Have You Always Wanted To Own a Cafe? (Hint: Don’t)

It has been almost 3 years since I began Robin’s Cafe, as a service to the attendees of the conference I was running onsite. I wanted coffee and sandwiches for our conference attendees, saw an opportunity to serve the neighborhood, and on 3 weeks notice, opened a cafe.

Now, 3 year later, I have learned a ton, and I’m ready to turn my attention to new adventures. I’ve left Robin’s Cafe in the very capable hands of my (former) team and the new owners. The new owners have owned a cafe previously and had been looking for just the right cafe to operate in San Francisco for several years. Even more, though, the team I left in place are the heartbeat of the organization, and they are excited for the continued tweaks and improvements to come.

Over the next few months, I hope to share some lessons learned from opening, building, and selling my cafe. (If you missed Part 1, you might want to begin there.) I hope you enjoy!

Silicon Valley celebrates “Exits”. We shouldn’t.

The number of times I’ve heard people bragging about their successful “exists” on the streets of San Francisco… If you aren’t familiar, an “exit” means selling your business or getting bought by another business. I was a bit skeptical, but like many in the Bay Area, I was also excited by the prospect of selling a company. It sounds like fun!

It isn’t. First of all, the number of hoops that have to be jumped through are outrageous. Legal, bureaucratic, logistic, financial, and – finally – people.

Really, though, we shouldn’t celebrate exits because it puts the focus in the wrong place – building unsustainable companies. Even though I’ve sold Robin’s Cafe at a profit, doing so is a mark that I am no longer the right person to run the business I started. For me, operating a cafe longterm is unrealistic and unsustainable. I am not a good long term fit for the role of “coffee shop owner”, in no small part because I consistently have other projects that keep me from solving the day-to-day minutiae that come up when running a restaurant.

Law is a Required Skill

When I opened Robin’s Cafe, I, my manager at the time, and the then-Executive Director of our landlord company, ODC, wrote and signed a 12 page lease that has served as our operating and guiding document ever since. It didn’t occur to any of us to have an attorney proof the lease, nor, as I found out 2 years later, did ODC’s Board of Directors approve the lease.

The terms of a lease will make or break your business. We have served more than 25,000 avocado toasts in 3 years, but that by itself isn’t enough. It isn’t sufficient to provide great service or be constantly busy. If the terms of a lease aren’t service-able, the business is going to fail.

I’ve signed a lot of documents in my life without reading the fine print. You probably have, too. I can’t keep track of the number of times Facebook or Gmail have changed their terms of service. But what am I going to do? Stop using my email? And it turns out the importance of a legally binding document, that will impact the livelihood of your business for years to come, is fundamentally important.

People Matter More Than Anything

I’ve seen over 50 employees come and go through Robin’s Cafe, and the cafe generally has about 15 people on staff at any time. Through this, I’ve discovered that the people behind the counter – the staff – are the heartbeat of an organization.

There’s the obvious stuff: you can’t serve customers without someone behind the counter to serve them. But more importantly, the culture of Robin’s Cafe has become a reflection of the culture of the staff.

Conway’s Law states that the shape of an organization dictates the shape of the products that company creates. In our case, though the cafe sells coffee and avocado toast, the real product was community. The community we had behind the counter is the real asset of Robin’s Cafe, and it is reflected in the quality of our patrons. Many companies say something like “We <3 our customers.” Walking into Robin’s Cafe, any day of the week, it is clear that they really do.

But when I say “People Matter More Than Anything”, I’m not just talking about customers. Yes, you can’t run a cafe without customers. But that’s just the gravy. Serving food and coffee is the job. Forming community for your customers? That’s the bonus, for when everything else is going well. And things only go well when the employees – those people doing the day-to-day work of the restaurant – are happy and satisfied themselves. There are lots of little ways to do this, but the single biggest, is spending time with each individual person within the organization, knowing them, knowing what matters for them, and following up – day after day.

Certainly, I’ve failed at this at times. There have been months at a time when I didn’t spend enough time with my staff. But that process, the regular, day-to-day attention, is what makes a cafe successful.

The Cost of Doing Business

There is a lot of talk about entrepreneurship right now. Unlike a decade ago, starting your own company is hip. There’s going to come a time in the next few years when that isn’t true, and we don’t put starting a business on a pedestal, but meanwhile…

Speaking as the “entrepreneur” behind several companies and with a successful “exit” under my belt, running a small business isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Though we celebrate entrepreneurship at the moment, we aren’t talking about what it actually takes to maintain a successful company. Especially where a “successful” company means one that has a profit, doesn’t take on outsized debt, and remains in business!

What they don’t tell you, and I wish I’d known in starting Robin’s Cafe, is the bureaucratic hoops that have to be jumped every step of the way. To successfully operate Robin’s Cafe, I had to get and maintain the following permits:

  • California State Limited Liability Company
  • DBA (Doing Business As) Registration
  • California State Seller’s Permit
  • San Francisco Business Permit
  • San Francisco Health Department Permit
  • San Francisco Alcoholic Beverage Control Permit
  • Outdoor Tables and Chairs Permitting
  • And several more…

The logistics necessary to manage all of that permitting isn’t what most people who dream about opening up a cafe want to do. But that’s the necessary work, just in order to be in the game!

Have You Always Wanted to Own a Cafe? Don’t!

To all of those people who have approached me over the last few years and said: “I’ve always dreamed of owning a cafe” – and there have been hundreds – my response is this:

Don’t! Or at least: Know Yourself.

Here are some questions that I wish someone had asked me before I opened up Robin’s Cafe. I would still have begun the coffeeshop, but I would perhaps have done so with eyes just a bit more wide open.

Some questions to consider:

  • Are you interested in sweeping up spilled coffee grounds? Everyday? Forever?
  • Are you excited for the challenge of dealing with a dozen or more vendors, on a daily basis, each with their own schedules, pay structure, and delivery errors?
  • Are you sure you want to work in an industry that has the highest turnover of any industry in the world?
  • Does solving customer’s problems excite you, truly?

If so, then by all means! But these aren’t things most people who want to run a cafe, are eager to do. And this is the job.

The folks I’ve met are excited by the idea of running a cafe want different things. They want the philosophical elements – the beautiful space, building a community, the moments of delight for a customer. These things are the upside of a successful cafe, but not the reason to run one.

I remember the first time I learned – the hard way – that our espresso machine drain pipe is too small. One afternoon I got a frantic call from my then-manager, saying that the espresso machine was backed up, resulting in a very difficult time serving lattes, cappuccinos, and other espresso drinks. I quickly realized that the situation wasn’t going to be easily resolved, and would take several hours of sorting and deconstruction before we could adequately address the issue.

That evening, equipped with an air compressor that my friend and investor, Krista, had acquired for the purpose, we proceeded to attempt to blow out the clogged pipe. The first two attempts failed, because we had failed to adequately secure the pipes we were attempting to clean, but the 3rd time we succeeded. 50 pounds of air pressure was more than sufficient to clean the ¼ inch diameter pipe of years of built up espresso grounds and spoilt milk. Unfortunately, I’d had my head down near the drain pipe, to report on the success of our cleaning endeavors. The resulting expulsion from the stuck pipe, sprayed espresso and milk goop all over the wall 10 feet away, ceiling 15 feet above, and my entire head and torso.

Closing

When I look back at Robin’s Cafe, and especially now that a month has gone by, I’m mostly just grateful. To the 50+ employees I’ve had the pleasure of working with, the 200+ customers we’ve served each day, for the recognition of just how much work is required, and for all that I have learned along the way.

Look out for more from me over the coming months!