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:
- Corporate investors who acquire coffee shops as little piggy banks and let someone else do the hard graft in the actual cafes,
- Passionate coffee connoisseurs and geeks who want a place to showcase their knowledge and skills and maybe educate the consumers,
- Fired up entrepreneurs who think that coffee shops represent a low risk, easy start up opportunity, or
- 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.