I write this piece for Humanise, I'm sitting at Champaca Café. It's a small independent bookstore & café tucked away in the by-lanes of Bangalore. One side of the wall has a bookshelf decked with books, from top to bottom, with colourful covers.
The "fourth wall" of the café opens up to a lush, leafy tree, its branches heavy - drooping from the weight of ripe avocados. I sit at the ledge overlooking this tree as sunshine slants through, warming my face.
Rather than the usual Slack notifications, a bulbul interrupts my train of thought. I break out of my reverie and return to this magical place.
I let out a content sigh and sip my filter coffee.
“What if.. this could be my life everyday?
How about I start my own café?”
I'm willing to bet that every one of us has been here.
Who here hasn’t heard the seductive clarion call of the culinary world?
We've all fantasised about running away from the corporate world, and starting our own café.
For this piece, I wondered why so many of us feel this way.
Movies and books definitely have a role to play in romanticising running a café. We see an overwhelming number of main characters owning a café as it is a plot point. How many other careers can you think of where others can plop into your place of work to chit-chat? A café acts as a third space and helps progress the plot.
But what about the plot of our own lives?
Finding joy and meaning in what we do
There is a certain charm to owning a café and being the "main character" of your life. As the writer Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives."
During the pandemic, many of us had a reckoning. We questioned whether we could continue to stay in the careers we are in for the next 20-30 years. Many of us also started dabbling in hobbies that sparked joy. We started baking bread and brewing craft coffee. It is natural then to wonder if we could make this our full-time jo(y)-b.
A recent NYT piece delved deep into why people are keen to romanticise their lives. In corporate jobs, we tend to work on targets that are set by others. Psychologists notice that this tends to deprive us of our sense of agency. We become corporate cogs in a machine. We often have to compartmentalise our true selves and our work selves.
I can speculate on a few reasons on why we see an increasing number of people starting their own F&B ventures. Maybe it is so that they can bring their whole selves to work and work towards goals they set for themselves. And, of course, who wouldn’t want to sample food & beverage all day?
That said, a career in the F&B space is not at all as rosy as it seems. It comes with its own set of challenges. There are a lot of fires to put out - both literal and figurative. It requires a lot of capital and a strong support system. I had made a thread about F&B home-chefs who had started up during the pandemic. Barring those with commercial kitchen experience, most have now wound up.
I spoke to a few F&B friends who had the courage and privilege to pivot. In spite of the challenges outlined above, a common thread came up in our conversation. They all didn’t want to have regrets about not following their dreams.
I spoke to my friend Aarti Rastogi, the founder of Artinci, an artisanal dessert company.
Aarti had joined the corporate world as an HR professional. Three months into her career, at the tender age of 23, she had lost 80% of her hearing due to an unknown reason. This unfortunate event acted as a wake-up call and made her realise that you can take nothing for granted. It made her introspect about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life and her career path. Deep down, she always knew that her true calling was to one day start something of her own in the F&B space.
While she kept her HR job, she experimented with desserts on the side. After ~15 years, she finally quit her HR job and started her own venture. She says, "It took a long time to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to run a company while being a person with a hearing disability.”
Aarti started Artinci in her early 40s. She knew that she owed it to herself to follow her dreams and at least give it a shot.
The Sweet Spot with Café Goldspot
Likewise, when Sameera Khan caught COVID-19 and had to self-isolate for 14 days. She made a bucket-list of things she wanted to do before turning 30. One of them was starting her own café. Today, along with being a full-time Director of People Success at a start-up, she co-owns Café Goldspot in Goa.
Flabbergasted, I asked her how she does it all. Laughing, Sameera said, "At my age, many people balance both a full-time job and a kid. This café is my COVID-19 baby. I'm very grateful to have a strong support system and encouraging bosses who let me follow my dreams.
My background in psychology also helps me balance the two. Many people who work in the F&B sector carry a lot of trauma because of terrible working conditions. I use my training to empower my team to be confident and call the shots. That way, the café can run smoothly without needing me to put out fires."
Now Boarding (Café)
My friend Sweekruthi Kaveripatnam runs a board game café. Before starting Now Boarding Café, she had only spent time in the education space. She laughs and recalls how näive she was before she started the café. She thought her work would revolve around teaching customers how to play new board games. But when the doors opened, she realised that she would now also need to (wo)man the kitchen. She drew on the organisational systems she'd learnt from her time in the education sector.
She had not spent any time in a commercial kitchen before starting the café. She laughs and says, "I implemented what I'd observed on MasterChef Australia."
This inspired me. Often, as individuals, there is this tendency that we need to be 100% ready and qualified before we start something. However, on speaking to my F&B entrepreneur friends, I realised that you mostly learn through doing. Once you start, the path appears.
Taking the leap?
Also, we tend to discount the skills that the corporate world has equipped us with. In the corporate world many of us pick up valuable skills like the ability to read P&L sheets and run digital marketing campaigns. In the end, these are the skills that help you take your small business to a big one.
If you are on the fence about starting your own F&B business - give it a shot. Give in to the clarion call of the culinary world. Maybe start with baby steps such as hosting bake sales and pop-ups on the weekend. After all, it's one of the few times you can have your cake and eat it too.