This was no ordinary BBQ café …

An inspiring tale of how a t4w reader created hope and opportunity through a pop-up BBQ café

cooking at the bbqThere were five young people all on the brink of a life of drugs, crime, and violence. I had links with one or two, and met the others as time progressed. Mike was one of ten children, all of whom had been fostered from an early age because of mother’s drug dealing and addiction ways. Despite having been abused several times in foster families and also within an institution (which later came to court but too late for Mike to find any recompense for the theft of his childhood), Mike was a pleasant, loyal, funny 17 year old. He had mild learning disabilities which manifested when given any responsibility.

Sasha, his girlfriend, had been abused mentally and physically by her mentally unstable mother. She was a warm, witty, intelligent girl, pregnant with Mike’s baby. They both lived in a hostel for homeless young people when I met them. We got on well, and as our relationship developed I realised we needed to break out of the confines of their expectations to find a few alternative choices for them.

We talked long and dreamed big together and decided upon a project – a barbecue café. After conversations with the kindest of environmental health officers, who assured me he would not be visiting during our two weeks of operation and supported our venture wholeheartedly, we rallied support from a local vicar whose church although situated in one of the worst estates in Hull, luckily boasted a front lawn bordered by damson trees.

setting up the bbqThe lawn, visible from the road, would be the perfect setting for our venture. It’s funny how things grow in Hull. The initial seed of an idea seems hard to come by; the groundswell of support and interest happens without any effort. Two barbecues, a gazebo, the use of a church hall kitchen, a job lot of catering caps and some cheap white T shirts later, we were ready for action. We opened one sunny July day, heaving the gazebos into place, burning burgers by the dozen trying to get the temperature right.

I brushed up my scones and choc chip cookie recipes and we attempted to produce uniform baked goods – unsuccessfully. On the opening morning a further four young people from the hostel turned up to work. Work is an exaggeration. Trying to establish a process that would keep us functioning in busy times was a very hard challenge. It was too tempting for these young people to eat the product of their hard work whilst hanging out on the deckchairs in the sun.

Where does collaboration end and supervision start? All the way through, my aim was that this was their project and I was just facilitating it. Tensions arose when I couldn’t resist a managerial role, and insisted that one batch of scones did not constitute a day’s work, or that burgers handled by dirty hands were not an attractive proposition to any customer however hungry they may be.

However generally there was an atmosphere of banter, fun and good relationships. Working as a team, deciding on roles and responsibilities, encouraging each other and helping out when things got too much for an individual were all natural consequences of this experience.

My own friends came at first, happy to sit at the tables dotted around the lawn, with tiny posies of flowers and random bunting hanging from trees – think Cath Kidston meets Benefits Street. They were served haphazardly although with much enthusiasm. Appropriate customer service was a lesson yet to be learned, as the banter became personal and the service random.

the bbq cafe in actionYet all who came were captured by the earnestness and good hearts of the young people who had not the first idea of how to work, and for whom team, goals, planning, service were all totally foreign concepts. Their achievement of the day was to get up, get dressed, sober up and arrive some 20 minutes bus ride away before 10.30am. And I mock not – that was truly an achievement.

We tried to attract local people in – balloons blown up each day and attached precariously to the gates, us standing on the streets inviting, offering free samples as people went by. All Mary Portas stuff – yet so unfamiliar in the outer estates of Hull where reputedly only drug pushers really approached anyone on the streets. Still, some kids came in, other community workers and church leaders used the café as a meeting place, a few passers-by, and then the highlight was the arrival of a minibus of elderly people from a residential home in a nearby market town.

The flustering and swearing that went on when we realised we were out of scones, that the workers had scoffed all the choc chip cookies, and the barbecue had cooled right down was a moment to remember, but eventually we produced food and drinks and celebrated the fact that we were truly a café! The old people loved their scones and went back off in their minibus happy and unaware of quite how far they had pushed the borders of the lives of those who served them that day!

The café lasted for the month of July – we had wonderful weather for the duration, and then the heavens opened for the rest of the summer! The young people drifted back into their usual habits of sleeping til 4pm, smoking weed and signing on once a fortnight. I continued with my relationship with them all and am still in some kind of touch with most of them.

I would love to be able to report that lives were changed and jobs obtained but that is just not the reality. However, a few months ago I met up with Mike again, and we were chatting about his experiences since I had last seen him when out of the blue he said: ‘Do you remember the BBQ café we did in the summer of 2009?’ We reminisced and laughed about it, and then he said:

They were the best days of my life.