Spoiled Yogurt and Small Business Fortitude – A Robin’s Cafe Story

It was 8:00 a.m. and I had just received another urgent call. We had just sold yogurt & granola to a handful of customers, and only then did the barista preparing those breakfasts realize that all of our yogurt had spoiled.

I had been quietly drinking tea, and working my way through the morning’s email, but this urgent text threw me into action. Without bothering to shave or finish my tea, I drove to the cafe. On arriving, I found the kitchen in disarray. My manager had spent much of the opening hour sorting spoiled food, and as a result, we were already running low of coffee and other essentials.

I ran to the nearest grocery store and got yogurt, and then jumped onto the line and began preparing orders. Several hours later, I looked up to realize that I had missed several scheduled appointments, including with the City of San Francisco about permitting for our outdoor tables and chair.

This was my first month as a small business owner. In part because we opened Robin’s Café  on 3 weeks notice, I had a lot to learn about running a cafe/restaurant in those early days.

The biggest problem with running a small business (which I’ll define, as does the federal government, as any business with under 500 employees), is that the founder/owner is assumed to do the work themselves. When I walk along Mission Street in San Francisco, and day after day find the same owner/operators at their small shops at 8am and 6pm every single day, I’m amazed. I don’t have that kind of fortitude!

For some reason, there’s the assumption in most white collar jobs that the individual will eventually grow beyond their current role, but this is not held true is small business ownership. Small business owners are assumed to work within their own company, and most do.

Over the months that followed that first experience I continued to struggle relinquishing control of day-to-day operations at Robin’s Café . Obviously, I want my cafe to be a success, and simultaneously am not willing to spend 12 hours/day behind the counter. What’s the solution? It comes down the mindset necessary to love and guide employees, with the ability also to let go – of control of the outcome, and – when need be – of specific employees.

The solution that week was relatively straightforward. My manager and I concluded, together, that he wasn’t best suited for the role. Sorting spoiled goods wasn’t the reason he had signed up to help me build Robin’s Café in the first place, and we amiably parted ways.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve also grown more comfortable not treating every unknown as a crisis. If there is someone else who may be able to handle a situation – like that of our spoiled yogurt – I don’t. And I haven’t missed meetings with the City of San Francisco since.

The challenges inherent in running a small business remain. Small businesses, while a hot commodity for large companies that want to sell to us (I get regular sales calls from Yelp, Square, and many others), aren’t taken as seriously as technology companies that are trying to “scale.”

But for me, there’s nothing more meaningful that being able to brighten a customer’s day with a kind word, or help a member of my staff improve develop themselves. Robin’s Café continues to be – day to day – a more thorough learning experience than any company I’ve ever built. And we’re just getting started.

Robin’s Café is located at 3153 17th Street in San Francisco. Come by and say hello!
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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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