Everyone has a different idea of what makes the perfect cafe. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a magic, one size fits all, formula for determining all the essential elements that make up that perfect cafe?
In an average month I get numerous enquires from people all around North America. They are planning on opening their own cafe. Not just any cafe, mind you, but a cafe that is going to contain all those components that (they think) everyone wants. The truth is, these people are contacting me because they are not entirely sure what all the ingredients are, or they have most of them and they are filling in the holes.
In the list of assets that every successful cafe start-up requires, apart from the obvious things like business plans, financing, physical concepts, product branding, real estate, property management and the like, the coffeecrew get contacted when there are questions about coffee supplies and equipment. This is the most common scenario. Anyone who has done the necessary legwork on any business concept knows that you should dedicate many, many months to the basics mentioned above before you even think about filling your virtual space with real equipment and staff.
In ten years, we have had the good fortune of having dozens and dozens of enthusiastic individuals come to us at stage one. Stage one is where an individual realizes that they are ready to move from one period in their life to the next period which involves tackling self-employment in their own cafe. The moment of actualization often happens spontaneously: Someone wakes up unsatisfied, ready for a major change in their lives. Who hasn't had this experience? If you have been working the nine to five for ten years or more, it is tough making the big change. Additionally, leaving the security of a full-time employer to the relative unknown of self-employment is a pretty brave leap.
Consider this: On some level or another, most business start-ups, launched by the inexperienced, fail in the first attempt.
Why? Considering the amount of self-help and instructional resources available, it is not for lack of self-study.
Money? For every bright business idea, there is a bank more than willing to bury you in financial support.
Time? If you are now unemployed, you probably have lots of time on your hands to figure out all this entrepreneurial stuff.
Perhaps there is, if you can entertain this thought for a moment, the fifth-element in the world of successful cafe start-ups. Imagine a specific feature or set of features in your cafe that would guarantee success. To quote the "Beach Boys": Wouldn't it be nice?
To take this idea to the next level, let's consider a few cafes that, I feel, work for me as an experienced coffee consumer.
Bubby Rose Bakery, Cook Street Village Victoria. Between 9 A.M. and 11 A.M. on any given Saturday morning, the BR Bakery is abuzz with energy. BR doubles as a working bakery as well as a second-function cafe. What I mean by that is, their coffee is supplemental to their function as village bakery. BR is smallish but intimate. Their walk-in and take-out is their, if you don't mind, bread and butter. Line-ups are generally to the door but it all moves along quickly and efficiently. The atmosphere around the BR is rich with yeast smells, sugar, cinnamon and savory spices... Oh yes, and black coffee. The major ingredient, for me, is the people and the foot traffic along the sidewalks. Part of the perfect cafe experience is people watching and Cook Street village is redolent of faces young and old. Guess what? People are greeting each other, stopping to talk story and doing all that stuff that is part of the community. Summary: A cup of black coffee and a sticky bun - $3.50. Secret ingredients: People and great food.
Bauhaus Cafe, 301 Pine Street E. Seattle Washington. Bauhaus is an easy walk from most downtown Hotels in Seattle and is in a neighborhood called Capitol Hill. I have wiled away many a late morning here with a couple of double-tall Americanos and a Texas sized muffin. What gives it that signature buzz? Firstly, it is in that special boundary area that most big cities have where the downtown becomes a living and breathing neighborhood. Bauhaus is a second home to locals, artists, bohemians, writers and people watchers (me). The coffee and foodstuffs are slightly above average (for Seattle) but the people-buzz quotient is huge. Like the Bubby Rose bakery, mentioned previously, the Bauhaus has the human energy component.
Cafe Roma, Commercial Drive Vancouver. 20 years before there were Starbucks on every street corner, Cafe Roma served up espresso coffee, plates of stew, apple pastry and biscotti in this historic Italian-Canadian enclave. I sat at a window table with a friend one weekday morning while the cafe hummed with the melodic chatter of dozens of old men. The owner came by our table to collect one of our plates and I expressed my delight with the quality of the coffee. His expression was priceless: "Cool disinterest!".
2% Jazz, Douglas Street Victoria. Take a state of the art espresso machine, the Synesso, some quality espresso coffee and some staff that would be better suited to the stage or theatre and you have the cafe entertainment element in oh-so-few caffeine vendors. Sam Jones, owner-barista, and his staff bring the most technically perfect espresso experience to the neighborhood around the Times-Colonist building. This is showmanship at its best and it is a unique property that makes for a successful cafe or restaurant. How often have you walked into a cafe expecting a good cup of joe and instead become part of an elaborate floor show. Sam is not just the cities best barista, but he is a master showman.
In conclusion, what makes a place groove is a series of things that, to a certain extent, the cafe owner has little control over.
As a friend once told me in college, "Colin, you are either cool or you're not... It is a state of mind, a place and a time. This is not something you control."
So, the next time you get a hankering to build your own cafe, make sure you take a look around. Look for the scene. Look for cool. Look hard.
Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada. Although Victoria is not the birthplace of great coffee or true cool, it is most definitely the home of many fine cafes.