Prof’s@Woodlands’ Kate and Allan Wilson have handed over the cafe reins to new owner Angela Crawshay. Kate looks back.
Over half a decade has passed since Allan and I abandoned our respective careers in electronics design and intellectual property to embark on our hospitality adventure and bought the New Woodlands Café.
We thought that we were ready for the challenge. Avid foodies with years of dining out and experimenting with culinary techniques at home (our science backgrounds come through), we brushed up on hospitality by taking a variety of courses.
We were not ready. Hospitality is like childbirth. You must live it to appreciate what it is truly about.
The Woodlands Estate is a wonderful venue to have a café – with an historic house, stunning grounds, a cricket oval adjacent the café for families and workmates to play on, and a relaxed vibe with indoor/outdoor flow. As a hospitality venue, you can host hundreds of patrons.
It was also a far greater challenge to tackle than a ‘normal’ café/restaurant.
A destination café, it did not have regular foot traffic like in town or the suburbs. Customers need to make an effort to come to the café, rather than stumble upon us while shopping. The distance also made it harder to open at night with more restrictive drinking laws and no readily available public transport.
While known to the local community (of which we were not part), the cafe had little reputation further afield.
Further, there were few systems in place and new legislation came into force the day we took over requiring new food control and health and safety plans.
The outdoor space is huge – which leads to staff taking many more steps to service and difficulties in monitoring customer needs. The size was also of concern to the Council, and we had to fight hard to get a liquor licence that covered the whole of the Cricket Oval as well as the café.
All of this was not clearly apparent when on a wave of naïve optimism, we were eagerly preparing for our first Sunday – traditionally a busy day. We turned up bright and early, to find that we had been burgled! Not the money, alcohol, or high-end foods. Just breakfast – bacon, eggs, bread, milk, and all the other ingredients needed to operate a café on a busy Sunday. This was when we discovered the lack of working cameras…
So, while Allan did an emergency ingredient shop, I was diverted to dealing with the police, insurance, concerned staff and confused customers.
There was a silver lining though.
The next day, I met the lovely Annette Taylor who provided a sympathetic ear and a far-reaching article on our predicament. That, along with a FaceBook post I made led to the local community rallying around us – effectively putting the new owners on the map!
Re-branding to Prof’s@Woodlands, we worked hard to –
- increase promotional activity
- make the cafe more family friendly by bringing in books, toys and colouring-in pages
- enter competitions, gaining Matariki runner-up, Outstanding Food Producer for our chilli jam and even Australasian finalist for Allan’s kitchen grill cleaner
- became fully compliant with all regulations
- remodel the interior of the café, putting in a bar, new dishwasher and beer lines
- establish ourselves as being attuned to dietary requirements, even including installing a dedicated gluten-free deep fryer
- install and improve in-house digital systems, including security – lhich was useful the second time we got burgled
- learn what constraints we had so we did not overcommit.
- establish a sound collaborative relationship with the Woodlands Trust, with me eventually becoming Chair. My heartfelt thanks goes to Kirstie Alley the Estate manager for her patience, expertise, and friendship
- bring in Quiz Nights, and catering for special events such as St Valentine’s & Pioneer Fundays
- open for night events for corporate gatherings – always a fun buzzy time
- establish a beautiful, edible flower garden which we used on our dishes – until Council re-planted the garden (I still miss it)
Our efforts resulted in doubling turnover in the first 18 months.
Another potential disaster had a silver lining. We had not appreciated how big Mother’s Day was in hospitality until the first one hit. On the morning of that day, we found that our only two baristas were unable to work for us. This led to Allan and Simone Deverson (both of whom had just completed a half day barista course) pitching in together to make hundreds of coffees. A sterling effort to be sure. It also taught us to train all our front of house staff on the coffee machine!
A later shortage of chefs led to Allan and I becoming proficient in the commercial kitchen. So different to our pottering in a home kitchen and a great life skill going forward.
We have been incredibly fortunate to have had both our children share in this journey. Benjamin who took on the immense responsibility of head chef at age 19 and contributed our most popular dishes of the Portobello Stack and Super Salad. And Rebecca, who worked her way up to become café manager from being a dishie with us while at university. We are so grateful for their contributions and that while relationships can be tested in any family business, we have emerged intact as a family unit.
We have also been fortunate to have had a great team overall to work with. Too many to mention, but we have enjoyed not only the friendships, but watching them blossom in what can be a challenging field.
Likewise, our customers have largely been a joy and many relationships have been forged on the journey.
A downside to selling Prof’s will be missing the regular interactions with both our team and our customers.
Looking back, we have learnt a lot – far outside the comfort zone of our previous careers. There have been dramatic peaks and troughs, stresses and joys. However, we are proud of what we have built. But, the timing is right for us to move onto new ventures. I am expanding my professional career in intellectual property strategy. Allan is being mysterious about his plans. Both of us however feel more rounded and freer to do whatever we want.
Looking forward, we are pleased to have sold our business to Angela Crawshay, our current café manager who knows the business and the Community, being a well connected local. Ange has also dreamed of owning the café at Woodlands for some time and we know that she will do well.
Thank you everyone for being part of our journey.