If you visited Canberra’s recent Night Noodle Markets and found yourself enjoying salt and pepper calamari at the National Library instead of doing battle with the crowds for meat on sticks, you’ll know that the Library’s Bookplate café is doing things a little differently than in the past.
Just weeks after Canberra hospitality veteran Tracy Keeley won the contract to run the café in late 2014, the business went into voluntary liquidation. Though Tracy was surprised by the news, she says it forced her to reconsider her business model and identify areas for innovation. Business as usual was not going to cut it.
“I had to think about what I had envisaged for Bookplate, and work out how to ensure staff were going to get paid and that customers had a lovely experience. That was the biggest challenge,” she says.
Tracy describes herself as the sort of person who finds change exciting, so it’s no surprise that after just three months in the new job she’s gone a long way to making Bookplate feel more like a restaurant than a cafeteria.
She has replaced the café’s cafeteria-style offerings with a contemporary menu, changed the opening hours to better cater to weekday breakfast meetings and those refuelling after Saturday morning boot camps, and has introduced fresh pressed juices and smoothies to appeal to a younger crowd. A new lunch menu and table service will also be rolled out in the coming months.
Tracy says that the changes have been well received by both customers and critics.
“The reviews have been really positive, and they’ve all said it’s so good that we’ve gone against the grain and introduced a restaurant-style café. In a lot of iconic buildings around here it’s that cafeteria style where you see the sandwiches and the bain-maries. It was nice that the reviewers could see a café like ours doing something different.”
Tracy is no stranger to working in hospitality. The former school teacher ran the Department of Environment café in Barton’s John Gorton Building for six years, and prior to that ran Café Momo in Bruce.
She says that while two decades of teaching experience may not appear to equip someone with the skills needed to run a café, teaching and hospitality aren’t as different as people might think.
“Hospitality and teaching are both focused on people. As a teacher you come to love your students because you’re with them for a whole year and you watch them grow and develop, and it’s the same with hospitality. You put everything you have into a café or restaurant and it’s rewarding to see the results of your hard work,” she says.