Think back to the enthusiasm and excitement you felt just before launching your coffee business. What would you say to yourself now, many months or years later? We wanted to find out, and we asked coffee shop and roastery owners from across the country: “What you wish you’d known before starting your coffee business?”
Working Hard, Delegating, Being Patient & Having Fun
Heddy from JavaVino (Atlanta, GA)
A true seed-to-cup experience. Heddy, Steve, Conner & Aiden. Image by Erin Brauer
We’ve been in business 10 years now with our coffee business. We’ve grown our initial, coffee & wine house, into importing, roasting and selling coffee both retail and wholesale.
“What I wish I’d known before starting my coffee business?”
… that starting a business is like having a child, it’s not a short-term project, it requires substantial hand holding, it constantly needs you, ever bit of you at all hours of the day. Be ready to work hard.
… not to fret over the details. The details consumed me and it kept me from focusing on the big picture. The staff of a small business is eager and excited about being part of something from ground-up. Delegate, let go of the little things. Let others have ownership in your business, it will make it a better place.
… your business name MATTERS. Think hard about your business name, mull it over with friends. You don’t want to change your business identity halfway through.
… everything takes longer than you think. Be patient with yourself, you won’t meet your own deadlines.
… try to have fun. I look back on starter year so fondly. I wish I would have slowed down to enjoy the moment. Take more pictures, send out updates to your customers, your friends, your future customers. Personalize the walls with your own history. Personalize and customize, customers love this stuff.
Stephen from Barkeater Coffee Roasters (East Greenbush, NY)
“What I wish I’d known before starting my coffee business?”
The biggest thing is that roasting, which of course is the fun part, is what I do the least of. The majority of time is spent driving sales, whether it be through wholesale, social media, my website, or my newsletter.
A lot of time is also spent packing and shipping coffee. I am the owner, roaster, and only employee so it keeps me pretty busy.
Gene from Subterranean Coffee Boutique (North Park, CA)
I wish I would’ve known earlier of how much fun and rewarding it is to actually own your own cafe! I know timing is everything, and maybe if we opened Subterranean earlier then we did, we wouldn’t have been so successful, but my advice to anyone looking to start one is… DO IT!
Knowing Other Coffee Shop Owners
Jonathan from Taproom Coffee & Beer (Atlanta, GA)
“Specialty Coffee. Craft Beer. Community.” Photo by Phillip Blume, Blume Photography
I wish I had known other coffee shop owners. I’m in a very under-served market (Atlanta), and the sad reality is that there just haven’t been many independent specialty coffee shops. And I’m not only talking about shops that have been successful – there’s been a true lack of people who have even attempted to run coffee shops. I wish there had been more owners I could have sat down with as friends and said, “You did specialty coffee in Atlanta. What was your experience?” and just learn.
The current coffee community here is small but very tight-knit, and most of the owners have a healthy respect for one another and don’t mind talking about business/operation experiences. It’s a special camaraderie between actual shop owners – a mutual understanding and empathy between those who have been refined by fire. I think the advice and stories that come out of that real-life experience are among the most valuable assets to an aspiring coffee shop owner. I wish I’d known more intimately about the journeys of those who came before me in this city – the highs and the lows, the challenges and triumphs.
Having a Mission
Tony from Metropolis Coffee Company (Chicago, IL)
I wish I’d known, when we started, that a strong mission and philosophy will go a very long way to establishing culture, defining our market, inspiring our employees, help people connect better with the coffee, and help tremendously in the decision-making process. I wish I’d written down ‘why’ we do Metropolis in addition to ‘what’ Metropolis is and ‘how’ we do Metropolis.
I wish I’d known before I started that it’s important to take care of myself and have balance in my life. Life balance brings nearly limitless enrichment to my work. I’ve laid myself over the tracks to make this work a few too many times. That martyrism doesn’t help anyone.
I wish I had spent more time on coffee farms before I started roasting so that I could’ve had a better appreciation for the work that goes into the coffee before we get it.
Monday morning quarterbacking only goes so far. It’s easy to look back over the history of the company and construct what that history is. The truth is the reality is very messy – you make hundreds of decisions in a day each one can radically affect your direction. That’s why a strong ‘why’ is so critical. It’s like steering a ship toward the North Star.
Anticipating Customers Needs
David from Espresso Vivace Roasteria (Seattle, WA)
Vivace was lucky enough to start in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district in 1988. On the Hill people are sensitive to quality and will value finding high quality coffee, beer, food, etc… and reward the purveyor that does a better job with loyalty. In my ignorance I thought everybody would obviously opt for a sweeter coffee expertly prepared for the same price as any other.
Then we opened downtown a second cart in 1989. What we found was the population at 5th and Union was largely composed of people that could not tell the difference in the coffee, or more likely did not care about that. It was the heart of the financial district and for two years we breathed diesel fumes and watched customers that have tried us go by with corporate coffee one day, and the next stop by Vivace and proclaim it to be the best. Then, the next day the same thing: SBC or Starbucks (which, poetically became the same thing after SB purchased SBC). We referred to this kind of customer s being “numb to culinary experience”.
Staff hated being there and out of frustration we almost went bankrupt through the downtown customers indifference. We closed that cart in 1992. And to this day, the people employed in banking will walk by Vivace to get to a Starbucks on Capitol Hill while the residents, bless there hearts, love us and we love them right back. So the lesson was if you are asking your employees to take pride in the art of preparing and serving caffe espresso the appreciation has to be present on the other side of the counter as well.
Kevin from The Café at Christopher David (Portland, OR)
Starting my own coffee business has been one of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors of my life. I have gained invaluable knowledge about myself and others that I will carry for the rest of my life. I would have to say the single most important piece of information I wish I had known before starting my coffee business would be knowing exactly what customers needs were before opening.
What the cafe is today and what the cafe was when we opened are two slightly different concepts. Our original idea was to simply have delicious coffee paired with baked goods such as cookies and pastries. Soon after opening we received numerous requests for more substantial food items such as sandwiches and salads. Having not anticipated the need for sandwiches and salads we encountered a challenge in accommodating the space to prepare such foods. Watching my menu grow and seeing the happily satisfied looks on my customers faces has been incredibly rewarding. Knowing what my customer base would desire before opening the doors would have saved a great deal of trial and error during actual business operation.
Taking Time & Taking Care of Yourself
Andrea from Cafe St. Jorge (San Francisco, CA)
Taking time with a new venture is essential to both your business and to yourself even before you open your doors.
You don’t have to kill yourself in order to create the best thing. Taking care of yourself is step one in running a successful business.
Also, know that you cannot and will not please everyone. You will set yourself for disappointment, stress, and ultimately displease someone when trying to please everyone.
Josh from Mission Brew Coffee (San Diego, CA)
“A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned!” This modern proverb might sound cliche, but every new coffee business owner would do well to take it seriously. There is nothing new or enlightening about the idea itself, but many business owners simply don’t take into serious consideration ways in which they can save money. Many owners are simply excited to get their new ideas and business off the ground at any cost. However, even seemingly minor waste can soon add up, and you have to sell a lot of lattes to make up for even a few thousand dollars. It simply takes time to build your customer base to support your business and unfortunately most things cost more than you think they will. Therefore, remember that it is often easier to save money that you already have than it is to earn more.
At Mission Brew Coffee we have been intentional about saving money from the beginning. We bought mostly used equipment and through much internet surfing were able to find some very high quality machines at an affordable price. However, we have also run into a few bumps in the road. Here is one example of things that I wish I’d known before starting Mission Brew Coffee:
Advertising doesn’t pay off. There is a balance here – every new coffee business has to find a way to make itself known so that people will try them out. I’d recommend taking full advantage of the free avenues to do so. You may very well have a lot of success advertising your new coffee shop for free through social media, word of mouth, local coffee organizations, and community events. Often these methods can be just as effective as paid media anyway. We once did a mailer that cost us $800. We had a coupon on the mailer and only two coupons were ever returned to our shop! Some advantages of a mailer or other paid advertising such as name recognition may be difficult to calculate. However, we quickly came to the conclusion that we would not spend money on this form of advertising again. When you are a small business you have a very small targeted customer base anyway. Mass media doesn’t pay off. Save your money – don’t pay for advertising.
Being Prepared to Season Fluctuations
Sharon from Seven Grams (New York, NY)
Starting my own coffee business, I wish someone would have told me how dependent my business would be on good old Mother Nature, and how close I’ll become with the weather app on my smartphone.
I always saw the coffee space as one of the most predictable, stable and reliable industries out there. Coffee is a staple product that people purchase on a daily basis, and while they might opt for a cold brew on a hot summer day and a cortado on a chilly eve, they’ll still be paying you a visit to get their daily caffeine fix.
You can imagine my surprise when I realized how volatile this business is come Northeastern winters. Seven Grams Caffe opened its doors in September 2014, and we just went through our very first winter in NYC. When temperatures dropped below zero and the sidewalks were covered in six inches of snow, I realized that people tended to be less adamant about their espressos when it meant they needed a snowplow to get it.
My advice to the next coffee buff is – go ahead and start your business, the industry is stable and it’s the most amazing feeling to get up to do something you honestly, truly love. However, take into account that no matter how you’ll slice it, you’ll always take the weather with you.
Josh from Mission Brew Coffee (San Diego, CA)
To everything… there is a season. The coffee business is seasonal. Mission Brew Coffee has only outdoor seating and is located in a community center complex so perhaps this is more true for us than for other coffee shops, but we have found so far that the coffee business is very seasonal. Be prepared.
We were not! We had a very busy first couple of months the summer we opened and then September came and our business took a nose dive. As a result, we had a lot of product waste and were overstaffed. We adjusted but not before our pocket books took a hit. I would recommend talking to coffee shop owners in your area and see how much their business fluctuates depending on the time of year. Many people love hot chocolaty coffee drinks around Christmas so adjust accordingly. Our Mission Cold Brew Coffee is very popular so we sell a lot of it when the weather is hot. Taylor your drinks according to the season and the weather in your area. Order product and staff your shop according to foreseen fluctuations. You’ll save yourself a lot of waste if you know ahead of time when to expect a slow down in business.
Bob from Bongo Java (Nashville, TN)
It would have been nice to know a lot of things before I started my coffee house nearly 22 years ago.
It would have been nice to know that there are times it’s ok to spend money, it’s okay to make money and it’s okay to trust someone else to count money. But if I knew all that then, I wouldn’t have learned how to bootstrap, how much my employees need to make to survive and how to use Quickbooks and read financial reports. I started reading business books for the first time when I hit a double milestone of my business turning 20 when I turned 50. I took notes of what I did right and what I did wrong.
Mostly what I did right was create a business that reflects me and my values. I like what I’ve done. And I don’t know if I’d feel that way if I didn’t make it up as I went along.
Nathan from Contraband Coffee (San Francisco, CA)
Bringing a product that exceeds expectations, day after day. Image by Ron Starr (cropped)
Our biggest challenges involve complying with federal and local regulations, especially regs that are one – size – fits – all, paying government imposed fees, and making time for all the paperwork.
John from Lestat’s Coffee House (San Diego, CA)
As customers put it — awesome coffee from a great bunch of guys and gals. Image by Dennis Andersen Photography (cropped)
I wish I would have known more about accounting before I started a business. Finding a good accountant is important but knowing what to ask is even more important. I still am learning the ins and outs of the details of accounting.
Hiring the Right People
Lynne from Hodgepodge Coffeehouse and Gallery (Atlanta, GA)
The one thing I wish I’d have known before I started my coffee business is that it’s so important to hire people that believe in your mission statement, values and morals. Your baristas are the face of your business, so if you are a kid friendly shop (like we are); hire friendly staff that don’t mind making whipped cream 4 times a day! If you’re super proud of the relationship you have with your roastery, make sure everyone can talk proficiently about that.
Make sure you have a staff you are proud of that knows their stuff!
Rafael from Lazy Ibis (Brooklyn, NY)
You know that old saying (GOOD HELP IS HARD TO FIND) There is so much truth in that. Our first problem was over staffing, then it was understaffing. Our biggest problems to date is:
Finding someone competent and trust worthy. We always end up with one or the other, never both together.