(5 minute read)
Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the best day at Mr. Bao so far. One of those moments that makes all the crap times worthwhile.
The journey to create our wonderful little restaurant, Mr. Bao began back in 2014. We were cycling around Peckham, speaking to everyone who might have space we could use to sell our steamed buns.
We posted countless flyers through letterboxes asking people if they could rent us space. We met every estate agent in the area and emailed them reminding them that we had a ludicrously small budget to rent a shoebox in Peckham, in case they’d forgotten since we emailed them the day before. We met every retailer in Peckham, asking them if they’d rent us their shop or knew of anyone else who would.
The formula for the day became pretty standard. Go and speak to everyone on Rye Lane one more time. One of the guys who owned one of those enormous butcher’s shops would express an interest in renting us some space, only to suggest a ludicrous figure and expect us to write a cheque.
At the same time, we were buzzing across London developing our recipes with different people in their kitchens. Cycling through the Greenwich pedestrian tunnel carrying a rucksack full of Asian spices and fish sauce became a daily ritual.
Then in early 2015 we finally found an abandoned shoe shop on Rye Lane. There were squatters living in the unit 2 doors down and a little further up our block, the building remained burnt out following the riots of 2011. So, not a prestigious location…. but one that felt right in our hearts.
We’d applied for 2 credit cards with Virgin Atlantic and asked for a fairly hefty credit limits. Somehow, those wonderful people said yes. So, “funding” secured.
We signed the lease for the shoe shop without yet having been granted permission from the council to run it as a restaurant. We presumed, given it was basically a derelict block, that it would be a formality…
We designed the restaurant by drawing the outline of the furniture on the floor in chalk. Blue chalk circles were the chairs. Red chalk showed the tables. Then we’d hover above each of the blue circles and “sit” next to each other checking we had enough room.
We found a friend who lived in Peckham who said he could help us build it and we just started. (Remember, still no permission from the council at this point…). We’d cycle to and from the local Whitten timber yard on a daily basis, ferrying wood back for the structure of the restaurant. The wood strapped to our rucksacks with Duck Tape. Those Zipvans are cheap, but they’re not free…!
Then we received the first rejection from the council. “You cannot use the premises as a restaurant, please send another large stack of documents with evidence for X, Y, and Z.”
This happened several times. Each time we pleaded. Rejection after rejection followed. All of our money was already sunk into the site. We’d already paid for the equipment. So, we carried on building and just tried to ignore the noise.
Months later, a nondescript email came through. Our application had been accepted (sort of) and they’d let us open for 3 days a week. Progress…!
Several days later, riding high on the news from the council, we called our kitchen supplier to confirm he was coming the next day with all of our kit. Fair to say that the guy who delivers and installs the entire kitchen is a fairly major player in the construction of a restaurant… He was happy to hear from us and we exchanged friendly small talk. Then he mentioned that he was in Dubai and sent me a picture message of his 2 cocktails sitting on a table by the pool with the sea in the background.
“Haha,” I said, “good for you. Quick question, What are you doing in Dubai and why aren’t you getting our kitchen ready to be delivered tomorrow?”
“Ah” comes the reply “I’m actually not going to come for a couple of months”
Needless to say, the rest of the call wasn’t smooth. We’d paid him £5,000 and we weren’t going to see much of a return for that.
I went to Rosie’s Cafe opposite our little unit to go and vent (cry) and ended up speaking to Isaac from our local pub, The White Horse. He overheard me pleading with various kitchen suppliers to come and install a kitchen the following day with no luck. He put me in touch with a little saviour who came the following week.
So then we were nearly finished. But we were only allowed to trade for 3 days per week for 4 weeks. We still hadn’t got permission to be a restaurant! We were living pretty hand to mouth at that stage. Working 20 hour days for 3 days per week and spending the rest of the week prepping and continuing to build the restaurant.
The heroes at the local paper, The Peckham Peculiar, and renowned blogger Helen Graves came in on our first day. Nervous times. But great reviews came. “Mr. Bao will be a big deal,” they said, publicly.
Then came the wonderful David Clack at Timeout, Tabitha from Eater.com, Emma from Buzzfeed. Stars and praise all round.
And all of that praise is great, heartwarming, ego-stroking. But it was put into perspective when we’d taken a couple of the senior team members out for lunch to discuss how we could improve our menu. As the meeting drew to a close, our head chef asked if they could share something with us. She said that she’d been through some tough times before joining Mr. Bao. Life had thrown some very difficult things at her and she’d experienced depression and some pretty dark thoughts. Only now she felt like her life was on track again. Her job at Mr. Bao was “the best she’d ever had.” She’d just received news that she had sole custody of her daughter and she was now in a position to buy her first house. Mr. Bao had “changed her life.”
Difficult to explain how good it felt to hear that. Needless to say, the insides felt pretty warm and fuzzy. So now, when we are cleaning the toilet floor after a busy lunch service, we keep thinking back to that moment and remember it’s all worthwhile.
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