Amongst the macarons and pastries of his new cafe, Alexander Torres knows first-hand just how hard it can be to keep positive during an aviation downturn. Having started training to become a pilot in 2012, during the aftermath of the global financial crisis, he worked as cabin crew for several years before getting his first flying role in Belfast.
When the Covid-19 pandemic took hold last year, Alex was in line training for a new long-haul job at Qatar Airways and initially thought his role would be ok, given the airline’s strength. But it wasn’t long before the airline, like many others, started cutting staff. Alex lost his job in July 2020.
“It was back to square one, back to square 2012,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘What do I do?’. Usually, you can find another job in aviation, but this time there’s nothing.”
Alex started to think about what else he enjoyed and landed on cooking and the idea of setting up his own business, using some savings.
“It was either stay at home, do nothing and live on those savings, while hoping for aviation to recover. Or use the money to invest.”
Drawing on the risk assessment and threat and error management skills that pilots use on every flight, the 27-year-old Frenchman came up with a business plan for an aviation-themed cafe. “Cooking was something I always enjoyed and even with restrictions, takeaways were still allowed open so it made sense.”
Flight7 opened in Belfast in December and is currently a takeaway only business due to lockdown restrictions. The cafe’s Instagram feed is full of tempting macarons, pastries, sandwiches and hot drinks, all inspired by airlines’ food offerings and routes. You can even recreate the feeling of being at 35,000 feet by buying your own in-flight meal trays.
“Even though it’s only takeaway, when you enter you have airplane sounds, the departure board, the ambience is there. You choose where you want to fly and we bring you something inspired by that flight,” Alex explains.
Alex says Flight7 is already making money. “One of the benefits of being a pilot is that we have the risk assessment skills. It’s an amazing tool to have. The goal was to survive the pandemic and we are making enough money to operate, so the business plan is working.” He’s also proud of the fact that he has created jobs for other people.
Setting up has not been without its hiccups though. Alex first tried a “ghost” restaurant concept, where you deliver food from a kitchen but have no physical restaurant. He says that didn’t work very well in Belfast, so he swiftly turned his focus to finding a shop. With the pandemic raging and shops closed, finding the equipment and decor for his cafe also proved tricky. YouTube videos proved invaluable when it came to building props. Two weeks before opening, the young pilot was still looking for a coffee machine.
Another setback occurred when Alex caught Covid-19 himself, just a few weeks after opening. “It’s not enjoyable at all,” he cautions. “I would advise people to be very careful.” The cafe of course has strict Covid-19 health and tracking protocols in place and it was not the source of Alex’s infection. Alex recovered quickly and fortunately suffered no breathing difficulties, but his sense of smell took another two weeks to return fully. That nearly resulted in disaster one day, when some treats were left in the oven too long. “I almost burned the place down,” Alex admits. It was only thanks to a customer inquiring as to the source of the burning smell that he realised what had happened.
What has surprised Alex about the venture? “I was surprised that my cooking skills were so good!,” he laughs. He was also overwhelmed by the support of the local community when they heard about his cafe. “Even my competitors were nice.”
Alex still longs for the skies, of course.
“As soon as I can, I will go back,” he admits. “I miss it terribly.” Alex says he will keep the cafe going by finding a new manager when he returns to the flight deck. “I am a believer, there will be a surge in travel when this is gone,” he predicts. In the meantime, he is keeping his licence valid with regular simulator checks and uses a computer flight simulator once a week to practice the checklists and operating procedures.
He modestly shrugs off the achievement of opening up a new business during a global pandemic. “I’m just trying to go about it my way. And my way is to work. If I stayed at home I could end up depressed. Creating things, having an aviation team in place, having crew come here, it keeps you optimistic and gives you positive vibes and that is important. I am trying to show everyone that we will get through it.”