Cafe East: I play a brotherly role, as well as a boss”

In the first of a week-long series, figures from music, art, food, sex work and education look back on a year that shook their fields. Here, Cafe East’s Mustafa Has reflects on Covid-19 a year on.

To be honest, the last 12 months have been hard.

At Cafe East, we had finally established ourselves as a business. We had built a demand, a good team and it was starting to get comfortable. Then the pandemic happened.

Ever since, there’s been a lot of pressure on me to make the decisions. Questions like: If we open it, is it worth it? How much do I make as an individual? How do I keep the team going? I now get paid the same salary as the other staff, which I don’t have a problem with, but after three to four years of work, we should have been starting to receive our reward.

Not only do I look after Cafe East but we recently opened a really small shop called Juice Trap in Bethnal Green. It’s a cute little spot that we managed to open with a small business grant, and because it’s essentials” we’ve managed to stay open over there during lockdown. It’s helped us stay afloat.

Juice Trap was basically born in the pandemic but it was the refurbishment of a classic family business that we had for a long time. We’re doing a few different things there like fresh juices, craft beers, natural wines and speciality coffee. It was scary at first because it was really quiet and no one was really around, but now people are coming out of the woodworks slowly and it’s starting to show itself.

This whole year has made me appreciate the smaller things and family. I’ve been working on myself during this time: going home, exercising and trying to keep positive because it has been difficult.

I recently had a baby and she’s already 18 months. Back in March of last year when we actually closed Cafe East for a couple of months and nobody really knew the severity of the pandemic, my family and I really enjoyed that downtime together. But ever since the second lockdown we’ve been working longer hours.

We get in at 7am, start serving at 9am and end the day at 5pm – but I don’t tend to get home until nearly 9pm most nights. There is a lot of weight on my shoulders because I work closely with a lot of my family members. My role is to make sure that my staff are all looked after and that we have enough work to keep every going. I play a brotherly role, as well as a boss. A friend to everybody, as well as a father.

With Cafe East, we’re just looking forward to getting back because it was fun and games in the beginning, but now it’s a bit boring. I mean, no one wants to just be working in the kitchen 24/​7. We are grateful that we still have that demand, even on a takeaway basis and now we have people stopping by and eating in their cars.

In summer last year we implemented a Deliveroo platform which covers about two miles around the East London area. It’s been a great experience to have that perspective and it really opened our eyes to another stream of revenue. It was something that people always encouraged us to do, but surprisingly we just never did because we were too busy.

Even today, we’re still playing catch up which is draining and this time has had a huge impact on us, financially. We’re constantly trying to fill the demand and make sure that people are still enjoying the food. When you’re packaging little things like fried eggs and tomatoes, that can easily look crap! We’ve always been about presentation and after a while, you just want your routine back. I also miss the plates, because boxes are dead!

We don’t have any outdoor seating, so it’s looking like we’ll open up in May with restricted seating as far as I understand. When things get back to normal” I’m looking forward to seeing our customers again. We miss them and we miss the vibe. It’s that energy in the cafe that makes the day go quickly because they are so fun to be around. People go out of their way to come here and they’re not here purely for the food.

We’ve got a vision further down the line to relocate, but want to keep it east. We want to keep that cosy and intimate feel we’re known for.

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