Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Clipper Cafe

By some quirk of fate, their new found celebrity status (courtesy of this piece, of course) ensured that they were made an offer for the cafe, so they have sold the lease as they have long been looking for something bigger. But they hope to be open, in bigger and better surroundings, in a month or two.

The Clipper café in Falmouth must be one of the smallest ever cafes, with only three tables. Four years ago, Bonny Laycock and Dave Johnson left London and took it on, and despite having no formal catering training, they have developed it into a highly successful and business. Their home made food, local ingredients and competitive prices appeal to students, lecturers, artists, musicians, families with young children, pensioners, dog lovers, regulars and tourists alike.

They also provide a takeaway service, cater for outside events on request, and now they have a wine and beer licence, and open three evenings a week for dinner. So what is their secret?

“Our policy is never to say no to anybody,” says Bonny. “We like to keep our prices down and be competitive. We could make more money but this way we get the customers we want. Food doesn’t have to be expensive.”

She’s busy preparing a chorizo sandwich with roasted vegetables – one of their specialities – in the café which is situated in Well Lane, a side street just off Church Street.

The cafe is friendly and inviting, with pictures by Bonny’s sister, students from University College Falmouth and posters from a friend’s exhibition adorning the walls. A vase of fresh tulips stands on each table, and in the corner of the room is a selection of newspapers, local magazines and flyers from local customers.

In the kitchen out the back, Dave cooks food and washes up while one of their helpers takes orders and delivers sandwiches to the many businesses that ring up requesting takeaways.

Both 35, Bonny and Dave met when Dave was at the University of North London. They had always dreamed of having their own business, but it was only when Bonny was made redundant that their dream became a possibility.

Neither of them had ever worked in the catering business: Bonny worked as a TV producer for an advertising agency, and Dave designed the intranet site for the Department of Works & Pensions, but they decided to use this time to their advantage.

“This was an opportunity and we made it happen,” Bonny says. “We both got jobs in delis in London to get a feel for dealing with the public and how it all comes together.

“We wanted to move to Cornwall and were looking all over the county, when this café came up, and it was in our price range. It was a bit of a risk but it was a manageable size for us to get our foot on the ladder: we didn’t want to gamble too much. We both really liked Falmouth. It had atmosphere and energy.”

The phone rings and Bonny takes another order, asks Dave to put some more baguettes in the oven. “I’ve always been interested in food as an amateur – on a greedy level,” she says cheerfully. “I love going into food shops; they have amazing smells and a wonderful atmosphere.”

At the Clipper, everything is sourced locally, where possible, or home made by Bonny. “We stuck to basics for the menu and introduced a few things we like such as roasted vegetables and houmous, which are versatile and a bit more interesting,” she says. “If things don’t work then we change them.”

Among the most popular dishes are chorizo and roasted vegetable sandwiches, risotto, fresh fruit salad, jacket potatoes, home made burgers with onion marmalade, fry ups and Bonny’s soups and cakes.

It’s a far cry from their days of working in London. “It’s pretty long hours,” Bonny says. “Half a week it’s a 12 hour day and the other half, when we’re open in the evenings, it’s 15 hours, six days a week, but we do both have a day off in the week. But we’ve created this and people seem to enjoy coming here and they come back. That’s a great confidence booster and a real thrill. People are coming to have a nice time so that helps create a good atmosphere. Also, it’s our own business and it’s great to make our own decisions, to try things and be more creative.”

Their long days mean that they have very little time off, and very little social life. “Only on Sundays,” says Bonny with a smile. “I like to catch up at home whereas Dave plays golf, yoga and squash and is interested in digital photography. But we do go away sometimes, and we had ten days off at Christmas. That’s another nice thing about having your own business – you can decide when to close.”

But their long working days didn’t deter them from opening in the evenings. “We thought we’d try evenings and give it a go,” she says. “We open Thursdays to Saturdays, bookings only. It works best if there are groups who take the place over as their own private dining room.”

This couple’s gamble has paid off, and they have plans for the future. “We’d like somewhere bigger,” says Bonny. “We’d continue with the daytime and develop it a bit. That would mean employing more staff, but this place is very small and I hate to see people going somewhere else because it’s full.”

They live in Falmouth at the moment, but would like to buy somewhere at some point. “I’d love to live somewhere in the countryside, like Constantine,” says Bonny. “If the right business came up, we might well move.”

Although Bonny and Dave weren’t unhappy living in London, they have embraced their new way of life. “What I love about Cornwall is that it’s so beautiful and the wildlife is just wonderful,” says Bonny. “Moving to a small town is a complete culture shock after the anonymity of London. I was wary of people at first, but now I really love it. People say hello and are much more friendly. When you come back after being away, it really feels like coming home. Cornwall is definitely the place to be.”

Cornwall Today, May 2008

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