Catering to Disappointment

Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you expected. It’s not about the effort invested or the money thrown at it, it’s about absolutely everything else deciding – often at a moment’s notice – that whatever you were trying to do is just not going to happen. Since we have started this project the Jabberwocky has not been about preventing these occurrences, it’s been about dealing with them.

I am not terribly good with change. Barny coming home from work early used to send me wandering vaguely round the house for hours. Us deciding to have something else for dinner would have me grumpily picking at my food. So given that I am a creature of routine the whole process of starting a business seems, in hindsight, to have been a very silly idea indeed. Happily I am also a champion of the silly idea, from a long and prestigious line of silly idea-mongers. Some of them, like moving the entire family to Germany for several years, have had happy consequences: Meeting my sister-in-law and learning German. Others, like break-dancing to Alvin and the Chipmunks or playing catch with large rocks, have led to broken legs and missing teeth.

In this industry, like probably any other, success is based around adaptability and rejection. Adaptability, because people are never thoughtful enough to want exactly what you have to offer and rejection because most of the time, they don’t want it at all. Look at Microsoft Windows: No one thinks it works and everyone hates it. And that’s one of the most recognised and powerful brands on the planet.

Rejection used to make me sad, almost heartbroken, because I wasn’t right. When I first showed my angsty bits of post-pubescent writing to someone who wasn’t my mother and was told it was not especially good I swore (on many occasions) that I would never, ever write again. I’m not delighted about being told my writing is pants now, we’re not that far down the road to sanity, but at least I have distilled a full day of despondent melancholy into a mere 45 minutes of impotent rage.

Today we had another rejection from a festival. It came through almost 6 hours ago and while I am not delighted by the situation, I am by no means crying myself a salty, self-indulgent river. I am cautious to suggest this, but I think there is a possibility I may have accidentally become a bit grown up.

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Hot Water Doesn’t Grow On Trees

The boiler, taken on location in Royal Leamington SpaAn interesting fact, which makes food festivals up to 5% more entertaining, is that our local environmental health authority requires every outlet selling hot food, regardless of where or how they do so, to have two separate sinks and a supply of hot and cold water. The idea behind this profoundly strange rule is that you then have a pot-wash sink, which is only used for pots and pans, and a hand wash sink. This prevents cross-contamination, preserves cleanliness and saves the lives of the innocent, like a dettol-wielding cleaning-batman.

Thus runs the theory at any rate. In practise, I have seen a whole variety of interesting reinterpretations of the words “sink” and “hot”, many of which would possibly cause a visiting environmental health officer to go all kung-fu on their asses. In most cases though, it is not about the exciting definitions of “clean” that can be found out on the edge, in the far reaches of language, it’s about the simple existence of a sink.

The Beast, may he forever rumble, has a pot-wash sink that has been approved, blessed and sanctified by Warwickshire District Council. Imagine one of those tiny closet toilets that you cram into a house where there is no space at all, and which seem to always be much colder than every other room. Picture the sink in one of those bathrooms, then halve it. That is our pot-wash sink. As we never need to do washing up in the van, because all the equipment gets washed at the end of the shift, it has never been a problem, it merely fulfils its purpose of existing in the exact same space-time continuum as the Jabberwocky.

With this vital point checked off, the next is the provision of both hot and cold water, whereby hot constitutes at least 76°C. At this point you probably noted, correctly, that huffing on it will not get the water in question hot enough. Instead, some serious kit is necessary to create a viable cup of tea, or at the very least comply with the EHO.

Our water-boiler joined us at the same time as the van, with assurances that it was broken. We we’re a little over-excited that day and never considered enquiring further. Two months down the line we tested it, and miraculously, it lit first time, like a charm. Not only that, it sailed through its gas safe check. Mysterious, perhaps, but at the time we felt a certain sense of entitlement to a small amount of good luck, so we took it.

The food festival dawns, we open the hatch, fire up the water boiler and fill it up. It puts itself out. We investigate, and discover that the underside is leaking profusely from around the tap. Ooooh. We eventually managed to get by with a combination of a very little water in the boiler, and a pan on the stove, and order was restored until such time as we could deal with the problem. After a little investigation this appears to involve either a) an new boiler – £500 b) a new tap – £65 or c) a tube of sealant – £10. As we speak a tube of sealant is on its way to us. Not that we are chronically unlucky; I’m not a big fan of luck in the first place, but we have started making enquiries into the new boiler as well.

Please feel free to rejoice that having read this far you have achieved something few others have, namely been interested or bored enough to read almost an entire blog post about a sink and boiler. In fact I would go so far ask to request that if you have read a more interesting post about plumbing this year that you leave me a link in the comments, so that I can send the author a short note of heartfelt thanks.

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Memorabilia and Autumnal Associations

The battle is over, but as the dust settles and the world continues to move onwards, we are not done with this. We survived our first event, scarred, happy and a little worse for wear, but the tale does not end there. I’m not even confident that we finished the first chapter.

I think people will follow a tale for all sorts of different reasons, but primarily for the narrative. With blogs I hope it is the same, after all, many of you lovely Wockusiasts have been with us from the start, and that probably isn’t due to our roaring success or celebrity appeal. I would therefore like to suggest that we have just finished the introduction, and that before us lies the uncertain future of our protagonist, Curiosity Catering Ltd, better known as The Jabberwocky, beginning with Chapter One; Memorabilia and Autumnal Associations.

I’ve not made a secret of the fact that we have not progressed as fast as we ideally would have liked. We don’t have any more events on the near horizon, and the season for catering vans is pretty much over. As the Beast attempts to enter hibernation for the winter, we have tried other ideas in an attempt to keep him busy. One that received much interest at the festival was the prospect of selling Barny off for the evening, so that he could make someone else’s kitchen a mess instead of ours, on the proviso that he cleaned up after himself. We dubbed this activity “chef for hire”, then almost immediately regretted it in favour of the more far snappy “rent-a-chef”. At any rate, it’s something Barny would be able to do very well, him being scruffy to the point of distraction in everyday life, but professional and presentable when geared up for cheffing and able to whip up something fairly close to perfection in approx. one trice.

It’s those first few clients that will be tricky. I expect every business is the same in that respect: word of mouth is what will carry you through the dark times. Once people know you exist and like what you do, which naturally they will, they will begin by telling everyone they have ever met, then possibly the national media, and then probably the Overlord of Social Communication, Stephen Fry, whose powers doth crasheth a site at the merest mention. But I may be getting ahead of myself there.

My point is that as Summer skips into the past the Jabberwocky needs to be earning its keep. More and more, I am realising that its keep is very much about who you know, regardless of how good your internet didgeridoos may be. I would also like to confess that I very nearly wrote irregardless there, and I can only apologize for that near disgrace.

Irregardless, there is still much to be done, like finally printing our Memorandum and Articles of Association, hitherto only electronic, now gloriously enshrined in laminated covers and binding rings; thanks to an office equipment windfall we had recently received from my mum. Maybe it’s just me, but I love office accessories. Those mythical, hyper-useful gadgets that you will only ever use once. Well I have now used them, and it felt good to finally have a hard copy of that which enables me to use the title “Director” at my discretion. Even the hundreds of hole-punch sprinkles that now decorate the bedroom carpet and the lingering smell of burnt plastic cannot take that away from me. Probably should hoover.
Pics first, then I’ll get the Dyson out.

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The Post-Festival Glow

I’ve had several stabs at writing this post, and so far all of them had ended with me flicking over to you tube. The first post after our first real event is something important and should be treated with a certain level of seriousness, I think. But at this moment, out of all the thousands of things I have learnt from the weekend; all the excellent new experiences, disconcerting near misses and moments of abject exhaustion, all I really want to tell you is that I think Jabberwocky Enthusiasts, my term for all you lovely people who occasionally stop by and have been known to support the Beast with your time, your patience and even you cash, should be known as Wockusiasts.

That is in no way relates to the matter in hand, other than being the last thing I thought before drifting off into an uneasy sleep on Friday night, punctured by imaginary phone calls cancelling our pitch or reporting an unexpected sink hole in the Pump Room Gardens. I had great plans for this post, because of course I had dreamed of the fame and riches that would flood in upon us once people had seen the Beast, and intended to tell you of the crowds of people, the eager clamour for seconds, perhaps even the moment when we ran out of space for all the money.

That’s not what I have decided to tell you about. Partially because it didn’t happen, and partially because this blog is not about the success of the Jabberwocky, it is about the tale of the Jabberwocky. On Saturday morning, when at 11 o’clock, having been officially open for an entire hour, we had sold nothing at all; it looked like being a very short, sad tale indeed.

We were sat right on the end of a row, off the beaten track and only a stone’s throw away from the large mexican-themed chain stall handing out free food. I have often struggled to explain to people what’s so bad about big chains, being much more eloquent on paper than in debate, but that morning, as the mariachi band struck up “la cocoracha” for the 3rd time and the 4th person dropped their plastic tray in our bin after consuming free food, it was remarkably clear.
We began questioning our concept, and wondering if our menu was too adventurous, or too expensive, because time after time people would look at the Beast, sing his praises, marvel at the menu, and then head off for a free fajita. Eventually our first customer came, and we rejoiced at a turn in fortunes. Lunchtime began breaking out all over the festival, but we remained in a little patch of quiet air by ourselves.

As lunchtime slid by our fortunes gradually began to change, and people began to buy from us, assisted by some of our friends, who purchased and made loud, delighted comments about our offerings. I began to calm down and get a grip. I spent less time revolving pointlessly on the spot inside the van and more time taking samples out and talking to the good folk of Warwickshire on our little patch of path outside. We managed to smile properly as the grim determination faded and the enjoyment started to creep in.

I started talking about the food and slowly, cautiously, people started to buy it. Voices we didn’t know joined those we did in praising what we had worked for so long to create and voluntarily asked for business cards. People smiled when I introduced the Beast and when I described Barny as “our tame chef”. We learnt that samples will create sales much more effectively if you hand them out right in front of the van, and that people are quite happy to exchange brownie for a short conversation about food. I became eerily aware that enthusiasm about our food was actually surprisingly close to a sales pitch, but that either way it was earning us money and faced with an audience trying politely to help themselves to brownie, I simply cannot restrain myself and must perform for my unwitting fans.
customers, sweet, sweet customers
By the time we eventually drove home on Sunday (the long way, so that the Beast could have a romp at 50mph along the A-road) we could only feel that the weekend had been a success. Perhaps a modest one from the outside and certainly a stressful one from the inside, but you cannot get that experience from books. Certainly not the part with the water boiler that kept putting itself out.

Not only that, we even managed to turn a small profit, which will go towards funding the next Jabberwocky Adventure.

Mostly though, this post is about Wockusiasts. In our time of need, you stood by us, either because you were there on the day, or you are here now, or a delightful combination of the two. Feel free to propose a toast to yourself, from us, next time you happen to be near a drink.

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Pro Chicken

This post is about both live chickens and chicken to eat. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s lunch, so thought it best to mention in case this could cause upset.

This weekend we will be serving only free range eggs and chicken. It’s a complicated decision, based mostly on little pieces of paper usually exchanged for goods and services, but we hope that we have made the right choice.

Ever since my family started keeping chickens 10 years ago I have been smitten with these dozy birds, who live a complicated and very social life and will, occasionally, produce an egg. I have always regarded them as pets rather than farm animals, and one doesn’t ask a dog to make breakfast, so the occasional egg is reward enough. I’m not entirely sure my parents agree with this, as over the years they have had to give up large chunks of garden to these industrious foragers, but our little flock have also provided an enormous amount of lemon curd.

Suffice to say that by the time I had taught Phoebe to perch on my arm and then go hawking after raisins there was a very good case, in my eyes, against battery chicken. This has largely remained my opinion ever since. It resulted in us eating a lot less chicken, mostly because we can only afford the occasional whole free range bird, and made us want to run the business in the same way.

We went to the wholesaler yesterday to get the chicken for this weekend and asked about free range. They gave us a look as if I had asked them about honey glazed babies or whether they stocked fresh kittens. In the catering industry, you see, free range is simply not a sensible financial choice. The general feeling is that you wouldn’t want to pay more for something that is, essentially, exactly the same product but with a slightly clearer conscience. In my opinion it depends on how you view chicken, as free range is reared more slowly, so usually larger. The meat is not pumped full of water afterwards, and therefore doesn’t shrink during cooking. Due to the additional exercise and more varied diet you will also end up with far more flavoursome food, quite apart from the clearer conscience. That is what we were looking for, so we pottered over to Tesco and bought it there instead, having found some that just about means we can still make our money back if we sell most of it.

I appreciate that vegetarians will still be at odds with us over the chicken business; that switching from battery to free range makes little difference to vegans, and that for many folks out there chicken represents a nice cheap Sunday lunch and there is no cost-effective way to avoid that. So my line on this is that we are not being pompous, not preaching and pretending to be more food-holy than thou. We are simply trying to do our bit, however small, so that Phoebe’s descendants might one day get a chance to see the sun and taste raisins, and pepper seeds, and worms.

This is a subject close to my heart, but I appreciate it is fairly controversial. If you would like to take up the discussion then please leave a comment, it would be great to hear from you.

Other than that I expect this is the last post I will have time for before the Leamington Food Festival this weekend, so I hope to see you there! Give us a nudge on twitter @jabberwockyfood with the hashtag #leamfoodfest to let us know what you think, as we will hopefully be tweeting throughout. Also if you don’t have the faintest idea what any of that last sentence meant, please rest assured that it will have no effect what so ever on the remainder of you day.

We could also use some sunshine, if anyone has any.

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Keeping up Appearances

Today, only 4 days away from the great Leamington Food festival, we have been engaged in cooking and creation. Not creation on the great-circle-of-life scale or creation for which we can take any credit, but it happened here, at Jabberwocky HQ, and that is what makes it important.

For some weeks now we have had a large blackboard sitting in the hallway, devouring light and getting in the way of the shoes. It is destined for the van, like so many other things in our lives these days, and will hold the menu and prices for our food offerings. The reason for its size was something we had been keen on right from the start: The need for delicious signage. Food vans come in all shapes and sizes, most are independently owned and run on a very small budget, and this makes it incredibly important, in my opinion, that your offering looks professional.

From what I have observed people make the food decision based on a few key factors: Appearance at a distance, appearance close-up, and the menu. I imagine there is also the possibility that they are a Jabberwocky Enthusiast or hugely attracted to the colour green, but the average punter, it is safe to assume, probably hasn’t heard of us yet. At a distance we are hoping that the Jabberwocky flag, now successfully no longer a failure, will tempt customers in our direction. The next step is probably the most important: the conversion of someone standing 10 feet away having a look into someone 2 feet away wanting to buy.

I have seen a variety of approaches here. Shouting is a favourite of market traders the world over, essentially engaging your 10foot customer in conversation so that they feel politely compelled to step forward. I’m not a fan of this, but clearly it works. There is also the practise of hiding your prices slightly under the canopy of the van, so that the angle only works from close up. Then there are the stalls who possibly didn’t think the whole thing through, with one tiny A4 sign and 7 keen members of staff staring at everyone nearby, willing them to come into range.

Instead we were able to call on the services of our very artistic friend the American, who brought both herself and her bump over and created wonderful things on our giant blackboard. Fuelled by tea and Haribo we watched as the American did wonderful things to the board and wondered if we could now ever change the menu, as it might mean losing this blackboard beautification.

At any rate we have hopefully closed the gap between the 10foot and 2foot customers by providing something visible at both distances and that will enable our menu to do the shouting for us. Not only does this make us look nicely professional, it also means we won’t end the day sounding like Louis Armstrong after an asthma attack.

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Green Credentials

When we first brought the van into our lives we spent many happy hours sifting through the remains of the business that had gone before us and rearranging our house to accommodate all of our new possessions. Mostly, our new possessions were cups. These cups were chunky, Styrofoam creatures; the kind that you always inadvertently find yourself chewing, or crushing, or crumbling into tiny plastic dots which will then haunt you for weeks. It was at this stage that we originally discussed what kind of container we should serve food from, even though back then there wasn’t a clear idea of what the food should be.
With a food van, the first thing anyone is likely to see is the containers you are serving from, and they will judge your business accordingly. Plastic cups didn’t feel right; they didn’t suit the rustic style, and the part of me that compulsively drives like an octogenarian (slowly, I mean, not harbouring-a-manic-desire-to-take-as-many-innocent-souls-with-me-as-possible) pointed out that these cups take thousands of years to biodegrade.
I wanted something that wouldn’t leave quite such an impact on the environment, even if it cost a little more, and preferably something that made our food look tasty and delicious. This, unsurprisingly, narrows it down significantly if you’re planning on selling food for anything less than a few choice body parts, and made us consider the following: Nice packaging will make your food look better, and people will be willing to pay more. Is it a good idea to pack up your food in something fundamentally wasteful just so that you can get away with asking for more money, when the product would be the same as if it was served on a plate?
Here’s my problem: Last year I was in town with some friends during the Leamington Christmas market. We came across a stall selling miniature cupcakes, and discovered we needed some. Bearing in mind that these cakes were no more than a quarter the size of a regular cupcake we happily handed over £6 for three of these things, and were given the cakes, in a plastic tub, in a lovely little brown paper bag tied with raffia. We promptly removed the cakes, ate them at the stall, and put the bag, box and raffia in the bin. This total usage life of the packaging was less than 3 minutes, and the tub, at least, will hang around on this planet for hundreds of years.
Times will change; attitudes towards waste and recycling will change, although I don’t see the trend heading towards additional packaging. Barny and I decided, eventually, to use minimal packaging; hopefully the food will speak for itself. We found a supplier (this one here) who makes all sorts of boxes out of bagasse, a waste product from growing sugarcane. It’s compostable and, if not beautiful, it’s about as close to rustic as paper cartons can get. Perhaps people will observe our green credentials and by our product because of them, but if not at least we won’t be making the landfill cry.

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