What I know about how not to run a cafe

I’ve had a valuable experience this past 9 months. At least that’s what I tell myself for not going completely mad over the fact I spent 9 months in a complete shit show, working for people with no clue of what they’re doing. But I might as well write down a few notes for future reference.

The setting

So, you buy a place that has been around for 20 years, the past 17 years with the same owners, the past ten years with the same interior design, which is pretty distinct to its identity as a cafe. Before I even started there, I thought of it as a brothel. Not that I’ve visited one, but you know, that stereotypical idea you have what a brothel would look like. The place has 3 different functions; café, coffee bar and lunch restaurant. They have stuff that has been crowd pleasers for at least 10 years, fostering the regulars into finding their very own darlings.

The food

The food offered is a mix between traditional cafe food, such as salads and grilled sandwiches that anyone in the industry easily can learn how to make. There’s not much innovation going on here (chevre and beetroot anyone?), but they’re highly valued in the area, that is one of the richest and conservative in Stockholm. We even have high demand for soy lattes, so you get what decade these people are stuck in. If you are taking over a place, you basically have two options: do what has always been done, if possible even better, or change the whole menu.

Then you also offer a daily special, which basically has its own crowd you don’t want to miss out on, since it’s good for your turn over. The daily specials are pretty basic staple Swedish traditionals, which normally comes with free drink, bread and side salad. This is a treachereous path, because a lot of the value comes with the free stuff you get with it. So you are cornered. The previous owner had honed his craft as a cook in this field for 17 years, so he was pretty solid in making this kind of food. And smart – since a chef is the most expensive player in your team, you as an owner should take ownership of this role naturally. When he left, the two salad guys were left in charge of the daily special. Needless to say, with background in a completely different Culture, with completely different palates, they have little clue how to come up with a menu of this kind. At best they can copy dishes already made before at a decent level.

And then we have the offerings that goes with coffee: the baked stuff. Previously, the owners have bought everything from a renowned bakery, keeping it quite simple, and letting the staff bake some treats when quiet in the cafe. The new owners biggest interest is baking, and thus focus heavily on that, which is great if you have a designated baker with a clear agenda on what to make.

The staff

I´d say that staff is your foundation on what you build your business. Compared to a house, you build a solid ground with your staff, you can build a skyrise on top of that, one level at a time. Sky is the limit.

When buying the cafe, the idea was to keep the staff, and add the owners + a head barista/bar manager. Current staff were 3 women who had been there forever, knowing the ins and outs of the place second nature. To put a “manager” there, that has to learn the place from scratch is not an easy task. So you have to start from the bottom, building trust with your co workers, understanding that they know better than you, and from there focus on what they aren’t great at (in this case they were all good, but not passionate, coffee makers with full knowledge of the Italian coffee menu, but no knowledge in the produce, and some technique issues, that’s it). The original plan was to let the “manager” be responsible of front of house, and active owner responsible for back of house. This requires a dedication to the bar in my case, and the kitchen in the owners case.

So, the setting is clear: the task is to up sales, keep the food menu great(er) and increase sales in the bar by getting the quality and choices up. My first task is to get the front of house coffee savvy, and talk about the Product, why we have changed coffee (from a robusta blend to a speciality coffee Mocha/Java blend), and create a good team spirit. The women I got to know , were some of the best I’ve worked with in the industry; super efficient and hospitality minded with a great personality. So, a relatively easy task for someone wanting to build a team.

And so it begins

Very soon it becomes apparent that the owner is not kitchen material, he cannot handle the stress and there is chaos. One of the front staff enters the kitchen and becomes the salad and sandwich person, and with experience from both front and back of house, she becomes the key person in the whole cafe, in my opinion. Meanwhile, the owner now focuses solely on baking, and trying to make himself useful in creating new routines in everything we do. I tell him we need information on what is in the baked stuff, allergenics etc. but since he tries new things all the time, there is little consistency and no information whatsoever, even what is the flavor in the baked stuff. The staff has to guess what they are selling, and once creating a favorite that quickly disappears never to come back.

Then there are endless lists to fill in. Lists to count the till, lists for purchases, things that takes excruciatingly long time to do, so noone follows them since there is no information on when deliveries are due or when they are supposed to be filled in. All this order and efficiency that is intended to be created, leaves even more chaos, adding stress, tension and irritation among staff. For a coffee person it’s easy to understand that if you want order around you, it should be created from the people actually working in the bar, not by someone who thinks what look best. And when finally getting behind the bar themselves, have to recreate the organisation because they can’t get workflow from their own chaos. But hey, he’s the boss…

Another important thing about staff is the way they build relations with your customers. This place has been a haunt for regulars for at least 17 years. The former owner would sit in the bar chatting to customers, taking in feedback, answering questions, making them feel at home. It was basically his home away from home, people got the feeling they were in his living room. That is something most hospitality oriented people think about, since if you want a business to be long term, you need people to invest in you emotionally. The current staff had quickly adapted to this. As a new owner, it is crucial to take over this role, or you leave it to the staff. The owners became anonymous, almost invisible. When you’ve invested emotionally in a place over such a long time, you want to know whose living room you are in now. Most people assumed the women in front of house had bought the place, or that I was the new owner, since we took over the role of keeping customers happy and informed on changes and additions to the place.

Instead, the new owners are product focused, seeing customers as units and wants to create short term up sales by making you add 30 cents on “special milk” or the repetetive sales push you get at Seven Eleven. Impersonal, efficient, chain thinking. That philosophy works if you recreate the whole image of the place, but recreating the approach to your customer in an old setting is not fortunate, especially in a neighborhood that demands personal service. Instead focus becomes heavy on “creating ambience in the details”; Tealights, flowers and cucumbers in the water. Initially, customers finds all these things cosy and homely. But soon, when loyalty card systems starts to fail in the new till system, and staff becomes increasingly stressed and pushed when being personal, customers detect that a “perfect facade” is only a surface of something else.

The inevitable

The staff starting to feel alienated. The fear of change has shifted into anger that the new owners has ruined a perfectly good setting for the customers, and it is taken out on the staff from both sides. When sticking to old friendly service, owners complain that staff is not efficient, but then customers feel that they are no longer welcome.

Soon staff leaves, which is actually natural when there is change in a work place. However, they leave for the wrong reasons. Instead of empowering the staff to feel that their knowledge and experience in the place is treated with care, the owners see this knowledge as power, and start to work against them. Straight up bullying from time to time. Needless to say, the staff too has invested emotionally in this place, feeling like captains of a sinking ship, but aim for the lifevests and jump ship against their own wills. Now the owner who couldn’t take the heat in the kitchen enters the bar. He’s been constantly micro managing the bar without actually being in it. Now there’s constant changes in everything from where spoons are to colors in the ordering system, leaving great frustration with remaining staff (me). Not knowing from day to day where the straws are or where I will have to look for cocoa is annoying. There’s no order in an order created from day to day to “try a new order”.

 

IMG_3587

Found these on my last shift, for the closing staff. Three different lists of chores for closing.

 

And routines what each shift has to do, all ends up on one shift. You guessed it; the one shift the owner isn’t on. Where staff normally would help with stuff before they left the morning shift to go home, now is left to the evening staff, because as soon as the owner feels it’s quiet, he pisses off into the basement and works on new routines, signs, ideas for baking, or other things he should’ve done before opening the doors to his cafe.

Basically, going back to the analogy of building a house on a solid foundation, this house has been built on a swamp, and focus has not been on correcting this, but trying various ways to keep the curtains straight once the house sinks.

The solution in hindsight

I admit, I write this post with a lot of resentment and bitterness. I was tricked into it by former friends who fucked me over financially and emotionally. Yesterday I had enough, and threw in the tea towel. I write this from a vegan cafe where one of the women who worked at the cafe now thrives as a manager, where she took in my daughter to work occasionally, where the owners have created a sense of belonging and appeal to visit.

It’s always easier to see what should’ve been done when looking in the rear mirror. But a few things are very apparent:

  • There were two women present when taking over the location. They knew the place inside out, including the customers. When they realized they couldn’t afford me, weren’t happy with my approach, they should’ve ended my contract right there and then, and offered the women the management roles in front- and back of house!
  • Tealights, cucumbers in water tanks and flowers don’t sell by itself. It adds to an experience, it doesn’t make up for lack of one.
  • If you are the owner who also work rostered on a shift, you can’t take two hours to make a cake that brings in the equivalent of four sold salads that takes 15 minutes to make. Especially if you’re going to bitch about the closing shift taking too long time cleaning up your fucking mess.
  • Make slow changes. If you make a succesful cake, or an efficient routine, don’t change it on a whimsical. Stick to it for a longer period of time.
  • Treat people with respect. All people. A guy doing the dishes deserves the same respect as someone making the food or coffee.
  • Be consistent in your promises, clear in your information, and always take responsibility. Everyone hates when you’ve fucked up but you keep blaming them for it. Hiding in the basement not willing to take responsibility for your own mess, is the worst kind of leadership both to your customers and to your staff. Why should I stand up for your business if you don’t?

Life is too short for bad coffee, is one repeated meme in a lot of places. You know what: life is too short for bad working environment, for being treated like shit, for being treated like a unit and not a person. I wish this industry could see why people leave it.

NP Ramones Strength to Endure

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