Photography: Sean Davey

Some people take in abandoned pets and others renovate derelict properties. The calling of  Bookplate cafe operator Tracy Keeley is to breathe life into eateries that have lost their flavour. By Chris Sheedy

Having been thrilled to hear that she had won the tender to run Bookplate cafe at the National Library of Australia, two weeks before being given the keys Tracy Keeley was hit with a bombshell. A representative of the library called and asked if she still wanted to go ahead with the agreement since the current operator had just gone into liquidation.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘What have I done?’,” Keeley recalls. “I thought it was a bountiful cafe. I thought I’d be able to simply walk in and virtually copy everything the previous operators had done. I thought it had been a successful business.”

Did she still want to run the business? Absolutely! After all, she had just moved back to Canberra after a four-year career sojourn on the Gold Coast and had also brought her son into her new business to help out. She was too far down the track to pull out. More importantly, the master’s degree in human resources that Keeley had earned during her time on the Gold Coast had equipped her with some very powerful knowledge around employing and motivating great people and boy, would she need them!

One day, during her first few weeks of business in Bookplate, the cafe took just $70 in sales. “That’s how bad it was,” she says. “We realised we needed to overhaul everything, from menus to decor to staff. Everything had to change in order for us to survive. If people weren’t on board for the change we would have to move forward and bring in people who were dedicated and ready to step up. It really was a huge challenge.”

BookplateRegular library patrons were upset with the changes. An elderly gentleman once approached the counter, ordered a coffee, then said to Keeley, “I’m a friend of the library but I’m not a friend of yours.”

Such comments, however, were water off a duck’s back for Keeley, who had a plan and was going to stick to it. Once staff, decor and menus were reset she organised a ‘free coffee day’ to tempt customers back into a cafe they had long ago abandoned. They saw the new version of Bookplate and loved it. The cafe now serves well over 400 meals per day.

“Everything about Bookplate has changed, but we had to do it in a gradual process,” says the restaurateur. “We couldn’t afford to alienate the core demographic who never abandoned the cafe.

“So, our menu has elements of traditional meals, but it also has components that are more appealing to a wider demographic. And best of all, it’s successful.”

It is a recipe that Keeley has utilised over and over again throughout her career which, interestingly, has included 21 years as a full-time teacher. The first few cafes that she managed, in fact, were a second job as teaching took priority.

Keeley was teaching at a Catholic primary school in Canberra when she and her then husband bought Cafe Momo, in the suburb of Bruce. Neither had any hospitality experience but, she says, they had “bountiful enthusiasm”. Keeley worked in the cafe during school holidays and for evening events. During the working week, she’d manage the books and carry out other desk-based tasks in between teaching classes.

A few years later the couple was asked if they wanted to take over catering and functions for the seven-day bistro in Canberra’s Wests Rugby Club. “On a Saturday night, there might be eight functions going on, including a couple of weddings and an engagement party. That’s when I left teaching and worked full-time for our catering business.”

Next Keeley tendered on her own for a cafe called Cafenvi, within the John Gorton Building, catering for the Department of Environment. She won the tender, was “over the moon”, then realised a business within a government department was different to anything she had ever run.

“I made a lot of changes. I started to get serious about my role as a leader, about the menu, about what the chefs were doing and about the people we had on board. I wanted it to be a health food cafe, not a server of greasy food.”

“The correct term for what I was doing was ‘fake it ’til you make it’,” she says. “For the first seven months, we were losing money. It wasn’t good. I was listening to everyone and I’d try whatever anyone told me to try. Then one day I just said, ‘Stop! I am the one who needs to step up here. I am the one who needs to lead. If I don’t get this right, I am the one who is going to lose a lot of money’.

“So I made a lot of changes. I started to get serious about my role as a leader, about the menu, about what the chefs were doing and about the people we had on board. I wanted it to be a health food cafe, not a server of greasy food. It was a high-volume cafe but it still needed to have healthy components. I looked at the staff numbers and what people were doing in their roles. I concentrated on upskilling them and reorganising their job descriptions so they were able to take on more or focus more on one particular thing. We streamlined our systems and made sure the timing of everything was correct. We changed what we were buying and who we were buying from.”

Suddenly Cafenvi was no longer losing money and Keeley was no longer in debt. When the next three-year contract came up she re-tendered. Once that profitable period ended, it was time for a break.

“I’d had enough,” she explains. “I was burnt out. I was physically exhausted because I put everything into it and it was just me, as the owner, running the business and coping with the hurly-burly of life.

“When you’re running a cafe under the umbrella of a government department, you can’t just decide to make a change. There’s a lot of negotiation along the way to move whoever is making the decisions to a point where they give you permission to go ahead.”

Keeley moved to the Gold Coast, bought an apartment and took some ‘me time’. What was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical encompassing health and happiness stretched out to four years when her marriage ended and she decided to complete her master’s degree. She did a little teaching and worked in a furniture shop. She even travelled to India with the aim of designing and selling a sleepwear range to be called Poppy & Maude. That is now the name of her catering business.

BookplateThen along came the tender for Bookplate at the National Library of Australia, followed by a short but harsh ride back to the reality of running a hospitality business.

“I realised business is not just about how much profit you make and how successful you appear to be,” Keeley says. “Particularly during the time at Cafenvi, I made very good connections and strong relationships. They stood me in good stead for the Bookplate tender. Everything I had achieved years earlier would have helped me to win that contract.”

Bookplate is not just a new Canberra hotspot; it is also now a 2017 Restaurant & Catering Association Award for Excellence winner. It won Cafe of the Year (ACT) and took out the Bronze Award for cafe dining nationally. And Keeley hasn’t stopped there. In April 2017, she won the contract for Pollen, the popular cafe at Canberra’s Australian National Botanic Gardens. Keeley made dramatic changes to that eatery, as is now her modus operandi, and took it from being a tired, khaki-themed gardens cafe to a stylish, modern dining experience. Visitors are visibly thrilled with the changes.

“It was a pleasure to tender for Pollen because through the success of Bookplate I had more confidence,” she says. “I created a storyboard for them and presented it through mood boards. I gave them the whole concept. I presented what I believed that particular place needed. This is what I love. I love taking a tired venue in an iconic location and changing it to make it successful.”

With Pollen, Bookplate and Paperplate (Bookplate’s ‘little sister’ cafe, also in the National Library), Keeley has proven she is a master of her art. So, what exactly is her secret to success? How can she create magic in the same locations where so many others could not? It has something to do with knowledge of HR, she says, and a lot to do with having once taught children.

“I look at my own strengths and then assemble around me a team of people whose talents complement those strengths, then I bring that team on board with my vision. I think that’s the secret,” she says. “The secret is developing that team, because one person can’t serve every customer or be at every post.

“A lot of my knowledge comes from being an inclusive classroom teacher. At the end of the day I’d always ask myself whether I’d want to be a child in my classroom. It’s the same at work. Would I want to be an employee of this business? Do I feel valued? Do I feel as if I have a say? Is the person leading this business approachable? There needs to be a leader and they must have a vision and make the decisions. But having a collaborative approach is the way to go because that’s the only way that you will engage people in the process.”


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