It’s been a while that I’ve had my head above water enough to sit down and update this blog. My last post was in early March, before Steve and I took over a “blank canvas” from our building team. Blank canvas means new plaster on the walls, concrete on the floors, both of which still wet, walls up but no doors (or frames), pipes, but not connections. So, when I call this “final notes”, it is actually my only notes, and I have lots to report.
Let me summarize upfront, for the hurried: We’ve never worked as much, or as hard, or dabbled in as many different trades, as we have in the last two months. And while we’ve never known such tiredness, we’ve also never before enjoyed any job so much. Many memories prevail, first and foremost, the incredible amount of help we’ve received from our friend, families and of course our partners Adam and Kim, who helped many nights after work, every weekend and also kept us fed and sane. Blend wouldn’t even be close to where it is now without them (see some pictures here).
Second, as weekdays became evenings, as Steve and I spent longer and longer hours working, and blend became more and more recognisable as a cafe, we’ve had locals stick their heads in almost every day, telling us how they were watching our progress and couldn’t wait for us to open. Let me tell you, this made our day every time it happened, and kept us going. Thanks to all of you who did check in on us. We are almost there.
Opening a cafe is something many people dream of secretly, judging from the responses and interest we’ve been getting. The following is an account of what it’s like when you do it yourself. And by that I mean DIY. Please don’t read this as a moan, because it’s not, but I’m also not going to sugar coat it. If you want to think of it as easy or in any way glamorous, or if you have enough money to employ designers, architects, tradesmen and a project manager, stop reading here, you don’t need to know the rest. The following is a recap for us, with which we will close the chapter, and you’ll hear no more about it.
I’ve thought about how to best share this. Steve and I helped ourselves along with schedules and lists from week to week, forever postponing items as our 4 week plan grew into 6 and then 8 weeks. So I’m going to give you a weekly diary, with anecdotes as they come to mind.
Week 1 (March 11): Monday morning at 9am we set off from Kings Cross in a van. Our destination is Odense, Denmark. We arrive after 18 hours of near blind driving through snow storm and pitch darkness. We load the van the next day with 32 chairs, a sofa, 6 armchairs, 6 large tables, two coffee tables, a freezer, several crates of Danish beer, and two bathroom mirrors. Most of this was from a Danish antiques / vintage furniture dealer, some of it were donations and presents from families Henriksen / Nielsen and Waeling. We head back the same way on Wednesday, this time in beautiful sunshine and empty roads most of the way. By the time we reach the check-in for the Eurotunnel, I am so tired I nearly hit the check-in booth with the van, much to the amusement of Steve. We nearly run out of petrol near Dartford, which we are keeping a secret, but in the end we make it back safely and dump the whole load into our cafe which is damp with plaster and concrete just finished in the morning.
We kick off the weekend with a painting party that isn’t a party at all but hard work for our many volunteers. The place is transformed as all walls go white under Klaus’ skilled supervision.
Week 2 (March 18): The builders come back to skim over the concrete at the rear as it isn’t even enough. On Thursday, we begin laying parquet. A reclaimed parquet from a school in Sheffield, with bitumen stuck underneath and in many of the groves. It takes a day to clean the floor, prep it with adhesive and fine sand, and lay the first line of herringbone which will govern the whole floor. On Friday we lay another 3 square meters. We are working at a rate that means it will take 30 days just to get the floor down.
On the weekend help arrives. Jo scrapes and stacks a lot of blocks, which gives us a super smooth start into the next week, Rene is in from Denmark to tile the bathroom walls, and many others continue to paint and sand.
Week 3 (March 25):
We are laying parquet, and it’s going faster every day. We are on our hands and knees, every day, obsessing about right angles, gaps and bumps in the floor, slowly progressing along the continuum from: “It has to be perfect” via “we can fill it (cover it up with a pot plant)” to “no one will see it”, a journey we will later make with any job that we start. We go through 100 litres of adhesive. We are covered in black dust and have permanent bitumen smell in our noses, as well as perpetually purple knees. Temperatures are freezing and we keep having to get new gas for the heater that hopefully keeps the temperature just high enough for the adhesive to bond properly.
This is also the weekend where the picture of me laying parquet with a glass of champagne in my hand makes it onto Twitter. It was a nice afternoon, on Good Friday, because so many came to help, but at the same time, it betrays how glamorous the work really is…Don’t be fooled into becoming a floor layer by this picture, it’s not the truth.
Week 4 (April 1):
It’s the Easter bank holiday here somewhere, we take one day off.
We buy another 48 litres of adhesive before we finish the last block of Herringbone and feel delirious with happiness, only to realise that cutting the borders is another massive job. Luckily, we find a hire place that has a plunge saw, a piece of specialist woodworking equipment unknown to the likes of Jewson and Homebase, that allows us to cut straight edges along our walls, where we subsequently drop in the border. We finally truly finish laying the floor this weekend, celebrating that we won’t be sitting on our knees anymore.
The next day I find myself grouting the floor tiles in bathroom one while Steve tiles the floor of bathroom two. (I should mention that all tiling has meant straightening out walls and floors with cement and/or adhesive first.)
Week 5 (April 8):
We put off sanding the parquet to later, do more grouting instead and start fitting the bathrooms and our “mop room”. Every sink leaks when we initially put it on and we become experts with a silikon gun. We do a lot of sanding and are now covered in white dust most days.
The kitchen equipment, bought in February from a second-hand dealer in Peterborough arrives and we dump it in the kitchen. I’m dying to start using it but the lack of electrics means it will sit there for a few weeks.
We bring timber from an old stud wall in my flat to the site and Wickes delivers doors and sheets of MDF.
On Friday, Rene arrives from Denmark again and together with Steve starts building the counter that we’ve designed the day before. The espresso machine arrives, as do 3 grinders, a hot water machine and a milk jug rinsing mechanism that excites us beyond measure.
Christer begins work on the skirting boards. There isn’t a straight wall or a 90 degree angle in the whole place, not even in the new walls.
Week 6 (April 15):
Steve spends a lot of time behind and under the new counter, plumbing, building shelves and connecting the before mentioned appliances, while I’m in front of it, fitting, sanding and painting the panels. Two electricians are running around the place for a couple of days, fixing sockets, switches, lights, smoke detectors, fire alarms, speaker cables, connecting hob, ovens, dishwashers, dealing with emergency lighting etc. We are so happy when the pendant lights go up.
At some point we take a day off, only to do DIY at home, with mixed success.
On the weekend Christer is back for more skirting boards. Rene is also back, this time with Majbritt, to continue working on the counter and help with painting respectively. Sarah is sanding tables, Alistdair is varnishing them, Sara and Jo are cleaning the other furniture. Altogether we have 14 people on site this Saturday, an amazing buzz and lots gets done. Adam makes a great curry for everyone that night.
Week 7 (April 22, maybe the longest week):
On Monday morning at the bright and early time of 11:30 or so, Beresford Road busstop is suspended and UK Power Networks begins digging up the road in front of the shop to fit our 3 Phase power cable. For that they require half a meter of 50mm electrical ducting, which is supposed to be supplied by us, but unfortunately sold out across the wider North London, which we find out after a frantic three hour drive trying every possible electrical store, builders merchant, plumber and even a roofer. Luckily they can still fit that part in the morning, so at 3pm, I jump on the tube to Hammersmith, where we’ve located a 3m length of it. I ask the guys in the yard to chop it in half and carry it home through rush hour traffic on the Piccadilly line. If you were on the same train, I was the woman in dirty torn jeans with two black pipes, hungrily chewing a sandwich, then resting my head on the pipes. I get back at about 5 pm. This is my only outing “into London” for about two months. The next morning Steve drills the hole in the wall bigger so the ducting can fit through it. It takes about an hour. When the engineer from UK Power Networks arrives later that day he pulls the ducting out of the hole with the words: “We don’t really need that, it’s easier without it!” Steve has to hold me back with all his strength to save the oblivious engineer’s life. Else in that week, we get a floor sander on hire and don’t touch it for two days because we are busy with plumbing, building shelves, buying electrical equipment, etc. UK Power Networks keeps the sidewalk blocked until Friday and the bus stop suspended until Saturday, even though no visible works are going on, so we apologise to our neighbours a lot. Luckily they understand this process isn’t driven by us.
We begin sanding and blend disappears in a cloud of dust for a few days. Driving all sanders off our only socket, we blow the whole supply and are set back by a day, until we get new working power. Wonderful Vicky comes down from Manchester and with hers, Adam’s and Kim’s help we manage to sand the floor, over the course of three days. I have the smallest sander to get into the corners of the most uneven blocks, which is the last bit after the big and medium sanders have been over it, and on Friday night around 8 pm, having started at 8am, I am sitting between the two bathroom doors, looking at what I have left to do, and am ready to cry. I continue nevertheless, and by the next time I look up, Adam, Steve and Vicky have all grabbed small sanders and sat down around me, massively speeding up and getting us to dinner by 10pm. There and then, I was really crying.
On Saturday we varnish the parquet, which means we go to the shop, put a layer on, go home, sleep, go back for another layer. It all takes longer than planned, and we have to come back for a layer on Sunday at 8am. Because I’m worn out and have a bad cold, my husband Adam doesn’t wake me up and goes without me to help Steve with the varnish. I’m ready to cry again. By the afternoon, I feel better and we put on the final layer.
Week 8 (April 29): The floor looks stunning. It doesn’t feel like our dirty old floor anymore and Steve, myself and the aircon engineer are walking around on socks while the varnish is till hardening. We’re still building shelves in the bar, putting on skirting, touching up paint. Our meter is fitted and finally we have proper electricity and are testing the lights and appliances. We blow one dimmer switch immediately, but most other items work smoothly. I spend half a day filing down the edges of steel cabinet that holds the fuses as they don’t have a clean fit, even though supplied by the same company as the fuses. Klaus is back to finish the doors and they look amazing. I get to do some baby sitting for his son Jack, which proves surprisingly tiring for someone who has never looked after a toddler before. It makes a wonderful change from building works. We hire a van to move stuff around, break down with it and have a forced 2h break sitting on a sidewalk in the sun. It’s the universe telling us to rest.
A local photographer walks in and suggests an exhibition of his work to coincide with our opening. We are very excited about it and can’t wait to announce it!
On Friday, we move all tasks we can to next week and get the place temporarily looking like a cafe. At 9 pm we stick our heads into the instruction manual of the water filtering system and manage to commission it after several failed attempts. I spend the rest of Friday night and Saturday cooking and baking, while Steve builds a cabinet around the massive new electrical setup and gives the walls another lick of paint. Adam and Kim buy booze and we have a little party for our friends, families and helpers on Saturday evening. For the first time blend is filled with people, food and drinks, and we get a glimpse of what it will be like. It marks the official transformation of blend from a building site into a cafe, and the best day we’ve had so far.
Week 9 (May 6): At home, I’m tiling an grouting my shower using recently acquired skills while blend looks like a bomb site again Monday morning onwards as we are back to filling, sanding & varnishing chairs, painting, connecting the phones, building a cabinet to the electrics cabinet, connecting the CCTV, fixing another leaking sink, and two complaining proprietors in it who are tired of building works. So tired. But we pull our socks up and get most of it done. We decide our opening date. We have a coffee training on site, and test the ovens by making breads, including a sour dough, and croissants. The smell of coffee and bread lifts our spirits and on Friday night just past midnight, once again rescued by Adam and Kim helping after their real full-time jobs, and having finished the final coat of the kitchen floor as well as a massive Turkish takeaway, we feel like it’s been another productive week. On Saturday we clear most tools out of the place and I sit down to write these lines and relive the last two months. I’ve already forgotten many details and problems we’ve faced, which is lucky for you as otherwise it would take a few hours to read through this. Thanks for reading this far.
What remains to be said?
1) A BIG FAT THANK YOU to all those who helped.
2) After being plumbers, tilers and parquet layers, carpenters, decorators, (mini) electricians and phone technicians, kitchen fitters and labourers, our favourite power tools, despite an amazing set of hand drills borrowed from Klaus, remain our espresso machine and the Kitchenaid. Now that this is done, we can’t wait to start our real jobs. We’ll be opening this week, exact details to follow shortly.
3) I wouldn’t be a former city worker if I hadn’t collected some (largely estimated) statistics in my head: 158 debit transactions on our bank statement since March, approximately half of which represent individual trips to Wickes, Homebase, Jewson and the Builders Depot in Southgate, and 20 to the local plumbers merchant. 90 sqm of wooden floor laid, sanded in varnished, accounting for nearly three weeks of the works, 8 sinks fitted, 14 times moved around all the furniture, 16 chairs taken apart, reupholstered by awesome Line, and put back together, 50 boxes moved into the place. 10 tables built. 2500km to Denmark and back. 2 days off in 2 months. 1 new workplace built for ourselves.
Mockup of new front fascia sign: