“Saoirse, this isn’t our house. Get your stuff off the couch.”
“Ula, this isn’t our house. No eating or drinking in the kitchen. Take it outside.”
“Mom, this isn’t our kitchen. If you have to touch the food, wear gloves.”
We own the cafe, but only because our name is on the deed. Already we can see the front of the house transforming into a community-owned space: neighbors greet each other and push their tables together; church members distribute flyers for West Fulton Old Home day; farmers drop in to see if they can find someone to butcher their hogs; and the butchers are easily found, drinking down mocha lattes. Bikers clomp through, decked out in leather and studs, hunting down the bathroom and throwing back espresso shots. One grabs a pound of grassfed burger and tosses it in his saddle bag. Bicyclists are rolling through, pausing for iced coffees before they get back on the road. Hikers are wandering in from the trail just up the street, refueling after a morning in the woods or on the waterfalls. Weekenders are meeting farmers. Part timers are hanging out with locals. Projects are getting planned. Stories are getting swapped.
And as I watch this, I am riding high. A Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture and community development never prepared me for just how much fun this could be. This is more than we envisioned. I see that our town was thirstier for a public space than we realized, and it is a thrill to slake that thirst for connection.
But then…there’s my family. Kate runs over between hauling buckets and watering pigs to jump in and wash dishes during the lunch rush. Other than that, on Saturdays while Bob is at the market, it is Mom, Saoirse, Ula and me.
And while we are very experienced about running a family home,we are seriously lacking experience in hospitality. The casual messes, the fingers in the food, the bickering and teasing, the drips and slops as portions spill over the edges of bowls and cups are all intolerable here. And I’ve gone from being a casual laid-back mom at home to a cafe Nazi. I am demanding professionalism from my daughters.
And to the girls’ credit, they’re really trying. We put great music on, and guest conversation hums, but then, well, Saoirse’s and Ula’s kid streaks break out. Ula shrieks after Saoirse pinches her, and the buzz of conversation that filled the cafe falls silent. I take them by the shoulders and point to the back door. “Out to the garage,” I hiss at them. Since there is a stair landing that leads out to the back garage, and since I have to send them out there at least three times a day, the girls have renamed it “the balcony.” It sounds better.
They retreat to the balcony, but not before Saoirse tosses her head, which is now taller than my own, looks down at me with an arched eyebrow and says, “I quit.”
Five minutes later, they’re back. The hum of conversation has returned to the front of the house. Ula is serving a latte. Saoirse is bringing out an Americano. Ula goes to one table. Saoirse goes to another, then realizes it’s the wrong table. She turns and heads back, still carrying the hot drink. My daughters collide.
And the shrieks begin again. Customers stop and stare while Saoirse sputters and spews. “SHE….RAN…IN….TO….ME!!!”
“MOMMMY!!! She dumped hot coffee all over me!” Ula has coffee dripping down the side of her face, running down the front of her t-shirt.
“To the balcony,” I announce, again.
A few minutes later, Katharine, Ula’s best friend from up the street, comes in with her dad. “Can I play with Ula today?” Her eyes are bright and hopeful. I send her to the balcony, too.
And then, it gets busy. Suddenly, everyone wants lunch, and my girls have been confined to the balcony. Kate works madly at the dishes. Mom assesses the situation and calls the girls back in. “Saoirse! We need you pulling drinks!” On her way back in, she gets sidetracked. I’ve just made fresh ganache for the mochas and poured it into a squeeze bottle. “Are you finished with that pot?” She asks, reaching in with a finger to swipe the chocolate.
“We’re not at home! No eating or drinking in the kitchen!” I bark again. And then, I add, “the sticky buns are done, they need to be taken out of the oven and turned out of the pan!” I run to the fridge to find the salad fixings, then start putting together some steak salads. Katharine and Ula spill in from the balcony. “Mom!” The brightness has returned to Ula’s eyes. “Can Katharine and I wait tables?”
Her nine year old friend is bobbing up and down in her little shoes with excitement. The plates are piling up. Mom is at the register. I’m desperate. How hard could it be, finding out what people need and bringing it to them? They play the game at home. Why not let them play it here? “Go for it.”
Unleashed onto the floor, they are like swarming bees, all chaos and no sense of direction, scurrying with joy from table to table. One table gets a napkin. Another table of four gets one glass of water. The girls dig around in their coloring bags and find crayons and notebooks. They start writing orders down and bring them to me. I have to decipher the kid spelling. Then another table, after a reminder, gets a spoon. Someone else gets a coffee. They didn’t order it. They pass it around until the rightful owner is found. Outside on the patio, a group of people I don’t recognize shows up. Ula offers them a napkin. Katharine brings a spoon. There is no order here, only mayhem, and I see the confusion on the newcomers’ faces. I leave my hidden post in the kitchen and walk out front. I take the newcomers’ orders and try to restore some calm. Katharine and Ula have suddenly decided that, no matter what, everyone sitting needs a straw. As I turn to head back to the kitchen, I see the alarm on my guests’ faces once more. They don’t see this as an innocent swarm of bees who’ve grown too robust for their old hive. They’re seeing a hornets’ nest.
That’s when I get a glimpse of who we are. Yes, this is a community space. But we are all a family, and this community is our home. And if guests are going to step into our cafe, they are stepping into a little bit of family life. We can learn not to touch the food with our fingers. We can try to keep our feet off the coffee table. We can practice not eating or drinking in the kitchen. I can do my best to train the girls not to have outbursts in front of the customers. But we are still a big, happy, loud, emotional and messy family. And I’m not going to apologize for that. I swirl around and throw my arms open wide as I bend one knee and extend the other leg out in a courtly bow. “Welcome to the Sap Bush Cafe!” I let my voice carry over the chatter of Katharine and Ula. All the tables fall silent. “Your servers today are both nine. Your barista is twelve. The food is great, the coffee is wonderful….and we absolutely guarantee a novel dining experience!”
Laughter breaks out across the table, then across the cafe. We’ve said what we are. Heck. Maybe we’ve even just branded ourselves. And in that branding, I feel the acceptance. Come for the food. Come for the family. Come for the joy. Don’t come for efficient service.
I leave Katharine and Ula to handle the front of the house and walk back into the ktichen to prepare more orders. Saoirse is at the bar, stirring up a mocha with the fresh ganache. Mom is gone. Kate is gone. I draw my breath in, trying to swallow my annoyance. No sooner do I manage to get the children organized, than the adults disappear. Suddenly, the door to the balcony opens. Kate and Mom spill in, carrying the ganache bowl and the sticky bun pan, their faces and fingers gummed with caramel and chocolate.
I breathe in. I breathe out. At least they weren’t eating or drinking in the kitchen.