“I don’t want to dig too deeply into what our secret is otherwise I’m scared we might break it…”
There is a certain enigmatic magic to Watershed’s Café & Bar that James Taljaard, our General Manager, was alluding to on the afternoon I sat down to speak to him about its ethos and our approach to food and drink. While there’s absolutely an indefinable quality - there is also a passion and thoughtfulness that goes into our work here that is a core part of the Watershed way.
Our Café & Bar is the epicentre Watershed, it is where audiences, visitors and staff truly come together and where the magic of ideas, thoughts, discussions, and happenstance happens every day.
There is an interdependency between the Café & Bar and the cultural programme which is recognised and understood across the whole team who work at Watershed. The curation and expertise which goes into delivering our programme and offer crosses all areas of the venue and frequently the presentation of this creative spills over into the Café & Bar– our aim is to give all our audiences and visitors a joined up, excellent experience on each and every visit.
A good example of our approach is how we presented late night screenings in as part of the National British Film Institute Love Blockbuster Season. We think in terms of the whole experience – so not just the screening, not just the booking your ticket, not just your visit to the Café & Bar to buy your drink and meet your friends – these are all individual elements that make up your whole evening. So we presented soundscapes in the Café & Bar before the screening of Let The Right One In, we held a silent disco before the screening of Her, we made the Café & Bar blue before the screening of Blue is the Warmest Colour and we hosted a multi-sensory plunge into Paris before the screening of Amélie.
Our family offer also provides a buzz of activity within the Café & Bar, courtesy of all sorts of crafty workshops, Roald Dahl read-a-thons, live insect handling and poetry afternoons taking place right in the heart of the building.
It’s a welcoming, accessible space that attracts all sorts of different types of audiences. James explains:
“We are open and want everyone to feel included. We get such a wide variety of people – from older people coming for a cup of coffee and a flapjack to groups of knitters, board game fans, corporate business people, bridge players, language clubs, families, groups of Deaf customers having meetups and more.”
Our team know many of our regular customers and talk a lot about the duty of care they feel, making sure to check in with people and noticing if somebody hasn’t been to visit for a while.
It is clear our customers feel comfortable and at home, too – in fact many are so at home it’s not uncommon to see groups shift around the tables and chairs to make their own space.
“This is a place staffed by people who give a damn” – Watershed Facebook review
Of course the main purpose of being in the Café & Bar is for the food and drink. Helen Round, our Food and Beverage Manager, shares her thoughts on what makes food and drink at Watershed so special:
“We are proudly independent – this means we can respond quickly if we want try something new and be adventurous…”
We have an ethical, sustainable approach to food and use local produce wherever possible. It’s important to provide a good range of dishes, Helen says, and not be too specialist:
“People can get pizza or steak or falafel at a dedicated café, but what’s more important for us is to be able to provide a great meal for a group of people who all have different dietary requirements all in one place. We cate for whole families, vegans, couples who just want a bite to eat before a film or breakfast for a worker who's just come off night shift.”
Speed is an important factor too – many of our customers are also coming to see a film and we don’t want anyone to wait around too long. Frozen food isn’t an option so we work hard to create a menu that is quick to freshly prepare – the configuration of our kitchen, which was refurbished in 2015, goes some way to help with this as well.
The cultural programme will often make an appearance as a special dish or addition to our menu: our talented chefs have created Japanese takeovers to complement our Japanese film season, vegan menus to complement a documentary, and dishes made with cider to accompany a Summer Cider Celebration.
Speaking of cider - we are often approached by suppliers to try new drinks products first because we’re so quick to adapt and also because we have an eclectic mix of customers who are willing to try new things and give us feedback. The team talk a lot about their desire to surprise people and offer something a little different.
We run regular drinks celebrations (dedications to rum, gin, ale, cider, soft drinks and hot winter warmers) and we’re proud to work with local suppliers, to offer vegan and organic wines and gluten free beer, all of which can be taken in the cinema screens, too.
The care and attention to detail that we pride ourselves on at Watershed is very clearly demonstrated in the food and drink choices, too. As Helen says:
“It would be true to say that nothing goes on the menu without at least four people trying it – there is definitely a sense of shared responsibility amongst our staff…”
With so much going on, what does success look like to the busy team? James said:
“Success to me is a feel of organised chaos. It’s being a busy place where everyone wants to be. It’s going from a sold out Cinébabies screening to a Drag Queen Storytime drop in, hosting a charity event like Jam For Dominica for 120 people who haven’t been here before, all while serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and coffee and drinks with a big smile on our faces…”
That unique experience is the part of our blueprint that many other venues and establishments have been trying to emulate, but we’ve always said…
“If we could bottle and sell the unique experience of Watershed then we would surely be onto a winner.”
However there’s a couple of things we perhaps haven’t quite given enough credit to our ongoing success…
“Free water and wi-fi,” James jokes, “it’s the elixir of life….”