In 1997 a trial date was set.
A church in Mount Waverley, St John’s Uniting, had let it be known they were on the hunt for volunteers to assist with a regular morning tea or lunch to be staged on church premises.
Its purpose was to provide a light meal to patrons in exchange for a modest charge, with any profit gifted to small community groups who were doing it tough.
Aware of her big heart, keen culinary capabilities and clear ability to inspire others, Mavis Bruce, then aged 68, was solicited by friends to join the church’s little start-up business.
Twenty-two years later and now approaching 90, Mavis retains the title of “the co-ordinator”, where in addition to being a much loved part of the initiative’s DNA, she is also central to the café’s core operations.
A competent home chef who had taken up cooking as a hobby, food has always played a big part in Mavis’s world. Prior to retiring at 55, she spent much of her working life in the office of Peter’s Ice Cream and her reputation for being able to utilise any ingredient clearly followed her.
At the time being a volunteer caterer at the Box Hill Hospital’s canteen, Mavis was soon seconded onto the burgeoning café’s committee of management.
Not a second to waste
Just eight weeks after its first meeting, the group was ready to test its offering in front of 24 guests. Charging the sum of around $10 per head in exchange for a mid-day meal, the group’s formula proved an instant success.
A second trial was held a month later and was met with equal enthusiasm so the decision was made to open the café one day a week – every week.
After two outings the committee members decided it might be best to meet to discuss its future, define its target market and to identify what organisations should benefit from any profit.
As a collective, the group made the wise decision to run the café as leanly as possible early on, ensuring that with the exception of the cost of some raw ingredients almost every dollar they made could be gifted to community groups and charities who may fly under the radar of bigger benefactors.
All the while the reputation of St John’s Cafe continued to spread and within a short period the café was attracting up to 75 guests at each sitting.
Committee members lured in volunteers from the church to fill the roles of wait and kitchen staff, with a member of the committee managing the kitchen and another positioned at front of house.
“As its popularity grew we had to regularly review our menu, our cooks and our volunteer staff,” Mavis says.
With the bulk of the volunteers already aged 65 years or over, the hectic pace proved too much – “we were all getting older,” notes Mavis – and eventually the decision was made to restrict the café opening to just the first and second Wednesday each month.
“By now I was a senior decision maker on the committee, along with two or three other experienced caterers. Committee members and customers were all enjoying our success, delighting in both our offerings and [the café’s] goal of supporting local, interstate and overseas charities.”
Much of the café’s success relies upon the fact that even to this day it is run as economically as possible.
Quiches are made in private homes and delivered to the church by volunteers while the accompanying salads are prepared on site, as are select menu items such as chicken vol-au-vents and sausage rolls. Mavis says the committee has offered to help contribute towards the costs associated with making the quiche and other meals that have been donated, but this is rarely taken up.
A “special” is offered during each sitting yet despite what the menu options are, each diner is only ever charged a maximum of $6.50 for a main course and $3 for dessert which is almost always a passionfruit cream sponge. During winter, soup is also added to the menu with patrons charged a token sum of $3 per serving.
A team effort
Determined to credit her cohorts for the café’s success, the mother of two, grandmother of five and great grandmother of six, says the accomplishments achieved by the group are first and foremost down to the calibre of the personalities on the café committee.
“It was at the start, as it is now, well endowed with talent. It [initially] included two retired domestic science teachers, two with floral art backgrounds, three very experienced cooks and a secretary, all foodies,” she says.
And successful it has been.
As of three months ago, the St John’s Cafe led by its formidable leader, has raised nearly $215,000, all of which has been donated to local charities both inside and outside of the church.
Naturally, the café’s lengthy history means some committee members have had to resign their positions, however they have been replaced with a seemingly endless list of enthusiasts only too willing to lend a hand.
Mavis says the volunteer team of kitchen staff and waitresses, has now attracted several younger members. Currently, it boasts a roster of more than four dozen helpers, with the youngest being just 50 and the oldest nearing 90.
Such has been its popularity, the café boasts a number of “regulars”, including a group of between 12 and 14 of Mavis’s fellow residents from Fountain Court.
Those intending to dine there must now make a booking first or risk being turned away.
“Everybody seems to love it,” says Mavis.
“We’re very fortunate because we get to serve in the foyer of the church and it’s a lovely outlook. When we first started church leaders expressed some concern because the area is carpeted – more than 20 years later and there’s still no damage to the carpet, we’re pretty proud of that.”
Mavis says it has been a great honour being involved with the initiative and insists her efforts were no more than that given by others.
“It came at a time in my life that I just lost my husband when I was 64. After he died I joined a few community groups however I felt I had something more to contribute.
“The thing I enjoy most about it is when we have a meeting and say ‘okay, who are we going to give the money to today?’. That to me makes it so worthwhile.
But I must tell you, I’ve got an awful lot more back more than I’ve ever given,” she says.
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