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Ch-ch-ch-chaaaanges….

This was very nearly an extremely sad post. But it isn’t!

I was genuinely a few days away from having to close up Dr. Coffee’s Cafe for good, which was heartbreaking. As always, it came down to money, and I hate that. Money always spoils everything!!! In simple terms, the cafe wasn’t making enough of it. It was deathly quiet over the winter (but probably would have been fatal then if we’d had a “normal” Saskatchewan winter actually), but I tried to stay confident, and it did eventually start to pick up again. But not fast enough for me.

Baby Theia turned one year old last week. That in itself is incredible, but most significantly for the cafe, it spells the end of my very generous maternity leave. Right now, my fellow Mums are all facing the horrible prospect of having to go back to work, and all scrabbling around frantically trying to find childcare for one-year-old infants. This is no easy feat. It is also incredibly expensive. If I “went back to work” properly in the cafe, I would not only have to pay myself a living wage, my salary would have to be enough to cover childcare costs as well – and the business just couldn’t afford it. It only just covered the low wage I pay the part-time baristas (though I prided myself on paying above minimum wage, it wasn’t much above!). Without affordable daycare, I couldn’t work any more. Theia is now walking and it wouldn’t be fair or practical for anyone if I took her to work with me. Her coming with me was fine when she was a newborn because she just slept through most of it, but nowadays she’d be climbing the walls quite literally. So, me returning to full time cafe work was not an option. Neither did I seriously consider the idea of finding another high-paying job elsewhere to support the cafe – even if I found one (unlikely), it would mean I had no time to run the business which is entirely self-defeating. All was looking very, very gloomy indeed and it feels SO UNFAIR.

I tried to sell the business, but that was nearly impossible with so little profits. I did have several meetings with a guy who initially sounded really positive. He put in a reasonable offer thhat I would have accepted, and it got to the point where he was 3 days away from taking the keys and opening up by himself – but then he just stopped talking to me. No response to emails or phone calls,didn’t show up for a meeting, nothing. Then I got a random message from him, asking about my dog…? Obviously sent to the wrong person, but interestingly, it said “Sent from my iphone, Brandon MB” on the bottom of the email. So he wasn’t even in the province any more. Terry Gillespie, you are a timewasting arsehole.

I think I was fairly close to a nervous breakdown by that point, but mercifully my parents were here to look after me and we had a mini holiday in Calgary and I got to ignore it all for a few days. And when I got back…
Don’t you just love those random late night conversations with strangers? A while back we hosted a wedding reception in the cafe for one of our regulars, and afterwards while rather tipsy she declared that she and new husband wanted to get into business and *obviously* I should be their business mentor…. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but when I sent out the sad little “We’re closing” email, she jumped on it and said she could help. They aren’t in a position to buy the business unfortunately, but we managed to figure out an arrangement whereby they are taking over running the place for 6 months with the option to buy in the new year. So I am still the owner and I’m effectively training the others, but it’s way less demanding time-wise and emotionally! She’s renamed it Noni’s after her daughter (and really, Dr. Coffee’s doesn’t make much sense without me!), and the place has a bit of a new look – that I love because if anything, it is even MORE colourful now. There’s also an expanded menu, and even a bike rack in there! I think we share a vision for the place which (so far) we’ve been able to communicate to each other very well indeed, and that is incredibly reassuring given how crushing the idea of closing was to me. I really am incredibly lucky sometimes.

So, thanks to an amazing saviour at the final hour, all is wonderful again. Go visit Noni’s!!

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Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Cafe (owners) Culture

No doubt the most fun part of my Phd to me was the ethnography. I may have graduated from the Geography department, but I was, and still am an anthropologist at heart. People fascinate me, and investigating my imagined/constructed “coffee cultures” around the little brown beans was amazingly interesting. Much has been written about ‘cafe culture’, particularly European cafe culture, and also the atmosphere and environments which coffee shops attempt to create for their customers. There are also the stereotypes: the hipster barista in various guises, the underemployed arts graduates in green aprons or the old men on ‘coffee row’ in Saskatchewan for instance. I concentrated on producer ethnographies and the cultures that grew up around the less visible parts of the coffee production process – the farmers, cuppers and roasters.

What I neglected during my fieldwork was Cafe Owners Culture – what sort of people open coffee shops? What motivates them? Now I have joined the ranks of Coffee Shop Owners properly, I hope I am more qualified to answer that. In my experience so far, coffee shop owners seem to fall into four rough categories:

  1. Corporate investors who acquire coffee shops as little piggy banks and let someone else do the hard graft in the actual cafes,
  2. Passionate coffee connoisseurs and geeks who want a place to showcase their knowledge and skills and maybe educate the consumers,
  3. Fired up entrepreneurs who think that coffee shops represent a low risk, easy start up opportunity, or
  4. Lifestylers who want an idyllic, fun little business that gives them freedom and a more healthy work-life balance

For the record, since this post is now getting rather judgemental, I think I fall somewhere between the second and fourth types. I am rapidly learning the hard way that none of these types seem to really succeed. Just because I know a lot about coffee and how to make it, doesn’t mean I necessarily know how to make it make money. Conversely, in such a crowded market, passion, personality and knowledge are essential to make your coffee shop stand out. Coffee shops are not ‘easy money’ for the investors either because although profit margins on lattes are eye-wateringly high, so too are the overheads on the perfect location and the wage bill for passionate, talented staff.

As for the Lifestylers… well, if I am honest, the yearning for something that’s *mine*, that I am free to try out my own ideas in, being my own boss, and wanting a business that I can fit around my family are my main motivations. Since the PhD I have swapped tedious Theories of Human Geography journals for insipid entrepreneurial books and How To guides about setting up coffee shops. A worrying number of them are written by people who haven’t actually done it themselves. Of those who have – and there are some great, inspirational examples out there amongst the tripe – all warn against doing it for ‘the lifestyle’. I wholeheartedly agree. I am my own boss, and I wouldn’t want it any other way but it comes at a huge price. I have been able to engineer my business around my family to some extent, but that just involves bringing my kids to work, not lessening my work load to spend time with my kids. The old and now internet-famous quote about entrepreneurship is very true; that entrepreneurs work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours for someone else. Making a living from a start-up coffee shop business is a hugely difficult, exhausting and stressful challenge, mistakes are inevitable and incredibly easy to make, and the failure rate is frighteningly high. Far from giving you a comfortable life, it takes over your life entirely!

Every single coffee entrepreneur book that I’ve come across so far has been written by someone who has succeeded. My cafe owning journey is not over yet, and I may still succeed, but I am writing my own entrepreneurs’ book already. It’s called “It seemed a good idea at the time” and it is “inspirational” only in that I am still standing and for the most part, still sane and smiling. It is what *not* to do when starting a coffee business, and those stories need to be told, from every part of the cafe owners culture.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Slinging the shots – babies, beans and business

I am officially on maternity leave from the cafe. So far, this hasn’t really made much of a difference!

I ‘gracefully’ retired from actually being a barista a few weeks before New Daughter was born, mainly because I physically couldn’t stand behind the bar for long any more, and suddenly realised that everything useful was on the bottom shelf in there! I have a renewed appreciation for how physically demanding the workload of a barista is.

This is how I expected my perfect, peaceful, instagrammable maternity leave to look:

matleave

NB: That is not my child, and those are not my legs.

This is the reality:
matleave2Aah… the joys of entrepreneurship. Even if I am not actually pulling espresso shots, there are always at least a dozen emails waiting for me, or the website needs updating, or Facebook needs to take its daily slice of my soul, or its time for pay roll…Daughterling will gradually learn to fall asleep to the sound of me typing over her head, I’m sure.

I am not really complaining; I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. We opened Doctor Coffee’s Cafe #1 when our first daughter was just 5 months old; she grew up in a coffee shop, and if anything, it has only served to make her exceedingly sociable and confident. No one can ever accuse her of being the shy, clingy type of child and I do think being in a cafe environment with lots of strangers admiring her when she was tiny may have had a lot to do with it. Being self-employed like this and having the freedom to take my baby to work with me allows me all sorts of benefits which few parents with conventional jobs can afford.

Recently, Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) announced that she would be taking just two weeks off to give birth to her twin girls. (see the article, here) Of course this caused uproar – that’s a terrible role-model for other women etc, it gives out the message that work is more important than her family.. yada yada yada. Mayer is a multimillionaire, so of course she can afford to pay someone to look after newborns for her. And the very fact that she is, and remains a millionaire CEO is because presumably she works her arse off and probably can’t engineer a way to take any longer away from work anyway. Going back to work in an office – sitting behind a desk in fact, is not too strenuous on a post-partum body either. She is in a position to make that work, but she is NOT in the same position most women find themselves in and therefore shouldn’t be treated as a role model.

In some ways, I consider myself luckier than Marissa Mayer.  In my own way, I am a COO of a company too – chief operations officer rather than chief executive officer, (though I’d never use that title at the moment and expect to be taken seriously!) and I’m a proud Mum to an adorable newborn baby girl. Whereas I am envious of Mayer’s success and certainly of her millions, I NEVER have to sit in an office any more, never have to wear a power suit, I have caffeine on tap to cope with 4am feeds, and most importantly I get to run my business AND take care of my wonderful girls at the same time, and really, I can’t ask for any more than that.

theia

BabyCoffee comes to work with me in her sling (which I actually bought while at the coffee conference in Guatemala). Slings are so useful – I can carry her hands free and make lattes at the same time!

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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“It’s funny because it’s true!”

I’m sure I recognise a few people here.

Hipsters Love Coffee: http://youtu.be/IR7StSaaDKM

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Happy Baristas

Or,

What makes a coffee shop, part 2.

 

In the last ten years, I’ve worked in seven different cafe/bar/restaurant/coffee shop type places, both independent and at branches of the big chains – everything from Caffe Nero, to my own coffee shop and previously, my little coffee van in the UK, to the most recent move to this vegetarian restaurant/coffee house here in Saskatchewan. I’ve also spent a lot of time, and an eye-watering amount of money, hanging around in coffee shops all over the world. I think this has given me a fairly good idea of what makes a good one!

I posted previously asking my loyal follower(s) to say what makes a place worth visiting to them. After good coffee, most answers seemed to revolve around the idea of “comfort” – ie: “no metal chairs!!” “big squashy sofas” and “free wifi”. I agree. To me, what makes a good coffee shop is as much about atmosphere and environment, as it is about the coffee. I’ve worked in, and spent time in places where the coffee is not that great. but everyone in there were so friendly and fun that attendance was habit forming. Conversely, I’ve visited places (typically, in the posh parts of London but also significantly in Darlington and one here in Regina) where the coffee itself was exceptional and expertly crafted, but the places themselves felt at best sterile and at worst, pretentious and actively hostile.

Coffee can be sold by image. Some places are just Fashionable: if you can make the coffee look pretty, and if you are in the right location (for example, in the city centre where people with a lot of money reside or work) and build up a popular brand image, then people will pay for it regardless of whether or not the coffee itself is any good. The same is true of ethical branding – serve fair trade/organic/bird friendly/rainforest alliance/ 30% raw/gluten-free/anti-oxident-packed GRIT in recycled cups with 10% going to charity in a ‘social enterprise’ café and position yourself in the midst of the hipster part of town, and that burnt grit could make your fortune.

I am not trying to say that all coffee shop customers are gullible fools – they are not, and consumers are getting more and more demanding of higher quality coffee, hence the increasing preference for independent places over the chains in the UK. Happily, people are starting to appreciate what they are drinking more, and becoming more discerning. My point is really that it is not just the coffee that makes a good coffee shop. People visit for other reasons.

In my experience, creating the right atmosphere is heavily based on personality – that of the staff and of the business owners/designers. Friendly, chatty, informal people who don’t treat customers like they are just walking ATMs. The chain coffee shops attempt to artificially create this atmosphere by effectively scripting their staff, and designing the branches so that baristas can never actually sit down visibly, so that we constantly looked busy and active but never relaxed! Unsurprisingly, this approach usually failed, and gave rise to the chain store baristas being called “robots” “button monkeys” or “drones in green aprons”! (all real quotes from my customer focus groups).

Baristas have to enjoy what they are doing to be good at their job, and should be given the opportunity to showcase their creativity and individuality – coffee and creativity always go hand in hand! A huge amount of Coffee Shop Success is based on personality; particularly in small businesses, it is as much about selling your personality as it is selling coffee. Community is also important, as an article in our local paper showed the other day:

Fully 71 per cent like to support owners who live in their community, and 68 per cent like the personalized service from small businesses.

That’s no surprise to Craigen, who said people note her firm’s visibility in community events and tell her, “we’re going to support you because you support us.”

“People like businesses that participate in the community, their ‘nearness’ and the fact that they get to know the owners,” agrees RBC’s Mike Michell

Read more: http://www.leaderpost.com/business/Consumers+loyal+local+businesses/7041277/story.html#ixzz22v6Ya4kn”

So there you have it: good coffee shops need good coffee, great, personable, happy staff, a sense of community and big squashy sofas. You heard it here first!

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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