Back in February 2020 I was excitedly making plans for the one year Anniversary of opening Tutu’s Ethiopian Table at Palmer Park. So many people had helped me and been alongside me, but wow! I had worked full out to build up this place of my dreams! I had taken huge financial risks, and with no relatives or family here who could bail me out, I had had to work both day and night to make sure I stayed afloat. It wasn’t unusual to find me up at 4am sorting through accounts, or making shopping lists, or trying to work out a way to support certain people through the cafe. My meat and veg suppliers will tell you: I once made a mistake and left an order for meat with the veg man, and for veg with the meat man, all because I was working in the middle of the night!
My dream had always been that this cafe would be more than just a business, more even than “just” a community hub. It was to be a centre where people could come and feel welcomed and known and loved, a centre where people could meet friends, or work alone on a laptop (but not alone), a centre that people could use as a base for their clubs or interests, where creativity could be nurtured, or at least experimented with, where anyone, and everyone, old, young, any background, could feel at home and comfortable and happy.
In the first year some of this had begun to fall into place. We had a weekly running group, coffee morning groups, an art group for young adults with mental health needs, we had musicians who’d come and play the piano, or jam together for fun, we’d had poetry nights, date nights, alcoholic support groups, birthday parties, and so much more!
As the date for the anniversary party approached the first serious mutterings were happening about “Coronavirus” “Lockdowns” and the like. We celebrated anyway: happily, and in Tutu style, on 8th March, still unaware of what was about to hit.
And then within days: slam! The rug was pulled from under my feet. The government announcement: “all hospitality to close until further notice.”
I know those days in late March were traumatic for many of you for different reasons. Fear of an unknown virus, sudden no-choice-loneliness, cut off from family and friends. Some of you facing frightening illness, and even losing those you loved, as coronavirus swept around not caring about any of us.
For me, the announcement that I would have to close the café, was a devastating shock. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. For a few dramatic hours, friends rallied round and helped me shift the food I had stored, and shut up the café safely, not knowing when I would be back. I had no idea of how the rest of the year would pan out. I know many of you only see the smiling side of Tutu, but, I’m sure you will realise that I’m as human as anyone! Once home, the shock hit me hard, a panic attack followed, my heart and my head hurt. It really felt as bad as when someone dies. What would happen to me and my beautiful children, with no money, and bills still to pay, and what about my staff who depended on me for their income. Then there was rent to pay for the Café, and all the outgoings still needed too. Had our future been ripped up? And was my dream of the café all in vain? Was that the end of it all, after all this work?
I’m so grateful to those of you who kept in touch at that point, for your Facebook messages, and phone calls, even gifts through the letterbox. Thankfully my children and I stayed healthy, and before long, with your love and support, I was able to lift my head and re-emerge. My business was shut for a while, but Tutu, and my café, are more than just a business that could be shut by a virus!
Week 1 of Lockdown, still in shock at all that was happening, l spotted a request on Facebook for volunteers to help to cook meals for children who were going hungry in South Reading. Children going hungry in Reading? My family in Ethiopia would be shocked to know this was happening in 21st century England! But the need was real and urgent. I contacted the group (Whitley Community Development Association) and they soon had me roped in to help! Once a week I went and cooked hot meals for between 50 and 70 children. For the first couple of weeks, my own children, still students at university, put in their own money to help me fund it. Then word got out, and before long some of my café customers were stepping in too, and helped fund the cooking. Over 900 meals in total, it was hard work, but: oh what therapy! Helping others instead of focusing on my own crisis was the best thing I could have done to stop me from sinking under my own fears and problems.
But what about my Palmer Park café family? I was really aware of so many in the local community who had had the café taken away from them. I remembered some of my customers who used to come in saying that my café was the reason for them to get up and start their day: folks who could otherwise be alone, but found the welcome of the café was what they needed to boost their day. How would they cope without us there? And others who had found that our “everyone’s welcome” approach helped them to start something new: the musicians, the runners, the support groups. I don’t think Boris had a clue that closing “hospitality” would have such a drastic impact on people like us.
My mission was now to re-invent, to re-think, to re-open the cafe. To keep changing my business model. To make the most of every opportunity, and most of all to fight to keep the heart and soul of my café alive, not just the books balanced. And so: coffee mornings went online, linking the community from their own homes by zoom. Take-away coffees became an immediate hit with anyone passing by in the park for exercise – served with a cheery word to boost their day. Take-away meals were also a hit, my regular customers, bored of baking their own Lockdown banana bread at home, were craving their Injera and Misr Wot. Now they could pre-order online, and collect their Ethiopian food ready to be heated at home. I was soon serving more customers each day than I had been before Lockdown! And at least I could have a brief chat with each one as they collected their food. When Covid-rules changed again, I decided to stick with outdoor tables only – bringing customers back inside seemed too great a risk, plus I couldn’t afford to employ as many staff any more with so many uncertainties. With constant help from the lovely Kati, and from my children and occasionally from friends, we kept the customers happy with hot drinks, fresh food, and blankets and windbreakers, and lots of fun and laughter. The coffee morning socials that had gone on zoom during Lockdown –could meet again in person. The runners could re start, and meetings and support groups begin again. All these have been affected by the varying Covid-rules, and may never be the same as before, but they still come back, re-invent themselves, and really are such an important part of my café life. Even more, extra brand new groups have started to form. Groups of friends meeting up each week to support one another through the dark days of Covid.
For me, this is what I love about my Café: it’s so much more than “just” a café! And there’s always something new to do and to learn, and new people to draw in. It works best when we look up and look outward, not just at our own internal crises. Even finances are healthier if we look outward and don’t just hoard to protect ourselves. The need to pay my rent and bills and wages were all heavy burdens that nearly squashed me this year. But looking back I’m so thankful to say, that not only was I able to keep solvent, but with your help, I was able to carry on with funding my charity, Tutu’s Fund for the Future: providing education for children in Ethiopia, who otherwise would have nothing.
Recently I found myself on a zoom call with the UK Ambassador of Ethiopia, and various Ethiopian restaurant owners from around the UK. There was a lot of discussion about how to make their businesses grow. How I wish I could put the heart and soul of my wonderful Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in a bottle and pass it on to help them! I’m so grateful to have you all behind me turning the challenges into opportunities and helping me to lift up my head and press on despite everything!
Like so many of you, I am so very thankfully never to have been ill with the virus myself. I have nevertheless, at times, been hit hard. Thankfully I have not lost loved ones, but I have cried. I have been angry. I have been frustrated. I’ve been in despair. But, by God’s grace, I have not given up, and nor have my wonderful community family! Your love and community spirit have seen me through. In so many ways we are stronger now than at the beginning of the year! The heart and soul of Tutu’s Ethiopian Table have not been crushed. I would even dare to say it has flourished! My café dream is stronger than ever. And I know more than ever how important it is that I continue to provide a centre where we can support and encourage one another and share a dose of love and laughter. Where we can reach out to help one another in good times and bad. Whoever we are, we all need one another more than ever before. Community, support and friendship are even more important than jobs and bank balance. A longer time of Lockdown may still be ahead, but I know with you all beside me, we can all can keep going. Thank you. I appreciate every single one of you! Thank you for your loyal custom, for sharing your joys and sadness with me, thank you most of all for believing in my dream. Even through trials, dreams really can come true. Love to you all, and here’s to 2021, whatever it brings!