Lessons Learned Building (and Selling) Robin’s Cafe

I want to say a couple of words about today’s post and a new format I’m exploring for both The Robin Zander Show podcast and this blog. Over the last 3 years, I’ve conducted over 200 hours of interviews, many of which have ended up on the podcast. I love conducting interviews, and I have been honored to spend time with so many incredible thinkers. And now… it is time to try something different.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting regular podcast and blog posts – without a guest or an interview – but instead about my own experiences over the last few years and what I’m working on next.

I’m going to share some more about my journey, and answer some questions like “How do you open up a cafe?” and “How do you sell a small business?” I’ve grown Robin’s Cafe to 15 employees in less than 3 years. How did I go from earning $40,000 a year in 2015 to more than $40,000 a month in 2017?

There’s so much, personally and professionally, that I haven’t ever shared. So, welcome to a new version of the Robin Zander Show and this blog. I look forward to talking with you and sharing stories.

To start, this post is being published the same day that I’m selling Robin’s Cafe. So, before talking about the sale of my business, I thought I’d share a bit about the opening.

I opened Robin’s Cafe on 3 weeks notice. I’ve shared that before, but the few people who really understand what that means and what it takes to do so, are usually always restaurateurs – folks who have lived and worked in the restaurant industry. And for me, even though I lived it and know it happened, it still feels almost impossible.

And I think that is one of my most important takeaways from my life to date. You really never know until you try. Success and failure both feel so daunting – so impossible – that until we get there, we can’t know. For me, the fear of failure has become almost a drive, a North Star to guide my path, and I hope over time to share how I’ve done things people say are impossible to  inspire you towards the same.

Here’s a bit about the opening of Robin’s Cafe in blog post and video form. But there are still a few pieces of the story I’ve never shared.

Origin Story

Back in 2016, I was preparing to put on my conference, Design for Dance. Five weeks before the conference date, I went to the manager of the then-market that was onsite, Melange Market, to see about providing coffee and tea for my 175 guests. I was told that Melange Market would be closing, had sold to a new owner, and would not reopen until after my 2-day event. I sent an email to the then-Executive Director of the landlord company, ODC, just to double check. I heard nothing back, so I  put the question of Melange Market out of my mind.

Then, 20 days before the start of Design for Dance, I received an email from ODC’s Executive Director. Rather than answering my questions, he introduced me to someone, with a brief note saying: “Robin is a community member and is interested in Melange Market.”

Matt, who turned out to own several, locally-famous restaurants, responded minutes later suggesting we meet the following day.

When we met up onsite at Melange Market, he presented me with a list of assets – the entire list of equipment, food stuffs, and more – and said “Let me know what you’d like to buy. I’ll keep the rest.” I was dumbfounded. I had showed up just expecting conversation and maybe to look behind the counter. Matt was prepared to sell to me, almost on the spot.

Fear as a Motivator

Over the next three weeks, I had to learn everything about running a small cafe, write a lease with the landlord ODC, raise more than $40,000, hire employees, and actually learn how to serve customers. The list of To-Dos was daunting, but I learned a valuable lesson in that crazy 3 weeks. Everyday, getting up at 5am to learn to open the cafe and staying up (with wine) until 2am to write a lease, I asked myself the question: “Do I want to do this?”. Every time, my answer was “maybe?”. Digging a bit deeper – into each “why” and “why not” – I kept coming back to “I’m afraid.”.

Fear is an incredible motivator. We use fear to keep ourselves safe in times of crisis and also challenge the edges of our capabilities. One of my fears was that I would fail to run the cafe successfully and lose all $40,000 of my investors’ money. I had to come to terms with that very real possibility – yes, that was a fear. But was that fear alone enough to not attempt opening the cafe? I realized that over 2 years of working at a minimum wage in San Francisco (I took my worst case scenario to the extreme), I would be able to pay my investors back – even if I lost everything. Tim Ferriss calls this “Fear Setting”, and I’ve found it invaluable to imagine a worst case scenario, look squarely at the fear, and not decide that just because I’m afraid to avoid something I might otherwise want to do.

There was a lot of learn about running a cafe – in those 3 weeks and in the 3 years since then. But my biggest lesson learned has been about my own fear.

Over the last 6 months, I have been in the process of selling my small business – equipment, system, and all. Selling Robin’s Cafe as been a trial-by-fire in its own right, which I may talk about at some point in the future. In the Spring of 2018, I decided that it was, in fact, time to take my leave from Robin’s Cafe. I had built something that could flourish without my direct supervision and could continue to improve even more by an owner/operator who was onsite 40 hours/week. I’m thrilled with the new owners and excited for the continued improvements that will come to the business I founded.

Here are a couple of lessons learned from three years of running a small business in San Francisco:

Showing Up with Love

We are not taught the skills necessary to run a business in school, and boy, do I wish we were. These are actually the same skills necessary for parenting, for being a good friend and – as most of us do – I’ve had to learn these skills the hard way. I’ve written elsewhere about a peak moment, when my employee called his experience at Robin’s Cafe the best job he’s ever had. This is the mark of a successful business. One that is able to stay operating – meaning that it’s profitable – while providing the best possible place to work for its employees. Because when you have happy people working for a company, you have happy customers – folks who come back again and again. Sure, Robin’s Cafe has great avocado toast. But more importantly, we’ve provided great customer service in an environment where the humans coming into the business have a positive experience with the people working there. This principle is something that I will strive to take forward – in anything that I do.

Showing up lovingly, is really the answer. Knowing that my responsibility within my organization, is to up as role model, a mentor, a teacher, and also an authority figure. Someone who holds the people within the organization to the high standards and principles that they’ve agreed to, but someone who does so without anger. I’ve had to learn to set clear consequences. If an employee did not wash a plate at Robin’s Cafe, there were consequences. But not because I’m angry or personally affronted. Rather, because they’ve agreed to the job, and this falls within that responsibility. It has been a process learning to show up for my employees in this way.

In the first 6 months of Robin’s Cafe, an employee would mess up, and I would get furious! I quickly learned that when I was angry, employees quit. What worked much better, was leading with love. And when they did mess up, asking a loving question: “How come you didn’t wash the plate, given that you’ve agreed to do so?”, “Can I do anything to support you?”, “How can we, together, do this better?”. And then, eventually, if the behavior doesn’t change, being able to comfortably let them go.

Money & Robin’s Cafe

Another big learning from Robin’s Cafe was about money. When I began the cafe, the most I had personally ever earned in a single year was about $50,000. My very first month in operation of running Robin’s Cafe, the cafe earned $20,000 and have earned as much as $50,000/month over the last three years. Of course, what goes unsaid is that monthly earning is gross – which means before expenses. Out of that $50,000 comes the costs of bread, avocados, coffee beans, payroll, and everything else required to run the business. But even so, seeing $20,000 and then eventually even $50,000 flow through the cafe bank account each month, has expanded my view and facility around money. Money isn’t something I was ever taught. If only I had been taught how to balance a checkbook in middle school, or learned about “good debt” versus “bad debt” in college! The practice of learning to balance the books, process payroll, and even just see money come into the business and leave the business – all the while knowing that I’m personally responsible – has been life changing. My advice, to my younger self or to you, would be to start practicing!

Win-Win-Win Business

The next topic I want to discuss, is of creating win-win-win businesses. Robin’s Cafe has succeeded over the last several years because it has served the needs of many different groups of people. When we opened, 3173 17th Street in San Francisco, was a cold, dark corner. There was nobody working and nobody eating there. I was offered an opportunity to serve ODC – the dance company that owns our building – and the students of ODC. There are the technology companies that rent space on our street and also a variety of industrial businesses that have existed in our area for more than the 10 years I lived in the area. Clearly, we had the opportunity to serve a diverse group of customers! But there was also serving the needs of Robin’s Cafe staff. How could I build the business so that employees could have a great place to work.Of course they needed to get paid, but more personally, what could I do to make Robin’s Cafe a great place to work? And how could the cafe also serve my investors – the people who had trusted me and invested their money into my idea? Though many of them supported me out of love, it was important that they see a return on their investment. I also had to get paid. And finally, the business, in order to survive, had to earn a profit.

I’ve come to see that the more different groups can win as a result of a business operating, the more likely it is to succeed. Why are Facebook and Amazon worth billions of dollars? Like them or not, it is because they serve the needs of billions of individual humans.

This next few months will be a very interesting period. Over the last 3 years, I have been the go-to when something goes wrong at Robin’s Cafe, 7 days a week. It is important to feel needed like that, and it has become something I’ve come to rely on. And now, it will come to an end. I’ll be sharing that journey in future episodes, and I hope you’ll join in. In the meantime, thanks for following along on this adventure!


Wait, Wait! One Small Request

If you’ve read my blog or listened to the podcast over the years, what would you like more of? I’m in the midst of a major change, and I’m excited to share more that is useful to you! Leave a comment below, and let me know!

Published by Robin Zander

Robin is the author of this blog. He is a dancer, producer, and entrepreneur, and passionate about learning and behavior change.

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1 Comment

  1. I’d like more specific stories about how you implemented some of the lessons. For example, you talked about washing the dish, but how exactly did the conversation go? What was the result? What would you say differently now? Thanks for sharing this super useful info!

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