IN my bid to support local business I frequently drop in on small but neat-looking coffee shops in my towns here in Uganda, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.
I’m not talking about the world-class cafes like Java’s, where if it were not for the occasional blip you could actually be drinking your latte in a much more developed country.
We have these little coffee shops in unlikely spots of the city that will startle you on a random day with some extremely tasty spiced African tea cooked properly with the tea leaves brewed right into the correct amount of milk mixed with hot water.
Some of them serve up a delightful meal forged by a chef who either has a personal passion for what he or she does, or is moonlighting away from a regular job at a five-star hotel.
Most, on the other hand, are a non-stop source of entertainment because they are owned and managed by people who have done more mathematics than catering; cafe owners and restauranteurs who have worked out ways of extracting business benefits out of food without bothering with the food part of the business.
Fortunately, many of these collapse after a short while, creating space that I keep hoping will be filled up by people who actually care about the important elements of food – hygiene, freshness, taste, service.
I’m not being callous – more good cafe’s and restaurants mean a much improved economy: offices run smoother with employees well fuelled by good beverages and food; tourists roll in to enjoy freshly grown, picked, roasted, brewed coffee with hot, flaky pastries and tasty organic food; and farmers find themselves digging night shifts to meet the demand.
And in months such as this one ahead, the atmosphere of vacationism that is going to descend on most employed Kampala dwellers should translate into supernormal profits for serious cafes and restaurants.
Only serious ones.
Unlike the one I stopped over at on Wednesday morning in the mall in Ntinda near my next meeting. It was the only one open and its neatness made me assume it was brimming with the promise of good coffee and hot, flaky pastries.
The fellow I found wiping surfaces clean flashed me a nice, welcoming smile that made me ignore the empty food warmer display unit for a few seconds, and he even motioned me to a seat.
“Do you have any pastries?” I asked, after failing to detect any aroma of food being cooked up, and pointing to the empty food warmer.
“Yes,” he replied, “we are just cleaning up and then we will bring them out.”
Ten minutes later, I looked up from my laptop to realise that the cleaning was still in progress, the food warmer empty and my breakfast non-existent.
I startled him when I called out, so quickly had he forgotten the one single customer in the room, and he summoned a colleague to stock the food warmer as I walked over to inspect the offerings.
“Are these fresh? Were they made today?” I asked incredulously, eyeing the pastries sternly.
“Yes!” the two fellows replied in unison.
Then I noticed that the food warmer had a digital temperature gauge and it was reading 16 degrees.
“That should be much warmer!” I remarked.
“No!” one chap replied, “It is supposed to be at cold.”
I made a passionate presentation about the preferred warmth of pastries and other breakfast foods which he listened to right to the end and then replied, “But if we make it warmer then they will not last for more than one day.”
After giving it a few seconds for the irony of his statement to arrive, I tried to explain the concept of “fresh” pastries, and how the place would have a more inviting aroma if the pastries were baked that morning right there. I met with a walled blank look that said, “Place your order or just go away.”
I lost; both the discussion and my money, as I essayed a pastry and failed to enjoy it cold. Later, I struck up a conversation with another of the staff there who had overheard my pastry-warmth tete-a-tete and he confessed that the owner-manager insisted on holding pastries for days on end.
Plus, she didn’t believe in actually making the pastries in-house even though they had the equipment, and she only showed up to draw money from the till or host friends and relatives.
I will be watching keenly for when it collapses under a pile of cold pastries, so I get a restauranteur to invest in it, give us a neat-looking cafe, fresh pastries, hot coffee and an improved economy.