Food O'Clock

Date Art Café

Ivan & Olga

10 January 2022

It was a relatively cold winter evening and as I was hanging out with my friends seeking a spot to grab a warm cup of coffee, we decided to stroll along the waterfront till we come across something which suits us - our stroll was cut short… very short! As soon as we stepped onto the front, there it was! A big heart all lit up… and how can you refuse an offer of love? We were drawn to the café and the closer we got, the more welcoming it looked. As we entered, a joyous man with a calming spirit (whose name we later got to know is Ivan) greeted us, asked what we were after, and passionately gave us his inhouse recommendations. While we were waiting for our bumblebee coffee, pumpkin chai, and inhouse mulled wine, we couldn’t help but wonder how would the bumblebee coffee look like - cos until this evening neither of us had yet come across the idea of combining coffee with orange juice! Meanwhile we could indulge in the sense of warmth and safety this café offers and I knew that there would be more to this experience as the evening unfolded. As we were at the counter we couldn’t help to genuinely praise the team for the service and experience provided. With their humble yet professional approach, Ivan and Olga told us more about their concept behind the café and we learned there’s so much more to it! That evening we left with a warm smile on our face, savouring the welcoming aura of the hosts. The day after Life on Point reached out to Ivan and Olga - the wonderful people and beautiful souls behind this concept as this gem couldn’t not be shared!

Tell us about yourself… What’s your story and what lured you into the restaurant industry?

Ivan: So my wife has more than ten years of experience in the restaurant business and she makes sure to tell me this all the time 😊 (Olga laughs). I have zero years of experience in the restaurant business, so that makes my wife better than me in one more way.

But I have a lot of experience with people, as a psychiatrist, and, because I left my job as a doctor, I feel I need to make an even bigger success from our project. The mission has grown, not shrunk. We never set out to just sell coffee or food – even if we have a café, our mission is not to “cut hunger”, our mission is to help people have a better experience of life. For me my “one-to-one” work (with clinical clients) has changed to “one-to-many” (with community).

My personal dream has always been to make a lot of people happy, and now we can do it through food, energy, design, emotions, experience, art, beauty, socialising, community events, sports, yoga, dates, love, inclusive cuisine with gluten free and plant-based milk options, and the list keeps growing. For example our new mini-project, “date with home” – is a chance for people who moved to Malta to eat and drink food that they miss from their home country. We treat people well, they come back, they bring friends, we give them an opportunity to book parties and get-togethers in our place, we organise small events such as Permaculture Pictures (a type of film club) and seminars to raise people’s consciousness. With our event space we help people celebrate their funerals, birthday parties, staff parties, but most of all, celebrate life and improve their social and emotional wellbeing.

We want to make the world a better place, not just less hungry.

Olga: You know, this industry a long time ago started to very quickly teach me how to love people, how to learn how to start to love people, even if they are impolite, even if they are drunk, or they have something that you don’t like. It’s my habit to remind myself “now I should love this person for something, for something” and to see yourself in your customers. And to serve your customers like you’re serving yourself, or better. Even having worked in the restaurant business, being a leader in a business is now more beautiful. When customers visit, you feel like someone came to your home, you give your personal recommendations, and of course it’s beautiful, very fantastic, that guests become friends.

Also I think it’s like a very common romantic dream to have a small restaurant close to the sea when they retire, so: congratulations husband, a dream came true. Even today’s party, a celebration of one of our guests friends who passed away over the new year – a celebration of life with a group of warm people. We are at a point when the café is not just a place to eat, but a place to feel emotions. That’s all. Different, very different atmosphere. Like some community vibe, a taste of home.

Ivan: By reading this interview a lot of people will understand that we are actually crazy in what we’re doing – this is very unusual and beautiful and ground-breaking.

Olga: Why crazy?

Ivan: In a nice way, obviously. I think I would like to spend my important celebrations in a café like this. And the beautiful thing is that when people come once, they keep coming. So – yes. It’s being appreciated!

Food is a common language. What are three skills needed to be a successful restauranteur?

True, food is a common language, we have recipes from around the world, we give them a Slavic twist, and use local products. People constantly tell us “we really enjoyed your Shakshuka, it reminded us of our time in Israel, but this was the best shakshuka we’ve ever tasted from around the world”. This is our aim – to give ultimate experiences through whatever we do – and to help people feel emotions such as surprise, wonder and playfulness. At the moment it is not so easy to physically travel around the world, so we offer a chance to try international dishes from one place. We don’t aim to be perfect, but we constantly aim to help people feel good. One of the most important skills for a successful restauranteur is to want to give people a beautiful experience. Not just to sell what is already available, but to give people another option, to give people another experience in life. So first of all to be successful you need to focus on giving something valuable.

Secondly you need patience. Patience with humans is very important. And patience with financial results is also important, because it takes time for people to get to know about your product, and genuine organic growth by word-of-mouth takes time. But when you have a good product and you keep believing in it, everything will be ok!

Olga: The third and main skill is love.

Can you describe your typical day? The hospitality industry can be quite stressful. How do you organize, plan and prioritize your work?

At 7am we start serving customers breakfast, coffee and croissants – not many restaurants serve early breakfast around here, so this is a tangible need. The varied menu (lunch, dinner, specialty tea from India and Russia, adventurous coffee and tasty cocktails and kannoli!) means that we could get busy any time of the day – and we often joke about how, for the first time in our life, being immensely busy is not a problem! So sometimes we have a tsu-nami of orders, which is also a good result!

We meet guests from all walks of life: people who live on the yacht-marina, tourists and locals who have already heard about us, and our growing group of repeat-guests! One thing is in common: they leave with a smile; this is our biggest success, and what helps us keep going!

We try to be personally present at the café, to receive as much feedback as possible, to explain our concept and our mini-projects, and to enjoy people’s reactions when I show them upstairs and they say “wooow!”

Having just opened two months ago, it really feels like we have a newborn baby, with our personal schedules revolving around it constantly. And when we’re not in the café, we’re thinking about the café – including how to smoothen our systems and optimise our products. We are completely immersed and excited!

What are the biggest challenges for aspiring restaurant owners?

First and foremost, management of time, systems, resources and priorities is always important.

Secondly, being clear about your product is also important. For example we spent six months trying out different suppliers around the Maltese Islands, before we decided which coffee, food and drinks suppliers to collaborate with – and we did this because we wanted to offer the best options available. But not everyone has this time. We have still not finalised any deals with sponsorships, because we want to create an ideal win-win collaboration with partners that believe in the same things as we do.

Thirdly, human factor! Working with a team of staff who become like your family – involves getting to know your team personally and having honest conversations and giving constructive feedback is our way of overcoming challenges. We want to make sure the energy in the café is at all times the energy we want to transmit.

Another obvious challenge is of course the relationship with everything else in the world – such as seasons and pandemics. This is particularly challenging for people aspiring to start business within tourism and hospitality, compared to someone setting up a “safer” business within IT or medicine. A few restaurants close to us are closing for winter, because of these challenges, so we would seem crazy to be doing what we’re doing. But then again, we’re in it for the long-term.

Dining out does not only fulfil a need, but is above all a social and leisurely experience. What is your restaurant’s vision when it comes to satisfying customer’s needs?

a. The need to Feel

First of all, our mission is “to help our customers to feel” – and to be more in touch with their emotions. Our customers are people who need to try interesting things, taste particular foods, and be surprised time and time again by the same little place. Our coffee and dinner menu will surprise people’s tastebuds. Our teas and cocktails are also impressive in their variety. We understand that if our guests remember their experience with us, they will become our customers.

b. The need to Feel At Home

Anyone who has lived away from their birth-country will agree that it’s quite possible to feel homesick when you miss speaking your own language, eating familiar food, singing traditional songs. During our “Date With Home” events, expats can group up and organise meetups and celebrate culture and cuisine and traditions on a regular basis.

c. The need to enjoy Art

We have a social art project: we created a small gallery in our upstairs space and we use this to expose and promote art created by young people including those who have never exhibited before. We help them to sell their first artworks and reduce the barriers that stop them from pursuing artistic activity. And in return, our customers get to see a new art exhibition for free every month!

d. The need to be Inspired

Every second Tuesday of the month, we have a free Film Club “to help raise people’s consciousness” and to watch movies designed at pushing us to see life differently. This can be a welcome break from watching news about the same virus for more than two years!

e. The need to Relax

Given background in mental health, we spoke a lot about how the café aims to leave a soothing, almost therapeutic effect. It is a place where people come and have a rest, enjoy a few minutes without madness or traffic, but instead, a beautiful view of the centre of Bormla’s marina. We spend a lot of time to make sure that the interior gives a pleasant experience from a five-senses point of view!

f. The need to have somewhere Familiar to return to

The biggest compliment is when people – including tourists who have limited time in Malta – return to our café over and over again, which means they feel comfortable and happy. Job done!

Looking back at your entrepreneurial journey so far, if you could do one thing differently, what would it be?

We started dreaming about this project from our honeymoon, and actually we’re in love with this project. Even if sometimes there have been hard times that made us question everything, we wouldn’t change a lot of things. We have faith that we are in the right place at the right time and our job to keep finding solutions that will help us not only with our business but more so with our personal growth. We have high quality problems that we wouldn’t have had, if we hadn’t taken the decisions and risks that we did.

Whilst looking back, we also look forward. And we understand that within a few months, DATE Art Café will be considered as one of Malta’s most unusual cafes to hang out at.

What is your proudest moment as a restaurant owner?

We are proud of how our team manages to create a smile on people’s faces at the end of dinner, and when guests don’t only say “thank you for the food” but also “well done, it’s a great project, keep going!” and even give us helpful feedback.

And it’s a big pleasure to have met you Lucille as our customer who decided to interview us for your magazine! It’s a very big compliment for us that you want to share this with your audience 😊 😊

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