The Gryphon chats to recent Leeds graduate Reuben Balkitis about his new role as manager of Balcony
Could you start of by telling us what Balcony is all about. It’s a café run for students by students – how is this evident in the café itself and why is it so important?
Having students involved with Balcony is incredibly important. Whether it’s through the student staff that work in Balcony or the societies that want to use our space for their weekly meetings, I am always open to hearing ideas from students, because ultimately it is here for them.
We also have the blackboard where we encourage customers to write feedback so that we can act upon these comments to form a “you said, we did” policy.
With regards to working with students and societies, we have already formed a relationship with the Coffee Society and provided them with a meeting place and a discount on all purchases. We welcome all societies and will work with them to deliver student led events within the space and support them where we can. We will also be providing barista training for interested students.
How have you tailored Balcony to meet student needs and wants?
By opening Balcony, we have created additional employability chances for students including the new intern role of Training Catering Supervisor, which is what I do. Balcony also provides another source of income for Leeds University Union that then feeds back into providing services and support for students within the Union.
As times change, students have become more discerning coffee lovers, and providing an alternative choice to Hidden Café in different surroundings has been an essential decision to reflect this change in behaviour. The Balcony opens throughout the week and at longer hours than Hidden Café, so offering an alternative venue is always a benefit – who wouldn’t want their early morning coffee fix?
How did you go about finding out what students really wanted from a new café on campus?
We started planning Balcony about 10 months ago and once we had formed a basic idea we consulted our food critic club (made up of 20 student members) to give feedback on the ideas and make any suggestions for change. They were able to taste the coffee and look at the menu ideas, which allowed their suggestions and thoughts to be used in the development of the final product.
The logo and brand design was put together by student designers supported by our marketing team and they were also involved in the design and development of the outlet itself.
How does Balcony fit in to the union? How does its atmosphere differ from, say, Hidden Café?
Hidden Café is a fantastic established outlet that is loved by all students at Leeds but Balcony represents something completely different. Where Hidden Café is perfect for students who want to have a sit down coffee and a chat with friends, Balcony offers a bespoke high-street coffee experience for students on the go. If Hidden Café is a comfortable old sweater, Balcony is a fresh pair of kicks!
What’s your favourite thing on the Balcony menu?
By far, my favourite thing we make is the blueberry and cream cheese croissant. On the surface, it sounds like a really strange combination but it’s really good. Americans have been eating blueberry and cream cheese bagels for years, so why not shake it up with a croissant instead. Plus, I can convince myself I’m being healthy as I’ll be eating one of my five-a-day.
You’ve recently graduated with a degree in Japanese. What attracted you to this managerial position and how have you settled in to the role?
When people see that someone’s graduated with a languages degree, the vast majority assume that they’re either going to teach or go into translating. That’s far from the case. Japanese has allowed me to develop my analytical skills and creative thinking abilities like with any other degree. With this being Balcony’s first year of business, I’ve been using these skills non-stop.
I would say that I’ll never settle into this role. Each day offers something vastly different and the moment you feel like you’re settling in, something knocks you off your feet. But that’s what’s fantastic. When something different or challenging comes my way, I have the chance to work through it and really achieve the best.
What are your top three tips for any soon-to-be graduates looking to get in to managing or catering?
When I was in my final year, I felt like I was doing something wrong because I didn’t quite know what to do when I finished, so I honestly don’t feel qualified to give three top tips. My one piece of advice though, for everyone, not just managing and catering, is try not to feel so disappointed. Don’t worry because other people have started applying or getting jobs and you aren’t sure what to do. Don’t feel disappointed if you get rejected one time, five times, or even thirty times, especially if they were the places you had your heart set upon.
Looking forward, how would you like to see Balcony develop?
Since the initial plans, Balcony has always been seen as a student coffee house, and that’s what I’d like to see develop even further. I’d love to see students feeling as though Balcony is part of their daily lives, not only through serving them food and coffee, but also by allowing them opportunities to become more involved with the outlet. I want to see Balcony keep growing. When someone on campus says “shall we go for coffee?”, I want the response to be “Balcony or Hidden Café?”.
Balcony is situated on the Mezz above the Refectory and is open Monday – Friday 8am – 8pm.