Hunt & Darton Cafe isn’t just a place to get food. It is a place to experience performance. Run by artists Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton since 2012, the cafe has moved from town to town all over the UK, staying in each location for roughly a month. With their mix of art, cuisine and oddball antics, the cafe has proved popular with the public, critics and festival organisers alike. Now Then caught up with Jenny Hunt as she was in the process of making the final preparations for the cafe’s visit to Manchester as part of Sick! Festival.

 

Can you describe the cafe to us?

It’s a fully functioning cafe. You will be able to get a cup of tea. The aesthetic is shabby chic, old tables, and bits and bobs. Then there are items that seem like they are part of a cafe, but they’re not, like our survival shelf. So the aesthetic is quite busy.

You run the cafe five days a week, which means you’re performing as a full-time job. Is it tiring?

It’s an endurance performance. We stay there for a month because we think it doesn’t have full impact until you have integrated more into what’s around. It is large scale being in Manchester, so it is different from when we have done small towns. But we will start to get repeat customers, people start to get it, and it makes a space where you can really come and play.

Who are your customers?

We get people from the school run, people into arts, people who are pensioners who we look after and want to have some fun. It is a bit of everything, which is really satisfying.

People take different things from it. People who want more art can order from our three course meal of performance, which we deliver on our trolley. But if you just want food we can leave you alone a bit more.

What kind of food do you serve?

It is based on our 80s childhood. So things like Coco Pops, toad-in-the-hole. Then our speciality: the roast dinner sandwich. We do a cake tin as well, and Max (the chef) makes things like Bounty bar cake, Terry’s Chocolate Orange cake. So pretty sweet too.

You have taken the cafe all over the country. Has the response you’ve received varied at all?

It really is different when you move from town to town. A good example is when we did it in Stoke-on-Trent. It was very different from Edinburgh, and then Cambridge is different again. But what you learn is that you’re part of something, and that when we are generous, people are generous back. But you have to be flexible and you have to listen to what people want, rather than just giving them what you think they want.

In Edinburgh, everyone wanted more performance, constant entertainment. They were more judgemental in a critical way. This meant we were always being larger than life. But in Stoke, people often found us accidentally and just came in for a cup of tea, so they might just want to have a chat.

It is about understanding that and then introducing it gently. Challenging their expectations, but seeing if that is what they want. Then they enjoy it rather than it being confrontational or negative. It has to be positive.

What kind of feedback do you get from customers?

It always creates a community and becomes part of people’s routine. That is great, because it becomes beyond just what we put in.

The way we do it is we are comically strict, so there is enough structure that you have something to work off. If something breaks, we celebrate – we celebrate any failure, in fact. We tell people that if you can just lower your expectations, we’ll get on better. It is silly, but at the same time significant and meaningful.

How do you fit in with Sick! Festival?

Because this time we’re part of Sick! Festival, which has sex, abuse and suicide as its themes, we have to respond to that. It is a great place in a cafe to create dialogue. But we are also quite silly, so for the sex theme we have sexy day, where everything will be an innuendo and the food might be a bit phallic.

How did you first come up with the idea of the cafe?

We studied together at St Martin’s, starting in sculpture. I did a lot of spoken word. Holly did a lot where she interacted with her sculptures. Then we started doing the spoken word poetry scene in London. We got onto embarrassing things, challenging ourselves with that. Then stage work dealing with things like boredom, or we would learn to do something or research something we didn’t know about together. We kept constantly trying to close the gap by getting the audience to join in. Again, we did it in a celebratory way, not a confrontational way. The more we did that the more we realised that having an installation where people arrive and we perform in it is what we want to do.

What’s the biggest challenge of running the cafe?

Logistics is the hardest part. If it is busy, you have to get more people in. There’s nothing nice about a cafe breaking down. If you have volunteers, they have to know the system. If it breaks down too much, then it isn’t that interesting. People lose trust in us – which, while we deal with it in a performance way, really isn’t that fun. Keeping it working keeps it enjoyable.

The other thing is keeping it fresh for ourselves – keeping it creative. We have to continue to engage with it mentally. You could easily get lazy. We have other performers come in, which helps with it.

What do you have planned after your current tour?

Because it is a bridge project between art and the public it is interesting for festivals. A theatre can’t always be accessible, whereas we can. So we have people interested outside of our tour already.

We can also draw in a new audience for people, because we can tell the public about their programme. We can help them sell tickets and so on.

We’re hopefully going to China in July. We’re going to Rotterdam too. It’s going to be interesting to see what our Britishness does when we go abroad, when we take it out of our context. It would be good to grow the cafe internationally and bring in elements from other countries, and take something from every place we visit.

Hunt & Darton Cafe is on tour until September, taking in Folkestone, Harlow and Peterborough. For more information visit
huntanddartoncafe.com