Ten Question Interview with Michelle & Mel from Munchkins Play CafeFriday, March 13th, 2015
Dorchester is quickly becoming the epicentre for the hometown fun feeling in the region. With businesses expanding, new ones opening, and for let signs disappearing, the feeling of a downturn economy is out of sight for the County Town.
One business that has recently expanded and relocated to Trinity Street is Munchkins Play Cafe. Owners, Michelle Cheeseman (MC) and Mel Ford (MF), opened their doors to us at DorchesterDorset.com to give some insight into what their unique cafe has to offer the local community.
- What is the history behind Munchkins Play Café, and what made you want to open up shop here in Dorchester?
MC– It started as idea about 10 years ago when my first child was born and entering coffee shops with the knowledge that I was probably on borrowed time with how long I could sit, chat and relax as to when my little one might have had enough. I was a teacher in London and when I moved to Dorchester I felt I wanted to change my focus and do something a bit different. I fell in love with some of the architecture here and I started stalking buildings that I thought would make good play cafes. At the same time I met the lovely Melanie Ford as our children were at school together. We had a meeting of minds and Mel fell in love with the idea and we thought lets just do it!
MF– My background is nursery nursing so the whole idea of creating something for children was an idea I couldn’t say no to!
MC – Mine and Mel’s favourite thing was drinking coffee and eating cake together so the idea of having a play cafe together just seemed like a home from home really.
- What inspired the name ‘Munchkins’ Café?
MC– It’s a word that my first child used to say in such a cute way that when we started deliberating over names for the place it just popped straight into my mind so it was inspired by him. It just felt right and Mel loved it as well.
MF – Yes it just seemed to fit with what we wanted to create.
- There are now quite few small coffee shops in the area. What do you feel sets you apart from the others?
MC – A place that parents, grandparents, child minders can feel that they are fully welcome we did our market research as the other coffee shops are very sweet to families and children but its not through their fault but it’s very difficult to sit and enjoy a good coffee so the thing that really sets ourselves apart is the fact that we are made for families with young children. The other thing that we’ve worked very hard on is to be different from a soft play area where the play is imaginative not a manic physical environment. We also wanted to be a cafe equally so we’ve got a proper coffee machine and we are really hot on ensuring that our staff present their coffees to a very high standard. We knew we didn’t want to go commercial so we use coffee beans from a little roastery in Devon. We were supported tremendously well by Toby Frere from Number 35, he’s been a real star in helping to ensure all our staff are fully trained to make the best possible coffee.
MF – We also source the best ingredients for our food. Our suppliers include Coastal Cheddar, The Baking Bird, in the Summer we have Purbeck Ice Cream, We get our chutneys from Dorset with Love, Olives et Al provide our olives and dressings. Loose leaf tea from the Guilded Tea Pot. So we’ve tried to source as much as possible from Dorset and Devon and aimed ourselves at the top end of the food market. At the moment it’s mainly sandwiches and paninis but we are going through a period of developing our hot options on our menu. We didn’t want to be somewhere that parents were palmed off with rubbish just because kids are welcome. We wanted to be a cozy venue where parents are fully looked after as well as the children so there’s no compromise and everything is good.
- If you were a customer in your own cafe, what would you order from the menu?
MF– Ham and beetroot gourmet sandwiches, because the beetroot relish made by Dorset with Love is absolutely amazing!
MC – A latte to drink, Luscombe Sicilian Lemonade to have on a sunny day and a ham, brie and chilly billy jelly relish panini and a bowl of Olives et Al olives who we are big fans of.
- You said that you feel it is important to create a cosy space for your customers. Do you feel that requires changes to your cafe and menu for the changing seasons?
MC– A bit of a mixture really. We keep things fairly steady throughout the year with our food so there are certain things that stay on the menu throughout. Up to now it’s been adding winter warmers foods like soup and in the summer we have more ice cream and sundae options.For the interior design of the play cafe Since we moved to Trinity Street we had the fairy light festival and we haven’t want to take them down because it just feels so magical. I think we knew that when we put them up they would be a permanent fixture so when people walk through the door it feel special even though some of the children come in and say it’s still Christmas in here! But we will change the environment a little bit as the year goes on.
MF – We opened here the first week of December last year. We had artist Claire Mumford who is a local mum with a background in set design come in and paint the murals. The tree house area has one which is inspired by the Dorset coastline and the Tower Bridge design was her other achievement which works very well with building and the pillars in the middle of the building.
- What do you enjoy most about your job?
MF– Customers for definite. We’ve met some amazing people since opening up some literally from the day we opened and we’ve watched their children grow and they’ve become friends more so than just customers. Coming to work everyday and being able to chat to new people I find really rewarding.
MC– I have to agree with Mel. Seeing children grow from bumps and seeing their siblings go off to school and then popping in with their uniforms on is really is amazing. Having been a teacher and a nursery nurse I think we are used to having that privilege but I don’t think we expected that when we first came into this side of things.
MF– We thought originally that they would just be customers and that we would just be providing a cafe and we didn’t expect to form such great relationships with our customers. It’s not been like a regular business – it’s been amazing
MC– One of our customers bought us a gift of a sign that says enter as guests leave as friends which seems to sum things up pretty well. We’ve watched lots of friendships develop here. Mum’s have come in the door without knowing anyone and walked out the door having met someone and then they return together which is lovely to witness.
MF – In a way we’ve become agony aunts. We’ve been through a lot of the situations that our customers are in, so if they do come in on their own then can always chat to us as we’re hear listen as well. We’ve had a couple of days when we have groups of mums coming down from outside the area from places like Blanford, Swanage, Lyme, Poole and Bournemouth even! So we’ve become a destination for these people to meet up. We have quite a few mums which meet here once a month that live in opposite directions. We feel we are quite unique for a small Dorchester business in being able to attract so many people from different areas of Dorset.
- Has your footfall increased since relocating to Trinity Street?
MC – We’ve had much better exposure here. We loved being in Prince’s Street as it had the whole hidden gem feel their and we had very nice neighbours too who were very supportive. Moving to Trinity Street has changed everything though, the footfall is much much higher which is very obvious. Just having that close proximity to the town centre and the cut through alleyway to South Street has meant that we’re so much more accessible. We didn’t really anticipate how much of a difference it would make, but already we feel very secure it ourselves here hence bringing on-board a manager. There’s a still a whole space upstairs which we haven’t developed yet but we are so much busier here that we will have to do that at some point. Now we can really make the most of our location.
- Describe your venue in 3 words?
MC– Community, Quality, and Passion!
- Aside from running your business, what are some personal hobbies or local activities that you enjoy?
MC– Rugby is my passion outside of work, my husband and children all play and I used play. We are involved with the committees at Dorchester Rugby Club so we are very proactive with that. It’s like having another family to belong to. At University the sport was vital for me to be able to grow as a person, it had a big impact on the person who I became, so I was very lucky to fall in love with a man who was a rugby player. Other than that I love things that are creative . I love art, reading and writing. I’ve written a few children’s books but none of them are complete – a project for another life time I think.
MF– Being a mum takes up the rest of my time outside of work. However one of the main reasons we went into partnership together is our shared love of motherhood and keeping a healthy work-life balance.
MC – Definitely. To be honest I could have gone off and created Munchkins on my own but it would no way near been as much fun as it has been with someone so wonderful as Mel. The benefits of having a business partner is great as we can bounce off each other and share the responsibility and the stress which is really important.
MF – Although I don’t belong to any big clubs, my husband and I did recently treat ourselves to a camper van. Previously we’ve always camped in tents, now we all get in it on a Friday night and go away for the weekends and spend that time in the outdoors as we love walking. I also spend a lot of time with my mum and dad who have always been very supportive.
- What advice would you give to someone who is dreaming of opening their own small business in Dorchester?
MC– Do your homework and research so you know what you’re all about. We wrote a business plan so we had a strong understanding of what we were getting into. Shop around in terms of premises as there are lots of positives to different types of locations and the age of buildings. It’s hard for a brand new business to get off the ground as before you even start there are a million different thing that you have to pay for and then when you do start up there are a million more things that need paying for too! But if you can weather this period then it will stand you in good stead to be a successful business. Go talk to other business owners, draw on their expertise, make friends with them and if you reach out for it you can get involved with a network of other local businesses but it won’t necessarily come to you. You have to get yourself out there. But it’s good as we need to stick together as there’s strength in numbers.Be brave as I think Dorchester is open to new ideas. I think Dorchester can cope with change and is open to people with a passion and willing to work hard for what they want.
More Information About Munchkins Play Cafe:
33 Trinity Street,
Dorset DT1 1TT
Phone: 01305 753435