Leading me back to Lisbon, where it all began.
I am not a mouse, nor am I a man, but I do like to plan. And many of those plans have indeed gone awry… but not nearly so many as in the last couple of years.
It was the summer of 2014 and I was fast approaching the 10th anniversary of my property career. It had been a good decade – a great decade actually – thriving in London as a spritely twenty-something, steadily climbing the career ladder and actually doing pretty well.
But then things began to change and I felt almost as though I'd 'lost' myself. Slowly and steadily, and certainly whilst I wasn’t paying attention, I had managed to become what I can only describe as a ‘corporate cut-out’ in an industry that I had never even intended to be a part of. My youthful ambitions of Fashion Editor/ Travel Writer / Art Critic were now buried under an impressive pile of LK Bennett shift dresses, Russell & Bromley court shoes and one of the most unexciting black books known to man (no offence to all you lovely estate agents, lawyers, bankers...).
Where, I wondered, had the creativity disappeared to? Until I was 21, I spent my life immersed in music, books, art and travel. But by 31 I was immersed in breakfast meetings with estate agents, conferences with tax advisors and drinks parties with wealth managers (OK, so the last one I didn’t object to so much).
It was time to start asking myself some questions, which I thought would be a simple task and that I would quickly put together a PLAN for my next steps to professional fulfilment.
But it turned out that the simplest of questions "What do you like to do Charlotte? What are you good at, Charlotte? What does success look like to you, Charlotte?” were damned difficult to answer. So difficult in fact, that I decided to ask a professional to give me the answers instead.
I’ll never forget that first meeting with my career coach. He had asked me to send him a short summary of my life along with my CV before we met. Naturally, I thought that with these two pivotal documents and half an hour of general chit-chat, I would leave his office with a nice comprehensive list of all the options he thought I should pursue. But what actually happened was that he asked me even more questions that I couldn’t answer and I left feeling confused and frustrated. But I was learning a valuable lesson – that the process of getting to understand myself was a job in itself and I needed to be prepared to dedicate some serious time and energy to finding out what it was that I really wanted.
A journey akin to the destination - full of ups and downs and always colourful
A word of encouragement to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation. When your identity has been tied up in a role - be it professional or domestic - for any length of time, it isn't easy figuring out what to do next. In fact it's incredibly challenging, if not a little scary. One of my deepest beliefs was that I wasn’t capable of doing anything other than property because it was all I thought I knew. But that simply wasn't true. I just needed time to eek out my other skills and go in search of opportunities that would enable me to discover - or rediscover - them. You do have to be proactive though. These things don’t announce themselves to you in the middle of First Dates on a Monday night. Sadly.
It actually took me six months to decide what to do next. Six months of going into work every day, desperate to be anywhere but there. I don’t know about you, but once I’ve decided to do something, I want it done yesterday. So it’s difficult for me, this ‘transition’ thing. Even more difficult was the fact that I had crossed off a long list of ‘sensible’ options – wealth management, marketing, interior design to name but a few - and decided to pursue the one thing that got me truly fired up. Starting my own, rather niche, Portuguese food business. Not the option that simply required me to work out my 3-month notice, buy a new handbag and pull up a chair at my new desk. No. This required a considerable investment of time and money whilst still working, to get myself far enough down the line to justify leaving my day job. And it took me another year, almost to the day, to be in a position to hand in my notice and get the hell outta there.
deSILVA’S was launched in November 2015. A thorough business plan and 3 years’ worth of financial projections acted as a lovely, comforting security blanket that enabled me to believe this would now be a simple process of following the PLAN until I reached each of my targets.
1) Build client base via food markets, bespoke events and e-commerce website
2) Develop branded product line and wholesale business
3) Open fabulous Portuguese emporium in Marylebone to satisfy insane demand built up during aforementioned stages 1 & 2
And things got off to a great start. I launched with a Portuguese wine tasting event with my friend Amelia Singer (wine educator and now, I hasten to add, of ‘The Wine Show’ fame and a total inspiration to me). After the tasting, yours-truly cooked a three course Portuguese feast for 20. Hilariously, I made the decision to wear 5 inch heels for the occasion and equally hilariously had visions of sitting down to eat with my guests and enjoying the fruits of my labour. But it turns out that cooking for 20 paying guests is not quite the same as 6 of your best friends. You live and learn…
Happy customers and happy hosts at the end of the evening - finally with a full glass in hand
This was swiftly followed by a Christmas fair at one of London’s top independent schools, where children of the likes of Colin Firth and Mick Jagger attend – although sadly neither Mr Darcy nor the Rolling Stones have made it into my shiny, new black-book. Yet.
The most Christmassy Portuguese hampers you ever did see
Then came a plethora of online orders for Christmas, which kept me busy packing and wrapping and wheeling boxes to the post office in my granny’s shopping trolley until the end of the year. Come January, I rolled up my sleeves, bought my first puffa jacket, and tried my hand as ‘Market-Trader’ spending my days rotating between some of London’s best foodie markets from Sloane Square to St Paul’s.
deSILVA'S does Duke of York Square - Chelsea's favourite foodie market
And it was during this time, as I was trying to figure out how on earth one single human being was supposed to keep all of this up AND move on to carefully-planned stage 2, that I met Jorge Fernandez of Fernandez & Wells; a small chain of food and wine bars with a ‘continental market stall’ vibe. Their focus on authentic, simple produce in an urban yet rustic environment shared many similarities with my own vision. And Jorge is a man who has trodden a very similar path to the one that I seemed to be on; starting with Monmouth coffee selling beans at Borough Market, he went on to run their first London café and from there, developed his own café concept with journalist and Monmouth regular, Rick Wells.
Jorge Fernandez & Rick Wells - movers and coffee bean shakers
Jorge listened to my story and was hugely encouraging about my concept but also challenged me in my goals and strategy:
“What is it that you really want to do Charlotte? (NOT THIS AGAIN!) Is it e-commerce, is it wholesale or is it a café? They are all totally different businesses and you need to be committed. Choose one thing and stick with it”
And so I chose. I chose to ruthlessly draw a line through phase two of the PLAN and jump feet first to the final destination. I was going to open my café!
Obviously this would require a few more resources; business partners and funding to name but two. Jorge had also suggested that I get some experience in the industry first - sensible - and I managed to find a job that threw me in at the deep end of the Food and Beverage world, working as PA to a restaurateur.
My boss, former Nobu founder no-less, knew from the outset that I was working on my own food business and in the early days, he took great interest in my endeavours. So much so that he actually told me to stop everything until he had a chance go through my business plan with me.
“Activity does not mean productivity...”
...he would say, assuming that I was running around like a blue-arsed fly generating nothing of value because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. There was, of course, an element of truth to this but equally I should have taken his instruction to "STOP EVERYTHING" with a pinch of salt. As months went by the illusive business meeting had still not materialised (turns out he was more interested in making a success of his own restaurants rather than mine… fair enough!) and I had made next to no progress on deSILVA'S either. So I took the view that I would just try to learn as much as possible about the restaurant industry and hope that in this new world, I might also come across potential business partners and investors.
But in April I decided to go part-time with the restaurateur. I needed to re-focus on my own project and decided - having not yet met either a business partner or investor – that my focus should be on building the e-commerce business. It was the obvious way to keep developing and refining my offering with the resources I already had and would enable me to spend much more time out in Portugal, finding new producers and building my collection. Not quite the Grand Café Opening I had hoped for in 2017, but a good, sensible and suitably appealing plan in the meantime.
Now it is July. And it should come as no great surprise that the excellent aforementioned plan is no-longer. Actually, I’m just going to say it’s “on hold” for now… (I’m learning)
I have, however, managed to spend a lot more time in Portugal over the last few months and, as a result, have come to the conclusion that what I really want, is to live there. To be completely immersed in the culture that I love and become a true expert in my field. For many reasons London – my beloved London – no longer works for me. Certainly not in the way I want it to or am used to. And it seems as though the path I have been on for the last couple of years has actually been leading me to a totally different destination than I had PLANNED.
At my Lisbon home, where I wake up to this view and can be downtown in 15 minutes. Beats the London commute...
Things are still relatively unclear and uncertain – like where I'll live, how I’ll earn money or what I’ll do with deSILVA’s. You know, just the small things. But little by little doors are opening – and closing – and I feel that I’m on the right track. I’m trying hard to let go, to learn the art of living more ‘fluidly’ and also to trust, day by day.
Even though my original PLAN has not played out how I wanted, my original PURPOSE remains the same. To discover and share and promote Portugal beyond its borders. I started this whole project for the love of Lisbon and now, it seems, that I will be living there.
Now, that’s what I call a PLAN.
Note to all my lovely customers: this is the reason that the online shop is currently closed! If you are looking for Portuguese produce and don't have the time or patience to wait for my plans to unfold, please do get in touch and I'd be delighted to help where I can!