Carly & Ian Trisk-Grove
Jill Glenn meets Carly Trisk-Grove of Rickmansworth’s Café in the Park, a finalist in the ‘People’s Favourite’ category of the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s ‘Food Made Good’ Awards 2016
It began with a huT: a hut adjacent to Rickmansworth Aquadrome, up for tender in 2005. Carly Trisk-Grove was 27, and pregnant with her second child. “I saw it on the Tuesday and won it on the Friday,” she recalls. It was a swift decision that has changed the course of Carly’s life, and that of her husband, Ian, and plenty of other people too.
The local authority “just wanted someone to sell a few icecreams” – but Carly had big plans. For the first couple of years there was outside seating only. Customers had to queue at a hatch for their food, but they liked what they were getting – good, healthy stuff, ethically sourced and freshly produced – and kept coming back.
Over the course of a year, Carly and Ian raised the finance to fund the present building, which opened in April 2009. It was hard work, but the prize was worth it: a beautiful new home for the café, with a 50 year lease and a peppercorn rent, and a business they were committed to for life.
The rich yellow walls and the big windows make Café in the Park bright and light, full of sunshine. One side looks out onto the water and the other onto green space. The atmosphere is a joy on a good day, and, I imagine, even more of a joy on a bad one. There are old school chairs (some with book racks on the back) and scrubbed top tables – a look that’s not uncommon, but which here betokens genuine concern for everything environmental. Café in the Park is all about sustainability – so much so, in fact, that they’ve just been shortlisted in the ‘People’s Favourite’ category of the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s ‘Food Made Good’ Awards.
The five finalists were selected from six hundred nominations, for the positive impact that they make on the community, the environment and – crucially – on people’s stomachs. The awards are intended to prove that good food can be good in every sense of the word. Supported by top chefs such as Raymond Blanc, they are amongst the highest accolades in the sustainable restaurant community. The SRA, of which Café in the Park was one of the founder members, isn’t yet a mainstream organisation “but it will be.”
Actually, all this began long before the hut. The marriage that makes this business work has its roots back in 1995, when Carly and Ian, both now 38, met.
She grew up in Pinner; he hails from Rickmansworth. They met as teenagers at school – Dr Challoner’s – rehearsing for a play, and they’ve been together ever since: through university in Birmingham, where Ian read Mechanical Engineering and Carly read Manufacturing Engineering; through their return south, marrying early and having children young, taking on a business together and making it work in accordance with deeply held principles.
Carly’s grateful that her mother insisted on one critical life skill. “She made me learn to type, and it made me really employable… I had lots of really useful PA jobs.” She spent three years working for Ernst and Young – “great experience” – but left to have her first baby. “Anyway,” she recalls, “I always knew I wanted to do my own thing.”
When the opportunity to take on the hut came her way, it seemed ideal. She’d always had an interest in food (she describes herself now as a good home cook, though she doesn’t do anything in the café kitchen: “I know my limitations…”).The business has been built up around family life. Their two sons, aged 12 and 10, spent their babyhood at work with Carly… sleeping in the buggy, toddling among the tables. She can still pick them up from school every day. The family have a house on the canal nearby, just five minutes walk away. It all sounds idyllic – and in some ways it is – but it hasn’t been as easy as Carly and Ian have made it look, and she’s the first to admit that they made some key mistakes in the early days. “We weren’t good at cashflow management, for example. We didn’t have enough working capital. We were trying to do great things, but we didn’t always surround ourselves with the right staff.”
When Carly took on the hut, Ian was working for Camelot in finance. Throughout the process he has retained a position with them, sometimes working part-time, sometimes on short-term contracts. It’s only since last June that Café in the Park has been sufficiently profitable to fully support them both and their children. From the start, though, Carly knew that the easy way was the cheap way – and turned her face against it. They’ve been ethical from day one. “It’s just who I am,” she says, when I press her further on this. She was, by the sound of it, a principled little girl – she was vegetarian at the age of ten, campaigning for Beauty Without Cruelty at eleven – and those values underpin her business practices. “I’ve always had lots of opinions about the way to do things,” she says, laughing.
The slogans on the yellow wall include ‘unashamedly splendid’ and ‘we believe good food unites a community’. It certainly does. Not only do Carly and Ian pay their staff (15 full time, two part time) a living wage (“We’re not accredited, but only because we provide lunch as part of the package”) but they don’t discriminate according to age. Even the 16-year-old who works on Sunday is paid the same, pro-rata, as the full-timers. “He’s doing the same job…,” explains Carly, as if this were self-evident. They also have several volunteers – with Down Syndrome, for example, and Aspergers/Autism – who come in for between two and ten hours a week. They don’t wear badges to identify them – “so undermining” – and they learn and contribute in equal measure. “They are a huge part of who we are,” says Carly. Employing people with additional needs can be hard, she acknowledges, but “business can and should, and they’ll be richly rewarded.”
It was, in fact, a volunteer’s mother who nominated them for the SRA Awards. “That means a lot.”
Ethical staff practices are only part of the picture. There’s the food, too, of course. Nothing says ‘we bake our own bread’ more effectively than a ‘wall’ of flour sacks, which take centre stage. Everything is made here. Really. Everything. With the odd exception of a few condiments, absolutely everything that’s served here is cooked here. As well as their own bread, they make their own granola, their own mayonnaise, their own chutney, even their own baked beans. “There are only ingredients in my stockroom,” Carly says. And she can tell you where they’re all produced.
Their meat is from Berkhamsted-based award winning butcher Eastwoods, who deliver every day. The chickens come from Tring, and they’re not cheap. “You can get a supermarket chicken for a fiver. We pay £13 or £14 a bird – but they are longer living, so they’re more mature. They’re not bred for large breasts, so they have meatier legs because they can support their own weight properly.” In consequence of the price, Carly and Ian ensure that every bit of the bird is used. They’re even trialling an Offal Club Sandwich – heart, liver and neck. They make their own chicken nuggets – fillet of chicken, dipped in yogurt coated in polenta and fried in British rapeseed oil.
Chefs stay in the job because they’re actually cooking, because the work is interesting. “What we do here is the right thing and the sensible thing.”
Although Café in the Park didn’t win the award, Carly is nevertheless heartened. “Just being nominated and getting onto the shortlist was fabulous… great exposure for the business, and a great ego boost for us and all our fabulous hard-working staff and volunteers. It’s lovely to have that recognition, of course, but really we judge our own success by the number of people who come through the door. We know that businesses can be ethical and also thrive, and that’s what we want.”
The only disadvantage of Café in the Park’s popularity – and of their ‘always cooked fresh’ policy is that you can’t always get a seat at busy times, and you have to wait for the food. People complain occasionally, but, as Carly says, at the best restaurants you have to wait for a reservation, sometimes for weeks. Here you can just turn up, and a table will be yours in the fullness of time. And the food is delicious: imaginatively conceived, and thoughtfully cooked and presented. It’s definitely worth queuing for.