The War of Small Improvements – parasols at Michaelhouse

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 What’s my job? My children say that I’m a cook but, much as I love cooking, I don’t spend much of my working week cooking. I’m not really a café manager either – Dean does a great job of that in Hereford and Cameron in Cambridge. I think my real job is as the General in the never ending War of Small Improvements.

Life tends to disorder and this is certainly true in the world of cafes and restaurants. Ovens break down; people get ill or grumpy; flooring becomes worn; bacon is overcooked (my most recent cooking contribution at All Saints was to overcook two large trays of once-delicious Tudge bacon); signage becomes tatty. Dean and Cameron work hard to keep everything beautiful and delicious and my job is, with them and their teams, to gradually try to make everything a little bit more delicious and little bit more beautiful and to attempt to roll back the process of entropy.

Why do I call it a war? Because it is takes an extraordinary amount of persistent fighting and effort to achieve rather small improvements.

For example, about a year ago one of the trustees of the Michaelhouse Centre (who are our landlords in Cambridge) suggested that we add some parasols to our outside tables on Trinity St. I thought this was a good idea and thought that something as simple as getting 3 parasols ought to be quite quick to get sorted. I’ve had long experience of getting rubbish parasols which don’t survive the battering that café use gives them so I headed straight for Mike Kirkby-Jones at Shademakers  who make really good robust parasols. A few weeks later I arranged to meet Mike in Cambridge and he came up with a proposal of what would work for us. This included not only the parasols themselves but also a magnetic lifter and a trolley so that the staff wouldn’t break their backs taking the incredibly heavy bases in and out.

The next stage was to talk to Cambridge City Council who had given us the original permission to put our tables and chairs outside and who have to give their permission to any change in our arrangements. It then turned out that there had been a local government re-organisation and the responsibility for the control of our seating area had transferred to the County Council. So the bloke who’d be given the job in the county council had to look up our original application and see what he thought. He then asked us (perfectly reasonably) to consult with our neighbours about the proposals. This we did and we confirmed to him that the neighbours were helpful and supportive.

Next the trustees and the centre manager (perfectly reasonably) wanted to see pictures of the proposed parasols and a sample of the proposed colour. Finally everyone was happy and (many months after the original idea came up) we were ready to place the order. After a lead time of about 6 weeks the parasols arrived and are looking great – just in time to be told that Caius College are doing building works over the summer (obviously the key season for outside tables) and that we wouldn’t be able to have our tables and chairs on the pavement for the whole of the summer.

Luckily Caius may have very helpfully found us an excellent temporary space for our tables and their new parasols just around the corner and have said that we can put banners on their scaffolding. So what was looking like a defeat in my never-ending war may be about to turn into a victory!