I started out with some pretty grand ideas.
My place was going to be the next big thing in cafes, the benchmark for how a hospo business would be run for decades to come. They’ll build statues in my honour, and my birthday would become a national holiday, such would be the impact my cafe would make!
Okay, I think I got a bit carried away there, but you get the picture.
I’d grown tired of seeing an endless parade of mass-produced ingredients on every plate. For every drop of locally-produced honey there were gallons upon gallons of Capilano. Each scrap of ethically-farmed meat was dwarfed by a mountain of sinisterly uniform slices of Primo. Even vegetables were being flown in from overseas, when we live in a country where it’s too easy to accidentally grow tasty things in your planter box.
Well, no more, I said and I set myself the noble target of spreading my suppliers across every inch of the ethical tapestry. After all, how hard can it be to do the right thing?
Guys, look, it turns out it’s way harder than you think.
Let’s start with something simple, like packaging.
When you’re doing your shopping and walking down the isles of Woolies, or IGA, or even a little corner shop, there’s the regular, cheap option, and then right next to it is the recycled, kinder-to-the-planet option, and you just choose that one because it’s the right thing to do, right?
So, I figured I’d just talk to my packaging guy about which products he had that were environmentally friendly, and I’d go ahead and choose those, just like I do in Woolies when I need napkins. Pretty simple stuff, I couldn’t believe this wasn’t the industry default way of operating.
Then he hit me with the price difference.
And it’s a price difference you can see with the napkins in Woolies. A pack of 100 no-namers costs you 95 cents, but a 50-pack of eco-friendly, recycled bamboo blokes’ll set you back $2.50.
Multiply that kind of difference when you’re buying them by the 1000’s, and it really starts to add up.
Same goes for coffee cups.
You can have the best intentions in the world, but when you’re paying more than double to help you ease your conscience, it kind of doesn’t seem worth it. Sure, you can offset some of the residual guilt of choosing your bottom line over the planet by giving a 50c discount to people who bring their own cup, but deep down, you’ve betrayed yourself.
And then there’s your ingredients.
When I was writing my 1st menu, I wanted to make sure that if I served meat, it would be the most ethical, most sustainable meat that money could buy. I envisioned these animals living a life of hedonism, frolicking in endless pastures and sipping only the finest, crystal-clear waters from their own personal troughs. At the end of each day, they’d retire to a squeaky clean corner of the barn where a team of loving farmers massaged their weary hooves until they drifted off to sleep.
Or something like that, I really don’t know what cows would define as ‘hedonistic’, but you catch my drift.
And I found a place that fit the bill. It was local, it was ethical (I mean, as ethical as killing things can be), and they seemed a match made in heaven.
Until my 1st invoice.
Turns out, all of the extra work that goes into actually treating animals with a modicum of respect can equate to some serious inflation in prices. And the eggs I ordered, whilst assuredly as free-range as an egg can be, were a bit more susceptible to outside factors than the eggs of a hen who’s daily life is sitting in a cage staring at the same thousands of other hens every day until she dies and is turned into hotdog filler.
But I wasn’t going to let a few hundred unpoachable eggs steer me astray.
What did eventually force me to part ways with this particular supplier was how they treated their staff. You can have all of the virtues and factors of a noble business, but if the animals are getting treated with more respect than the humans, I don’t want to give you any more money.
So, I found a dedicated egg supplier (big shout out to the ‘Crazy Egg Lady’), and ditched the fresh meat for cured so that I could pick some up from my cheese people at their deli.
And guys, my cheese people were spectacular.
They were also very local, with amazing products, and a deli that made it feel like Christmas morning every time I went in there. And I could afford it too. They gave a discount to regulars who had an ABN. Finally, buying the better product was financially feasible!
And then they stopped doing the discount.
My cheese costs began to climb which isn’t the best thing when your best-seller is a 3 Cheese Toastie, but I figured it was a cost I could absorb, for a while at least.
“If you’re reading this, Shane, I miss you.”
Next up was my produce, and I had a guy. He was (probably still is) the best. His produce was amazing. Every week we’d marvel at just how huge and healthy everything was, and how he must get it from Jurassic Park or something. Mushrooms as big as your head, asparagus spears as thick as your wrist, avocados as…well…look, avocados don’t adhere to rules of the physical universe, and as such were never truly welcome on my menu. Plus, they don’t really taste like anything and have been over-hyped beyond belief. They’re a stain on the brunch landscape and the sooner we all get over them, the sooner we can all become higher beings. This is a hill I will gladly die on, so please, no arguing.
Where was I? Oh yeah, my produce guy is my hero. And it’s because of this that I had to stop using him.
Hear me out.
You see, he only delivered on 2 of my available days. It was nobody’s fault. He was pretty much a sole-trader, and I was closed on his other delivery day. Anyway, I’d always feel guilty if I had him deliver a really small order, so I’d just save all of my produce ordering for 1 day a week because I figured it would be worth his while, rather than 2 separate smaller ones.
This was dumb.
He was already in the area that day, and he told me as much on numerous occasions. But dammit, I respected him too much to make him do it, so I stuck to 1 delivery per week, and I couldn’t be budged.
But produce goes bad, pretty quickly (especially if your fridges were as bad as mine, shout out to my nemesis, the big fridge out the back). I had to keep up with demand if I was to keep serving the fresh stuff, and this is where my gradual slide begins.
Say I ran out of something crucial, and my produce guy wasn’t delivering for a few days, something like broccoli? I couldn’t make him come all the way to me (read: call in on his way past) just for some broccoli, could I? (I could, he told me I could, it was not a big deal). So, I’d call into the shops to pick up a few kilos and promise myself that it was a one off, and that I’d only buy enough to last me until he delivered again.
And here’s the thing, it was too easy.
Pretty soon, I started buying all of my produce at the supermarket. It was cheaper, and more convenient (okay, that’s debatable). Before long, I’d stopped ordering through my produce guy altogether, and it still breaks my heart to this day. If you’re reading this, Shane, I miss you.
I began to buy more and more supplies at the supermarket too.
They did most of the cheese I used, and perhaps they weren’t as good quality as my cheese place made (they definitely were not), the convenience was too much to handle.
I’d fallen victim to one of the oldest plays in the book, and a play that’s seen the decline of small business and the rise of the corporate juggernaut worldwide. They’d lured me in with their damned convenience, and I bathed in it’s filthy waters until I was giddy with sickness.
How am I going to look my son in the eye when he asks why his favourite pizza place is now a Dominos, or why the local corner shop’s become a 7-11? I’ll tell you how: I won’t. I’ll just drop my chin, and buy up everything they have to offer, like the happy little sellout that I am (shoutout stuffed crust).
Perhaps, but my greater point is that you can start out with the best intentions about where you’re going to source your inventory from, but at the end of the day, the industry just isn’t set up for that kind of plan to be the most profitable. It’s a reality that sucks, and I truly wish that it changes in the future.
But until then, the best we can hope for is that a few of you guys have a stronger resolve than I did. That you’ll figure out a way to make buying the most ethical products, and sustainable ingredients more cost-effective. And that you’ll put your guilt aside, and let wonderful Shane deliver what you need, when you need it. Because let me tell you, once you take that 1st step towards convenience, it’s pretty hard to turn back.