An alarming sight may have escaped the attention of the more intoxicated visitors to the Toastie Bar last Friday – an entirely sober student, sans red volunteer toastie top and with pad and pen in hand, munching on a toastie at half past one in the morning. Indeed, some did notice, sending slightly slurred questions my way — the most common being: “What are you doing here?”
It was a good question. As a matter of fact, I had decided to undertake some hard-hitting investigative journalism work. My goal was to provide our readers with an insight into the inner workings of the Toastie Bar, which I was able to do thanks to the glad cooperation of the ever-enthusiastic Christian Union (CU). What follows is the tale of my time in Toastie Bar, delivered through the engaging format of a chronological, eyewitness account.
10:00pm: It is very dark outside. A cold wind whips the Market Street windows and small scattered groups of students hurry to get inside. I make my way to South Street Baptist Church, a large but somehow inconspicuous building, and let myself in. It’s almost empty, but warm, and radiates a homely feel that few community buildings tend to do. Peter Smith, current president of the CU, greets me and shows me around. This really takes all of two minutes, as Toastie Bar consists of the kitchen, the “dining” area, and the toilets. Unsurprisingly, Mr Smith does not deem it necessary to show me the toilets and we skip that part of the tour. With quite some time before the doors open (11pm for those looking for an early tea), I’m free to help set up for the night and ask Mr Smith some questions as well as explore the inner sanctum of Toastie Bar that is the kitchen.
Toastie bar is, at its most basic level, a safe place for drunk people.
Whilst setting out multicoloured plastic chairs in neat little square formations, I ask Mr Smith what the point of Toastie Bar was. He pauses, patiently concocting a reply. “Toastie Bar,” he finally ventures, “is, at its most basic level, a safe space for drunk people. There’s no other place in town open on a Friday night with this much space for people to recover and return home safely. We [the CU and volunteers] also really do care about people’s welfare.”
This seems like a fair statement. Consider your usual Friday post-Union haunts: messy queues of hungry souls baying for kebab, full fat fryers spitting steam into ventilation shafts in the kitchen behind the counter, cold hands grasping polystyrene containers during hurried marches back home. We finish the chair arrangement. The room is bright, carpeted and warm, and friendly voices have begun to waft through from the back rooms as the volunteers arrive.
10:30pm: I take this opportunity to head into the kitchen, where Estelle’s “American Boy” is playing through a portable speaker on the sideboard. Mr Smith tells me that this is where the magic happens — a “logistical miracle” he calls it. The kitchen is minute, barely large enough for the five who work there to move from where they stand. Loaves of bread line the cabinets in sandbag formations. Sam NelsonPercy, whose ingenuity it is that keeps the kitchen in order, tells me that there are seventy in total. That’s enough for about seven hundred toasties, including end pieces.
I ask how they decide who does which Friday. It is, after all, a long and tiring shift. A little earlier, Mr Smith had told me he didn’t expect to get home and into bed until half past four. Mr Smith tells me that the committee of six splits in half and takes alternate weeks. Volunteers are made up from CU members, and other friends of volunteers. Mr Smith is keen to impress on me, however, that there is a requirement for volunteers to be comfortable talking about “Jesus and His love”, as it’s “that’s why we’re here – because we believe it’s our duty to be.”
10:45pm: The duty to God is further impressed on me fifteen minutes later, when the twelve Toastie Bar volunteers gather in a circle for introductions and five minutes of prayer. I am uncertain – as I sit among them in silence – of the usefulness of this exercise, but regardless I can feel that the mood has immediately calmed and I am grateful for a quiet moment of reflection before what I am expecting to be a busy night. The prayers are spontaneous yet heartfelt, certain members jumping into the silence to offer some short words of thanks to their God.
I had discussed the role of religion in the running of Toastie Bar earlier in the evening with Mr Smith. He had told me, calmly and honestly, that it was expected of volunteers to initiate conversations with students on the topic of faith throughout the night. He had pointed out to me that conversations infused with alcohol tended to be more honest and unfettered, and that, though sometimes frightening reaching out to a stranger, often visitors to Toastie Bar would initiate the conversation themselves.
11:00pm – 12:00am: At last Toastie Bar opens for business. Slowly individuals file in, raffle ticket (or in many cases, tickets) in hand. On the whole, the early visitors are sober, and hungry for a bargain 50p meal in the form of a lovingly made toastie. They also tend to be familiar with Toastie Bar. For the first hour the mood is jovial; the volunteers are able to sit and have conversations with customers, or friends. It is by no means busy.
Gradually, small groups form in the seat-squares. Chatter bounces softly off the walls. We seem to have started at the high end of the three-digit-spectrum, around the eight hundred mark. Raffle ticket numbers are presented calmly. There is little need to shout.
“Ham and Salsa!” a girl wails, waving her matric card.
One small group catches my eye. Our first clearly intoxicated party enters and happily seat themselves in a far corner with shrieks of playful laughter. I find somebody to talk to and leave them to their fun.
Towards the end of the first hour the room fills up. The Beatles’ “Come Together” now plays on the kitchen speaker, and the majority of volunteers are dutifully transporting toasties from the kitchen hatch to the seated masses. Our seat-squares have already become less mathematically perfect – a couple have been dragged to the centre of the room for what I assume was a more private conversation than the seat-squares were entitled to. The ambient volume has risen. The volunteers’ voices begin to compete with the excited chatter.
Our corner group has meanwhile moved on from taking hilarious selfies. They now attempt to use their matric cards as bargaining chips in a wild attempt to obtain toasties quicker. “Ham and salsa!” a girl wails, waving her matric card in the face of anyone that passes. It is upside-down.
12:00am – 2:30am: Shock waves ripple through Toastie Bar. A dog has entered. Whilst inebriated students scramble over discarded plastic chairs to get one touch of the poor creature, ham and salsa girl has thrown up all over the Baptist Church carpet. I squirm uncomfortably in my chair and look to get a pat of the dog, but Mr Smith, more than prepared to get his hands dirty (though perhaps not literally), has fetched a bucket and paper towels. Within five minutes the mess had vanished, with ham and salsa girl swapping her wine for water for the night.
The remainder of the night descends into the realms of the surreal.
The remainder of the hour descends into the realms of the surreal. A boy in a dark coat leans with his back against the wall, looking up to the heavens. He holds a toastie in each hand and takes bites from each one alternately. A girl falls off her chair. She looks up at me from the floor, smiles bashfully, and waves. I smile politely and ask if she’s okay above the shouts of the volunteers. She nods determinedly. The seat-squares are ruined, as are the volunteers’ strained voices. We approach the seven hundredth toastie. A group of lads cheer every number announced, until a raucous Wehey! signals the arrival of their own toasties. The atmosphere can only be described as a happy chaos.
I go to examine the kitchen. Toastie presses waiting to be fed sit in a line with open mouths. Pesto and spread are layered thickly over the counters. Tinfoil contours the ovens. The speaker has moved onto Meghan Trainor, to which the volunteers are manically bopping along. But the system has prevailed. No major mishaps have occurred.
2:30am: Toastie Bar is a licensed restaurant, and so at half past two in the morning the last toastie is sold as per the license. Sam informs me that bread tends to be running low by this point anyway. I am told that any profits Toastie Bar make go to local charities, and some to the Baptist Church as a thank you for hosting this weekly chaos. For the next hour, the volunteers, including those dressed as toasties from outside the Union, reconvene to tidy the chaos: the raffle tickets discarded like confetti, the crusts and crumbs that litter the carpet, the chairs that are reordered into stacks.
When all is spick and span, we all gather for a last period of prayer. Thanks is given, hope is expressed for the safety of the students, and, after a period of complete silence, the volunteers head contentedly in groups of two or more back into the night from which they came.
More information on Toastie Bar can be found on Facebook: @toastiebar