Setting Up Shop: Nadya Mousawi, Mouse and de Lotz

She has a six-month-old baby, is on maternity leave from her Virgin Atlantic cabin crew job and runs Mouse and de Lotz coffee shop in east London. Nadya Mousawi, 39, talks setting up shop…

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Iraq, the eldest of four, and lived there until the age of 10. My father is Iraqi, my mother is English/Ukrainian. We moved over to England in 86, because of the war, and Bradford became our new home.

What do you do?
I’m mum to Remy, six months, cabin crew for Virgin Atlantic and a café owner.

First tell us about the cabin crew job, how did that come about?
I was in Birmingham doing a fashion and textiles degree. I finished that, had a gap year – travelling – and when I came back, decided that I’d take another year out. I got a job with Virgin Atlantic as cabin crew.

I used to say to myself: I’m just doing this as a temporary job, before I get a proper job that will utilise my degree. But eventually I admitted to myself that I really loved it and 15 years later, I’m still doing it.

Why did you decide to set up your own business?
My passion for cooking, really, and baking. And drinking good coffee. Five years ago it was definitely harder to find good coffee and I’d always had a dream to open my own café.

I met Victoria through one of my best friends, she’d just become a mum and also wanted to open a café. We brainstormed, did 11 months of research – going to other cafes, getting on my Vespa and driving around Hackney, looking for areas and potential premises – until we found a spot on Shacklewell Lane.

That part of Dalston was still a bit of a no-go area and at the time, everyone said: what you doing that for? It’s a bit too early for Shacklewell Lane. But we stuck to our guns – we were adamant that was where we wanted it.

We tried to persuade the landlord to rent us the property, which was derelict at the time. The shutters were down and he said it was a solicitor’s office, it had also been an art gallery – but you’d never have known.

Eventually he relented and we did six weeks of refurbishments. By that point, Victoria was pregnant with her second baby so we had a tight deadline – she was keen to still go ahead, but it would need to open before she gave birth.

Going back to work after having Remy – having the café to go back to (I went back to baking when he was three weeks old) – had a really positive effect on me taking to motherhood

Where did the name come from?
We brainstormed loads of different ideas. I’d be away with work, going to different cafés, researching, then I’d be on flights asking the crew what they all thought of different names.

One of the names was Mouse and de Lotz – Mouse from my surname, de Lotz from Victoria’s maiden name. When I came up with it, a lot of people said: you can’t call a café ‘mouse’, as people will associate it with mice. People had really strong opinions.

My auntie rang me and said: “I really feel strongly that it sounds bad, you can’t put ‘food’ and ‘mouse’ together.” Victoria’s brother felt similarly, he said: “people won’t come”.

But we agreed on it. In the end, we decided it was a quirky name. People say: why Mouse and de Lotz? So it has quite a lot of interest. Also, it’s nice to have a name that’s not about coffee or cakes.

What was most difficult about the early days?
The hardest thing was probably being at Virgin, having a second job, and not having any days off – I was always working. Also, Victoria had a newborn baby. We opened in mid June; her baby was born in July, so there was lots of juggling.

I was doing between 5/6 flights a month – going away every week for 2/3 nights. We were open six days a week, closing on Tuesdays – and then a year later; we started opening seven days a week.

When we first opened, we didn’t have bread suppliers – or fruit and veg people who could deliver – so I’d wake up, get on my Vespa, collect bread from Newington Green, collect all the fruit and veg and arrive at the café to open at 8am. When I was flying on trips, Victoria would do it in her car.

We hired staff straightaway, before we opened, so that they were in on the open day. I think there were about five people. But only three working each day – including us, and we were working a lot. Either me or Victoria would be in every day when we first opened.

We both baked cakes. When we opened we were doing salads, cheese on toast, sandwiches and cakes: whoopee pies, flapjacks, tiffin that I made the night before we opened at 2am because we were decorating up to the last minute, then opening the next day at 8am.

How is it going now?
We still have to work really hard – there’s an unbelievable amount of behind the scenes work. With your own business, you don’t ever switch off, so that’s really hard. And relying on staff – we’ve got great staff but still have to do all the orders, the accounts, and one of us goes in every day.

I’ve had a staff member let me down at 5am, by text, so I had to get up, express a bottle for Remy – when he was three months old – and do a Saturday shift, then he was ill Sunday so I had to cover that too. It was hard leaving Remy two days in a row.

How does it work – having a baby, cabin crew work and running a business?
I’ll start back as cabin crew in February – I’m cabin service supervisor. I don’t know yet how it will be. I’m putting it off. But I’ll be part time, doing two to three trips a month, so it’s not every week that I’ll be away.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to fly extra in holidays so Toby – my husband – can look after Remy, as he’s a teacher. And I’m also hoping to find flexible childcare where I can give a month’s notice and where I don’t have to do fixed days… if that even exists.

I will say that going back to work after having Remy – having the café to go back to (I went back to baking when he was three weeks old) – had a really positive effect on me taking to motherhood.

It’s great fun but don’t underestimate how much you have to put into it

I didn’t get any of the motherhood blues that people talk about. Or people say you feel like you lose your identity or you’re constantly doing baby things – I never had that. One part of my life stayed the same. I was so busy and had that to focus on.

Is your partner supportive of your various occupations?
Toby reaps the rewards of my Virgin work, as he gets to come on trips – so he loves that aspect but as far as me going away – he’s used to it, because it’s always been the way, since we got together three and a half years ago.

What does an average day look like for you?
The last three days, we’ve had a little bit of a routine because Remy’s being weaned and I’ve just got my head round it. So we’ve been waking up at 7am and having breakfast together. This morning we had porridge with pear, banana and Greek yoghurt.

We get the bus to work with the cakes in the buggy basket. Sometimes I go into the café intending to bake and return home with the ingredients in the bottom of the Bugaboo, having not baked, and end up doing it at home. It’s dictated by Remy.

During the day, my sister or dad might have Remy for an hour. When he was smaller, I’d bake with him in the Ergo, or while he was sleeping in the pushchair. He’s always in the café – my sister might come and hold him in the kitchen while I bake.

We close the café at 4pm, so I head home around 4/4,30, although we have staff to cash-up so sometimes I go in early and leave early. As far as hours go, it’s flexible, as I don’t have to do a full shift – so I can see how Remy’s doing on the day.

I cook a lot of Arabic food at home – fish, or vegetarian. Yesterday we had a roasted butternut and feta lasagna. Every day is different, we try to vary our carbs – so if we have rice one day, we’ll have pasta or potatoes the next. We do a lot of rice dishes, tomato sauces.

A couple of times a week my dad cooks for us, bringing it into the café – delicious Iraqi food. And he makes hummous for the café so he made some for Remy without the salt in it and he devoured it.

Can anyone set up a business, or does it take a certain type of person?
I think you’ve got to be really dedicated. It does take a certain type of person – some people like more stability and security and to know where they’re at. But I like each day to be different.

I’m not sure if I’m a risk-taker but I make decisions quickly. I’d never gamble but for the café, Victoria and I put all our savings into it. It was a measured risk, as we’d done 11 months of research before we started it. It definitely wasn’t decided on a whim.

Advice for anyone thinking about setting up a coffee shop?
It’s great fun but don’t underestimate how much you have to put into it. Loads of people told us that, and it was still harder than we imagined.

Although it’s worked well for us having other things: children, another job, I’d say, ideally, do it as your main thing so you’ve got more time to be in there. If you’re not working in there full time, like we don’t, you won’t make a great living.

Mouse and deLotz
103 Shacklewell Ln, London E8 2EB; 020 3489 8082

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