CAFÉ 21 | FEATURE
Rhys Fisher profiles a Maesteg establishment which used lockdown to take stock of its direction and is now serving burger buffs with both barrels…
Lockdown has been rubbish.
In other news, Lionel Messi is pretty good at football, Nigella Lawson is a decent cook, and Adele can carry a tune.
Of course, by no means do I intend to trivialise the impact COVID-19 has had, on Wales as across the globe. For those of us lucky enough to still have our health, and the health of our loved ones, lockdown seems like a reasonable tradeoff. Still, it has been an incredibly difficult time for many, with many people’s physical and mental wellbeing suffering as a result of the restrictions.
The effects have also been felt by the economy, particularly small businesses. A report published by Simply Business in September estimated that the virus could cost small businesses in the UK up to £69 billion, and has already forced 234,000 businesses to stop trading.
One business that could well have joined that number is Café 21, a local coffee shop and café in the town of Maesteg. However, owner Jonathan Dare used the initial lockdown period to revamp Café 21, and started a new burger menu. Visiting his son in London over the past decade, Dare had taken note of the “developing burger trend”, and cites the likes of Meat Mission, Patty & Bun, and MEATliquor as some of his inspirations.
The introduction of the initial lockdown back in March prompted Dare to sit down and seriously reconsider his current menu. “There were just too many things on there – it was a bit of a mishmash. Then when I went through each item to see what wasn’t making money, I realised that there wasn’t much on there that was making any money.
“It was my own fault. I was just happy to let it tick along – it wasn’t making a lot but it was doing enough for me to get by.” Lockdown made Dare re-evaluate things, though: like everyone, he was unsure how long the pandemic would last, and felt he needed to bring in something else to run alongside the existing café to help the business survive.
Dare speaks about the process of crafting Café 21’s new menu with the air of someone reliving a fond childhood memory. He describes “the hours and hours” he spent poring through YouTube videos from the likes of American Pit BBQ, trying to pick out the “nitty-gritty” and “tiny nuances” that go into crafting a great burger – from the correct temperatures to store the meat, to the precise ratio of fat to meat in each patty.
But this wasn’t a case of Dare just spending all of lockdown stuffing his face with burgers, enjoyable as that may sound. He also used the downtime to complete a social media course to help him market the new menu. There were also some fairly substantial financial investments. A government Coronavirus Bounce Back Loan helped revamp his kitchen with a state-of-the-art flat grill with under-counter refrigeration to keep the patties at the previously discussed optimum temperature, as well as a range of other kitchen utilities, and a camera to help capture the food in all its glory.
This is clearly a venture Dare has taken very seriously. You can see it in the little touches: from the incorporation of new branding for the burger menu, to the burger-specific, fully-recyclable containers designed to prevent that age-old nemesis of the burger, the soggy bun. As you pop the lid off, the sides unfold before you, like an oyster revealing its pearl – only much better. You can’t scoff down a pearl with a side of Dirty Taters, or at least it isn’t generally advisable.
But of course, the food is what it’s all about, and Dare is as meticulous with the sourcing of his produce as he is with the technical aspects. He has a heavy focus on using local ingredients, and talks proudly of knowing precisely which farm all the meat he uses comes from. He has also collaborated with other local businesses, including Maesteg brewery Cerddin, which provides Café 21 with a range of beers – Bring Me The Honey, a beer made with honey from the owner’s own beehive, being a particular favourite amongst regulars. The restaurant also stocks beers from the likes of Bridgend’s Dog’s Window and Newport’s Tiny Rebel, Dare stressing how important it is for “local businesses to support each other” during this difficult period.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says, reflecting on what he has managed to achieve in the last seven months. Café 21’s customer base has completely changed, with the newer, Instagram-friendly menu attracting a far younger demographic, one “more eager to try new things”. Without the new burger menu, he concedes, “we would have been really on the back foot financially – I think we would have had to let some people go.” Whereas now, due to the popularity of his burgers, Jonathan is actually looking to employ some more people to keep up with the demand.
Café 21 having thrived during this period puts it at odds with the majority of small hospitality businesses – but in a year that has seen so much bad news, it feels important to celebrate such successes where they occur.
words RHYS FISHER
Café 21, 21 Talbot Street, Maesteg. Open Thurs-Sat 5-9pm, takeaway or eat in.
Info: 01656 733270 / facebook.com/cafe21maesteg