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A Shout From The Attic: Café Talk

"Being courteous, considerate, and kind-hearted is not a vice, but a virtue, whether in business or among friends or strangers,'' writes Ronnie Bray, recalling the time when he ran a cafe.

In 1972, I bought Geordie Robson’s place on Colne Road, Huddersfield, and became a café owner. The place needed smartening up some, so I hired Ron Palphreyman to give it a coat of paint, write some menu boards, and write in attractive colours across the big front window, “Ron’s Diner and Butty Parlour.” Geordie Robson had run the café with his wife and washing up help from his father in law, John, who lived a couple of doors away, for several successful years.

For some reason or other, I struggled to match his success. He called in occasionally and commiserated with me, but insisted that I ought to be in more profit than I was. Maybe I was too generous with my portions, I still don’t know. We did a good breakfast, lunch, and morning and afternoon sandwich trade, and I kept my head above water, but I was not making the fortune I had hope I would. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the café society of working men and women, most of good humour and reputation, and a camaraderie developed that was of more worth than silver and gold.

The time came when I had to move on and so I put the café up for sale. By this time, one of our best sources of business, Firth’s mill on Firth Street, closed down, laying off its workforce, many of whom were my customers. My asking price was reflected in the downturn, even though there was still a decent amount of business to be had for a not-too-greedy owner.

A couple who had owned a large transport café on the A1, expressed interest in the business. He was an ex-army company sergeant major whose ability to relate to people was rather less than it ought to be for someone who had been in the people business. Yet, he and his wife were keen to take on the café, so I pocketed my few hundred pounds and gave them the keys.

I don’t know how long they had it, because my paths didn’t take me that way often, but something the new owner said to me when he was looking considering to buy, made me think that he was not going to get very far with the diner. It was his first visit, when he came and bought a cup of coffee to sit and watch how many customers came in and what they bought, and so forth.

A good seventy- percent of the clientele was either Asian of West Indian. Noting this when the café had gone quiet after the lunch frenzy, he remarked, “There ought to be somewhere that caters for these people.”

“There is,” I assured him.

“Where is it?” he asked, looking very surprised.

“Right here!” I enlightened him, hardly concealing my disgust at his attitude.

A few months later, I drove along Colne Road, and passed my old Diner and Butty Parlour. The window was dirty, and the door was shut and locked. The business had folded, and I think I know why.

What had been an excellent little business under Geordie’s management, and somewhat less successful under mine, although it paid its way and afforded some extras, had failed miserable under the sergeant major’s command. When face to face with people, it is unwise to present an authoritarian front unless they are uniformed subordinates. The regular customers at the diner had become good friends, with whom, besides the pedestrian exchange of goods for cash, exchanges of life stories and confidences had elevated relationships to more than purveyor and customer level.

The simple rule had been that all were as welcome as each other, without reference to creed, ethnicity, or colour. Even Lancastrians, failing the shibboleth test and manifesting their county by asking for Lancashire baps or barmcakes instead of Yorkshire teacakes, were embraced as brothers.

I fear that the new owners had made their feelings clear to the seventy-percent that they ought to be dining elsewhere, and, having got the message, they went elsewhere leaving the happy couple with a thirty-percent remnant and whatever passing trade they were fortunate enough to get.

Being courteous, considerate, and kind-hearted is not a vice, but a virtue, whether in business or among friends or strangers. A person does not have to be a Christian to apply the Golden Rule of loving their neighbours as themselves, and 'Doing unto others as they would that others should do unto them.' That is one rule of life that never fails to bring its own warm dividends, even when business is not so hot.


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