Awkward Interviews: Portobello Road Edition

My initial plan was to find work at a London gym. After three months waitressing at a coffee shop in Ireland, I definitely wanted to stay far away from food.

Then I saw this ad in TNT magazine: ‘NOTTING HILL. Counter position available for American-themed bakery. Knowledge of American pastries a plus.’

Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcake
I cannot say no to a red velvet cupcake. Ever.

All my resolve crumbled, and I submitted an application right away.

I figured I had an immediate in, because

1) I’m American.

2) I love baked goods.

On top of that, I lived in Notting Hill. What could be more convenient?

The owner, Taran, called me back that afternoon and we set up an interview. They told me to look for the green door at the beginning of Portobello Road.

Portobello Road is one long, winding street, dotted with doors of many colors. I walked past the bakery three times before calling Taran, who directed me to the Portobello Antiques Market. The manager, Chris, a portly, smiling, Canadian, was waving at me from the door.

“Hi, I’m Chris! Nice to meet you. Welcome to The Hummingbird.”

The bakery was less a bakery and more a kitchen under construction. The interior was blindingly white. Two men were on ladders in the corner, drilling holes in the ceiling. A young man with unbelievably close-set eyes stood at a counter next to the baker, who was busy stirring cookie dough.

“Lauren, this is Taran,” Chris said, introducing me to the younger man.

Whoa! Taran was practically a teenager. It turned out that although Taran was the ‘owner,’ his mother was the financial backer. She was a successful author, and they lived in a huge house on Grosvenor Square, next to the American Embassy.

“Let’s head down to The Electric,” Chris said. “We’ll get a coffee and have a chat.”

The Electric’s low lighting and table settings made it seem very intimate. This was feeling more and more like a date.

“Can I get you a drink?”

I froze. I was 99.9% positive that Chris would be paying for the coffee, but I was dead broke. I couldn’t take the risk.

“Just a water, please,” I said.

Chris came back with a coffee and my water.

“So,” he said. “I saw Liz Hurley in the neighborhood the other day. Amazing, eh?”

“I – uh, yeah. I haven’t seen anyone famous.”

Somehow this connected to a long-winded story about his childhood in Canada.

After 40 minutes, I knew all about him but nothing about the job.

“When do you expect to open?” I asked.

“Training starts on January 5th, and the proposed opening date is the 12th. We’ll start at £6 an hour.”

My heart sank. That was almost a month away. I’d be living on the streets by then.

“It’s amazing how much interest we’ve had in the job,” he said. “Lots of people coming in, all dressed up, CVs ready to go.”

I glanced at my black pants and boots. Was I overdressed?

“We even had one girl who probably would have sold 100 cupcakes a day, just so the guys could come in and look at her. She didn’t get the job, though. We’re looking for crazy people, real off the wall characters.”

Exactly what was I supposed to do with that information? I did what I always do in situations like that, and laughed awkwardly.

We walked back to the bakery, where Chris insisted that I take some samples. Things were looking up.

Until I bit into the brownie.

It was hard and bland, nothing like the soft, chewy brownies of my youth. I forced a smile and nodded.

“Mm, good,” I mumbled, spraying crumbs everywhere.

Chris slapped the baker on the back. “There you go! A real American opinion! Take some more. Here, cupcakes, too.”

I never turn down baked goods, so I took them. As I bit into a refreshingly delicious cupcake, he launched into yet another unrelated story. My eyes glazed over as he talked, and I wondered how to make a tactful exit.

When there was a lull in his story, I jumped at the chance.

“Well, I’d better be going,” I blurted out.

“No problem. So, what do you think? I do have to talk to the other guys first,” he said. “But I’ll definitely give you call in the next few days.”

I said something cheery and non-committal, took my baked goods, and left.

As I was walking home, I got a phone call from the Fitness Exchange, a chain of gyms where I’d recently interviewed as a membership advisor. They wanted to hire me, also starting on January 5th for £6 an hour plus commission.

“I wish you the best of luck,” Chris said when I turned down his job offer. “Come in and see us anytime.”

I felt a little pang of guilt. Surely I’d made the right decision?

By the end of January, I’d hit rock bottom at work. I never managed to make commission, having discovered that I was being floated between the two least profitable clubs in London.

The Hummingbird, on the other hand, was a runaway hit. It had opened at the beginning of January, as hoped, to an enormous crowd. Feature spreads on its delicious red velvet cupcakes and moist, chewy chocolate chip cookies covered the pages of glossy magazines.

There are now five wildly successful branches throughout London.

Out of irrepressible curiosity, I returned to the Hummingbird a few years later and had a brownie.

It was delicious.

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