In a year of many changes to our high street one may have stood out to you over the quiet that fell during the lockdown period. Mae + Harvey’s signature dark blue shopfront on Roman Road has now doubled in size, taking over the unit next door.
Now, on the cusp of offering evening meals, we catch up with owner and self-named ‘parent’ of the Mae + Harvey Natasha Sayliss on what the future holds for her cafe and making bold decisions, even during a pandemic.
Since reopening in August with spaced out seating and a dedicated kitchen instead of food prepared behind the counter, this cafe has enjoyed a steady hum of working-from-homers, brunchers and old regulars. And things are ticking up.
Old favourites like their chicken sandwiches (fans just walk in and give the nod for Natasha to know its a chicken sarnie order) are still on the menu, along with new popular arrivals like their banana bread with browned butter that is baked in-house.
The Portugese-style tiles that adorned their old cafe are no longer there. But the simple, uncluttered Scandi-style furnishings that feel effortlessly cool and wide glass windows covering most of the walls mean it still feels like the old cafe, just with more space. And breathe.
‘The beginning of the lockdown period around March was a really difficult time,’ says Sayliss.
‘I was just worried for my staff and customers…. I was worried about their safety if we stayed open, but especially before the furlough scheme kicked in, we were all worried because we had rent to pay and my staff had rent to pay.’
She talks about these experiences in a matter of fact way, her blue eyes widening to reveal the severity of the situation. But Sayliss, who has been determined to be her own boss since she used to sell her juices to Roman Road cafes, is used to the downs and the ups of owning a business.
‘I could’ve stayed open and continued to operate as a takeaway service but I was just so, so worried about the customers and the staff. It all felt a bit scary so I closed.’
Sayliss knows when to charge ahead and when to take a step back. In this case, she decided to take a step back and close.
She chose to spend that time making the next step in her vision come to fruition. She had just signed a ten-year lease with the adjoining unit (which used to be the estate agents Oliver Franklin) a few weeks earlier, so she furloughed herself and her staff, contacted trusted construction workers from her close-knit circle of family and friends, and set to work as activity on the high street lulled down for the next few months.
At only 29 years old, Sayliss is managing a business expansion during the worst economic contraction since The Second World War. Safe to say, that is a lot of responsibility on young shoulders. When asked if it all gets a bit much, she recounts these no doubt stressful experiences in her typical matter-of-fact manner, with the attitude of accepting the tough times in a way that belies her young age.
‘Oh yeah, it’s hard because you’re constantly worried about everything. Even when I made that decision to close, when we were working on the construction. Myself and the construction workers kept our circle small and formed a sort of bubble so we kept to ourselves.’
Simply dressed in a crisp white shirt and black pants, Sayliss somehow has the same effortless yet approachable cool of the cafe itself. She still keeps that cool even when recounting the more stressful experiences of managing her own business.
‘Even now, since we’ve been open, there’s that worry of, “Will customers come back? Are we being hygienic enough? What if there’s a second wave?”’
So where does she find her strength? The key, it seems, to Sayliss’ can-do attitude and willingness to push ahead despite her worries comes from maintaining a close support network both in her professional and personal circles.
‘I’ve got Lia,’ she says, jerking her head back to where her oldest employee was busy vacuuming behind the pastry counter.
‘I talk to her if there is anything on my mind. And I’ve also got my parents and my boyfriend with whom I talk through everything, and they also get involved where they can. When I was thinking over if I should work on the expansion, my parents were like, “If you aren’t going to do it now, when?”’
Her boyfriend helped her with deliveries when Mae + Harvey were temporarily operating as a delivery service and her father, an accountant, assists with the numbers side of things.
Her immediate family’s support and love for Sayliss and her endeavours are physically manifest in the new cafe interiors, in the form of a delicate miniature woodwork of Mae + Harvey. Complete with the tiny white writing of the logo, it sits on the floor near the counter.
Her grandfather lives in Sheffield and is a wooden miniature hobbyist who made that for her as a re-opening present.
‘We couldn’t have a big opening because of Covid, but both my grandparents came down to see the new place, so that was really nice.’
Owning a cafe was Sayliss’ childhood dream. So seeing her business grow against all odds, does she ever feel overwhelmed?
It’s overwhelming when you think back of the big picture, but you take things one step at a time. You start small. Really small,’ she laughs, referring to her one-shop juice operation.
Now, with a new lunch menu that includes warm salads, they are working on a plan to offer dinner.
‘We’re working with my new chef, “Chef Joe”, who is coming up with a new menu and we’re planning on offering natural wines and cocktails. I’m really excited for that, but also…’, she pauses, trying to think of the right words.
‘I’m still really nervous, because it’s such a new thing, and also what if there’s a second wave when we open?’
Again, despite the wider forces in the world working against the hospitality sector, Sayliss is keeping a cool head and her eyes fixed forward. But with so much responsibility for a young person, do these worries keep her up at night?
‘Mainly, it’s just things like “Oh, I’ve forgotten to order the chives!”. It’s funny, you get so caught up in the day to day things of running the cafe.’
While we wait for Mae + Harvey’s new dinner venture that will be guided by Sayliss’ bold, strategic eye, you can find her and her team serving up pastries, coffees and breakfasts, accompanied her family in spirit, in the form of her grandfather’s little model.
If you liked this article, you might also like to read about Whole Fresh: the newest venture from the family behind Best Food Centre.
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