Verity Johnson is a writer, speaker, Weetbix addict, Leo, and part time hypochondriac.

Verity Johnson: The 'cafe dream'

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Why own a cafe? Verity Johnson explains. Photo / iStock
Why own a cafe? Verity Johnson explains. Photo / iStock

My first waitressing job lasted one day and ended messily. Literally. I spat sushi on a customer.

I was 14 years old and providing free labour at a family friend's event. In the process of shuttling around platters of grease, I decided to nibble a few rice things with avocado topping.

Ten seconds later I realised that I had not eaten avocado but a bite-sized
Krakatoa. So I belched fire (and wasabi) over a customer. And never returned to waitressing.

You'd think that would be enough to put me off waitressing for life. Dad hoped so anyway. Having grown up in his family's restaurant, and then spent 20 years in the restaurant trade, he was not very sympathetic towards any rhapsodising over working in a cafe.

"Oh, but it would be so fun!" I'd say, looking at a bustling kitchen.

"The money is bad, the hours are worse, and the customers treat you like you've recently sneezed on them. Which, in your case, Verity, you probably have." Dad would say, not looking up from his coffee. "You'd be mad to do it."

Despite Dad maintaining this optimism for over a decade, I still wrote "work in hospitality somehow" on my new year's resolutions list. But my fascination with the industry went deeper than wanting to be a bar-girl. I just can't shake a deep admiration for these people, especially those who start their own cafe.

When I lived in Melbourne, breeding cafes was a popular pastime. (What's your cafe? Oh, it's an Ikea-quinoa cross.) But Auckland is clearly spurred on by brotherly rivalry, because it's simply bursting with cafes. There are about three to every square metre. They're in warehouses, old factories, skips, service stations, dairies, ice cubes, rubber ducks and your ex-boyfriend's old Corolla. Everyone has a cafe. And if you don't have a cafe, you want your own cafe.

The question is: why?

Dad was right. When you start a cafe it's expensive, makes no money, needs you to start at 6am, work seven days a week, deal with the great, grumpy, unwashed masses. You provide wi-fi, gluten-free alternatives and free pandas. The success rate is low, the pressure is high and you're competing against 30,000 other people's smashed avo on toast. You don't even make that much money when you sell. And, to top it off, your customers will nick everything they can. (Every time I order tea in a cafe Dad glowers at the pot. "Teapots," Dad scowls, "they always nick the teapots.")

So you wouldn't do it for the money. You wouldn't do it for the lifestyle. And you certainly wouldn't do it for the job security and career progression.

So why do you do it? You do it because it's yours. It's the physical proof that you created a legacy - you can point to it and say, "That's mine." And it's not just any legacy but a highly personal one. After all, you are the one who puts in all the work. The business becomes a manifestation of your energy and your vision. It becomes an extension of you.

So people start cafes knowing it will be painful and difficult. But they weigh this up against the chance to create their own business. And they decide that it's worth it anyway.

Isn't that wonderfully romantic? It is well established that artists have always shunned an easy life so they can follow their passions. Now cafe owners are doing the same thing. Only unlike "being a writer", which most people take as a euphemism for "being a bum", being a cafe owner is seen as a legitimate career path. Middle-class people approve. It's a middle-class dream to have your own dinky little, sun-drenched space with exposed beams and some artfully placed mint.

When the "owning your own cafe" dream became acceptable, that meant following your passion became more accessible. Cafe owners became the new symbols of people who dedicated their lives to their passions. They normalised the idea that, "hey, it's ok to go and do something demanding, difficult and with limited reliable future tax options".

So that's why I love them. They're the new romantic rebels. And they have
milkshakes.

- Canvas

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Verity Johnson is a writer, speaker, Weetbix addict, Leo, and part time hypochondriac.

Verity Johnson is a writer, speaker, Weetbix addict, Leo, and part time hypochondriac. When she's not Googling diseases she's performing comedy, writing bad jokes and nursing a failed career as an RnB singer. You can find her at verityjohnson.com or bulk buying cereal in Pak n Save.

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