When I started my first cafe in Edinburgh I had £12 000 to spend. That included the cost of the roasting machine. With the ongoing cost of the rent taken into account, I figured I had a couple of weeks in which to build the cafe before the money would run out. Then my business partner left town to go sailing in the Greek Islands for three weeks.
I’m not saying that I could do it again. I’m certainly not saying that someone could do the same today and get away with calling themselves a speciality coffee house, much less a roastery, but here’s how we went about it the first time around – warts, blisters and all.
I’ll go through the measuring up, the design, how I construct cafes today, how not to roast coffee and a few things that it would have been to good to have known before starting. You might not be able to build a cafe for £12 000 – that is just a bit more than the cost of the espresso machine that’s sitting in the same cafe now – but this should help you keep the costs down a fair bit.
Edinburgh in 2007 was a vibrant cultural cauldron, gently boiling with shows and events and bubbling over every August with the World’s largest art festival. It wasn’t always quite so cosmopolitan. There was a time when the only accent to be heard was rank Scots and the only scent was from the open sewers dribbling down to the Nor’ Loch – a lake of filth, filled with the city’s effluent and the occasional sobbing woman who had the misfortune to be labelled a witch. That was before the Scottish Enlightenment when David Hulme philosophised, Adam Smith economised, James Hutton discovered that the Earth was in flux and Patrick Geddes moved his family into the slums of the Old Town to help the misfortunates clean the place up. Despite this explosion of progress in the early 19th century, in 2007, with the one illuminated exception of Kilimanjaro Coffee, the coffee in Edinburgh could very well have been ladled out of the Nor’ Loch. And I’m really unsure that Artisan Roast could have become the company that it is today had the standard in coffee not been so stinkingly low.
A friend from tango and I thought it’d be fun to start a business. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but felt unfulfilled working for the consulting company, Deloitte. I wanted to start a cafe because I was from New Zealand where decent is considered a basic human right. He didn’t drink coffee and, although he liked cafe culture, he didn’t think it was likely to be a great business until I mentioned the fact that, as there were no decent roasters in the land, we’d have to roast our own coffee. Gustavo has intelligent eyes that sparkle whenever he’s drawing parallels from different movements in history or when he sees potential for business growth. With a roasting machine manufacturing coffee, he no longer saw a cute cafe closeted in a financial cul-de-sac; he envisaged a coffee factory stationed just off the motorway with boxes of neatly packed coffee being packed into trucks by drivers with explicit instructions to smartly deliver the goods with the invoices and, smarter still, collect cheques for the pounds owed. I just wanted decent coffee.
We scouted for a place for some time. Gus, as well as being ambitious, is extremely risk adverse. If a place were available, he’d wonder why no one wanted it and if a place were taken: “That’s the place we should have taken!” Another obstacle to our business progress was that renting your first place is like applying for your first job straight out of school. Commercial landlords rarely care about the flavour in the cup or your passion for customer service; they care about your rental history. And that’s if you manage to meet the landlord. More often commercial property is handled by estate agents who quickly filter out first time renters.
Finally, I found a small children’s clothing shop that was shutting down close to where I lived. Asking someone who’s poured their soul, money and passion into a business for the details of the landlord seems callous, but after being scarred by repeated rebuffs, my skin was thick enough to ask. The floor had holes in it, the windows were cracked and it wasn’t wide enough to fit a counter in, but the landlord and lady were bloody lovely, the rent was relatively cheap, it was on a great street and I was getting fed up with looking “Either we take it together,” I said “or I’ll take it by myself.” Gus thought about it overnight and, in possibly the shortest decision cycle of his life, opted in.
And I’m bloody glad he did. It might still be going today if it had just been me, but it also might not. I was all about the coffee and the passion, but I was also all about the honey and the chocolate and it was Gus who sat me down eight months after we’d started with some spreadsheets that were happily black in the coffee column, but the bleeding from the honey and chocolate columns spread all the way to the totals row. Without Gus, I probably would have clung to these products naively licking the honey pot empty while the chocolate bars melted through my fingers.
We formed a company online with 50:50 shareholding, took the lease on the property and got permission from the current occupant to measure the place up.
How to measure a place up (cost = free)
Something repeated to us often during our Royal Engineers Troop Commanders’ Course was “Time spent on recce is seldom wasted.” This remains true for most jobs I’ve worked on. There have been times when I’ve had to walk for an hour in the dark and crawl through bushes on my belly in the middle of the night in order to get a single essential measurement that I’d failed to get the first time to complete a demolition calculation. Stay on site for as long as you can and get every possible measurement on paper, or, better yet, in Sketchup.
Thank Google for Sketchup. Gone are the days when we have to get out the A2 graph paper and draw everything out with pencil, ruler and a mangey eraser. Sketchup allows you to make to-scale, 3D sketches of anything, and more importantly let’s you see how the space will feel to staff and to customers. I don’t even bother taking the measurements of a place any more without a laptop and Sketchup to hand.
Get Sketchup and a measuring tape – if it’s a massive place, or if you’ll be doing a lot of these, a laser measurer isn’t very expensive these days and will save a lot of time. I use the ‘Construction Documentation – millimetres’ template. This can be found at Sketchup Preferences/Templates.
Make sure that you’ve got the top view by going to Camera/Standard Views/Top. Start from the origin point in Sketchup and a corner of the floor in a room, which I’ll call the ‘anchor point’. Measure the floor space by looking for big rectangles and then adding the nooks and crannies later. If your room is 4150 mm x 3560 mm, click the origin point and drag out a rectangle of any size. Now type ‘4150, 3560’ and hit ‘return’. Your rectangle will resize and now you’re cooking with propane. You can add in any window recesses or gaping holes in the floor by using the measuring tape tool and adding them in referencing the anchor point or any other obvious point that you’ve drawn.
To move around the model on a mac laptop, zoom in and out using two fingers going up and down on the trackpad, use the ‘command + control’ keys and tap and drag to orbit and use the ‘command + control + shift’ keys and tap and drag to pan.
Don’t forget to take into account the size of walls and make everything as accurate as possible. Use the measuring tool to put in the location of the door frames. Once your floor area is complete, press ‘command + a’ to select all and ‘command + g’ to group the objects. This isolates the floor from the rest of the objects.
The floor layer is the one that you’ll use most in your plans. It’ll be the one you use to show the construction layout and which walls get moved where, the layout of your bar and the furniture, electrical diagram, plumbing and gas diagram, and your reflected lighting diagram. Go to Camera/Parallel Projection and type ‘command + 1’ to give yourself an aerial view and ‘Save’ the document as *your cafe*Gnd. Keep this file separate. Now ‘Save As’ *your cafe*.
In *your cafe* go to Camera/Perspective. Now double-click the floor area and click again inside the walls to select them. Type ‘p’ (push/pull), click again in the wall and start pulling them up. Now type in the height of the ceiling. In my case this is 2980 mm. If your cafe has ceilings of different heights, you’ll need to use the line tool (l), to separate the different rooms first and lift each wall separately.
Now cut out your doors and windows by selecting a wall, drawing a rectangle the size of the opening, in this case a door of 2220 height and 1040 width, and pushing (p) the door through.
Take a photo of the facade and change it up in Photoshop or Illustrator to how you’d like it to look. Then, back in Sketchup, select the facade’s surface, File/Import your photo as a texture, drag it across the surface and position it by context-clicking Texture/Position (make sure that the pins aren’t fixed – context-click untick Fixed Pins) and moving the pins to easily positional points. Now you’ve got yourself a space to explore.
There are two ways to get a sense for how the place might feel once it’s filled with furniture and people:
- Sit naked in the lotus position in the space for 24 hours letting all the hues of light from the ascendent moon and setting sun align your chakras to the earthlines running through the cafe; or
- Make some furniture in Sketchup and use the camera tool to virtually inhabit the space.
I prefer the latter.
If you want to see what the bar counter looks like on the other side of the room, you can virtually pick it up and move it. Want to see what it’d be like to be a 152 cm tall barista standing behind the espresso machine? Just type 1420 in the Eye Height box to see if your design is discriminatory towards tall dwarves.
Once you’ve got a good idea of what might work, it’s time to make the virtual physical.
Working with contractors (cost = $$$ + stress)
I highly recommend doing some carpentry, electrics and plumbing yourself before engaging contractors. Not only does this give you a sense of what’s possible and might lead to some creative inspiration, but it also gives you a good idea of what the contractors will need from you to be able to build what you’re asking them to do.
Writing the plans for you cafe take a considerable amount of time. You need to detail every element that you want your finished cafe to have. The level of details includes the number of layers of varnish that you want the wood to have, the colour of the bricks that you want, the type of trim on the corners of the benches, the wattage of the lights – is that warm glow or brilliant white? How low should the lights hang from the ceiling? Some of this is bound to change as construction starts to take place, but the better your instructions, the cheaper the final bill.
Speaking of bills, I like to draw up a Bill of Quantity (BoQ) that lists everything that I need for a place, complete with drawings of each of the items with dimensions referenced in the BoQ. The contractors will usually have their own format and will quote using your BoQ to sign off on the costs before work starts. I’ve got an example BoQ for you over at coffeegen.com. Working out the quote will involve site visits and lots of questions from the contractors about what quality you’re after, colours you’ve omitted and costs you’d like saved.
Working with contractors is not as simple as shaking hands and waiting for the cafe elves to magic you up an espresso bar. You will need to devote a lot of time checking up on their work and making sure that they’ve understood your instructions. If they’re working overnight because your cafe’s in a mall, then you will be spending many nights down at the mall interpreting the plans for the head contractor. If this seems a little daunting, there is someone else who can make your life a lot easier – the interior designer.
Working with an interior designer (cost = $$$$ – stress)
The interior designer takes what you’ve done, makes it better, translates it to the contractors and makes sure that they do it properly. Here’s an example of a cafe I designed in Sketchup followed by Chase Tang’s revision:
Your interior designer has probably never worked in a coffee shop and doesn’t know how much space you need and that the grinder needs to be next to the espresso machine and the other side from the jug rinser. If you leave it completely up to the interior designer, you’ll end up with a generic, trendy looking place that functions like a Ferrari with a motor-mower’s engine. It’s still your job to say where you want everything to make it work. Their job is to make it look snazzy and communicate your plans to the contractors.
However, this is a post about building a cafe and roastery for less than £12 000 and back in 2007, I couldn’t afford to hire contractors, let alone an interior designer.
DIY (cost = $ + sleep + grey hairs)
I’ve been physically shocked by 220V around 6 times and I hate it. But what shocks me more is how much electricians cost. Unless you’re attempting to hook up 110V equipment to 415V three-phase supply, electrics are pretty easy. Get it wrong and you might die, but the chances are, that you’ll get it right. The different colours for different countries are on Wikipedia, just join like to like and don’t forget to turn the power off before you start.
Before you run out and burn your place down, there’s one more thing you need to do: get a friendly electrician to come in and check it all off. This will cost money, but much less than if the sparky did the whole thing by herself and should ensure that your work is legal and safe.
Plumbing water in is easy, just use PTFE tape and use compression fittings that you can undo and reconfigure. Out the other end, waste water needs a run of at least 1:50. This leads to design restraints, but if you keep sinks close to the main waste downpipe, use 40+ mm piping, and have it running down, it’s usually fine. I like to put in heaps of access points in the bends in case a cheese factory starts downhill of your jug rinser.
Brickwork and painting? It’s easy: kids do it all the time and your friends will help out.
When I got the keys for the cafe on Broughton Street, Gus was away on a three-week sailing trip that he’d had planned for months. When he got back, we’d already been trading for a week. I didn’t do all the work myself. Several friends helped painting, stapling coffee sacks to the walls and searching for wood in neighbourhood skips. The day of opening had Margie, another friend from tango, adding items to the computer sales system while customers walked about the shop. I didn’t have time to work on the back of the shop, so closed it off with some dressing screens. Several months later when we had enough money in the bank and customers to warrant building seating in the back, Gus was on hand to help build the place up.
I’m no cabinet maker, and if you stripped back the sacking from the walls, you’d discover a multitude of sins. The wiring was all surface laid and stapled in place. The coffee bench and most of the furnishings came from Burns’ scrapyard. The roaster was a cheap, basic Toper machine from Turkey that cost £4 500 until Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs taxed us at the border taking it to £6 000. The grinder we were using was a screw bulk grinder made by the same Turks and was great for grinding our over-roasted bean into bags for home use, but terrible for espresso service. The espresso machine had come from a cafe that was renovating and was free to anyone who thought they could fix it – the replacement anti-vacuum valve cost £6. The display fridge unit was huge, noisy, ugly, and borrowed. There were no seats. The entire renovation had cost around £6 000. And it looked it. But it also looked authentically rustic. There’s a difference between a place that was built using wood salvaged out of skips and one that uses ‘distressed’ timber, and it’s not just the price.
On the second day of operations, an expensively groomed man stepped through the sunlight on the door, his soft leather moccasins padding gently in the unswept sawdust, and exclaimed “Ooh, I love the shabby-chic of the place!” That’ll do me, I thought.
Looking at some of the sacks now, I realise that some of them represented terrible coffee, but I didn’t have much of a clue about what I was up to in any aspect of the business except customer service. I liked people and I cared that they had a good time. Talking to customers was a rarity back then in the British service industry. Some customers didn’t like the chat. Some wanted to talk down to me as if we lived in some kind of class system (perhaps you do, mate, but I’m Kiwi). They didn’t stay long. The people who remained were lovely and became my friends. They must have been my friends, because they surely weren’t there for the coffee.
How not to roast coffee
The roasting machine looked great. It looked like it had been salvaged from the Nautilus. It made us look like the steampunk engineers of coffee. It was a massive magnet for nervous people shaking with caffeine withdrawal, but in reality it was a drum with flames underneath. The flame adjustment was binary like a flamethrower attached to a household thermostat. The temperature probe measured the air temperature, but not the bean pile, which is like heating your house by measuring the temperature in your letterbox. When switching to the cooling fan, we’d have to open the door of the cooling bin and plug up a pipe to prevent the whole room filling with smoke. The cause of the errant fumes was the exhaust pipe that ran up, then down and through a wall and into a cupboard, through another wall and along a wall for 3 metres before finally tapping into a chimney. In the back room, this exhaust pipe was covered with chicken wire, which was covered with my answer to hide all the construction sins; more coffee sacks. But none of this was as bad as the state of the coffee. A mate who’d once seen roasting at Starbucks showed me how to burn the beans in the drum and that’s how we started.
I remember my first chaff fire. The place was already filling with smoke because the exhaust pipe was far too long. This provided what one cafe reviewer called ‘ambiance’. I was speaking to a customer while roasting some beans and suddenly the ambiance started getting thicker. The customer remarked on how lovely the smell of roasting beans was. I agreed with a big grin on my face and suggested that he might like to step outside for the last stage of roasting because it “tended to get a little smokey”. I then dumped the beans out of the roaster and waited nervously with a fire extinguisher in my hand for the fire in the chaff bin to die out. Later that day, I improvised our first cyclone quench.
Amirah tells me that she walked into the cafe and ordered a flat white to be given something brown, bitter and milky and that I’d handed it over with a huge smile full of pride and confidence on my face saying “That’s the best coffee you’ve ever had!” She subsequently became a great coffee roaster and accuses me of bullshitting at the time. She also became my wife, so I must have given her something worth returning for. Luckily for our little business, we looked and sounded like we knew what we were doing. The only decent cafe in town at the time was Kilimanjaro Coffee, and the 132 other cafes in town were serving coffee even worse than ours. But it was quite obvious that we needed to get better. The first thing I needed to learn was how to roast coffee.
I looked up roasting courses. Fortunately, Probat were launching their inaugural roasting course at the factory in Emmerich am Rhein. Unluckily it was in Deutsch. Fortunately both Gus and I speak German! Unfortunately, one of us needed to tend the store. With rudimentary coffee training by a rudimentary coffee trainer – “get the pour to be a thin mouse tail and cut it at blonding” –, Gus stayed and I booked a flight to Germany.
The budget was tight, so I caught a cheap flight to Weeze, caught the train to Emmerich am Rhein, walked to a field am Rhein next to the Probat factory am Rhein, where I slept and was bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes am Rhein. The next morning I reported promptly at the gates of the PROBAT-Werke GmbH scratching my arms and itching to learn all the secrets of coffee roasting from the meisters of roast machines.
The secret, it turned out, was that nobody knows how to roast coffee. My notes at the time show nothing of rate of climb or of different phases of the roast. However, we did do a lot of tasting of the coffee and all had a turn roasting using a far superior machine to the converted concrete mixer I had back in Edinburgh. At the end of the course, Gerhard Jansen, the head of Probat R&D, came in to speak to us and to cryptically answer our questions about roasting. He’s the author of the book ‘Rösten von Kaffee – Magie, Kunst, Wissenschaft’, which is basically what the venerated Yoda of coffee told us: “Magic, art and science it is.” And he was right. The industry has moved on quite a lot since then in terms of knowing what variables affect our cup of coffee. There’s still a lot that’s left to art, but much less ‘magic’ than was the case back then.
The big advantage in starting from a state of such ignorance was that we weren’t bullshitting; we genuinely thought we were doing a good job. However, we both knew that we had a lot of learning to do and set about doing just that. Gus embraced the history and financial side of the business and I made terrible websites, worked on the operational side and threw myself into the science of coffee to reduce inconsistency and the reliance on magic and art. I read every book on coffee that I could get hold of and, like so many in the speciality coffee community, I experimented constantly.
After Gus and I took trip together through Sweden and Denmark, we were so impressed with the coffee at Coffee Collective that I asked them to run a roasting course for me and our other roasters. I took courses with the Coffee Collective, Coffee Nexus, and Michael de Renouard and, after each, the coffee improved a great deal. I modified the roaster introducing a bean-probe and set it up to use profiling software, and eventually it was sold and replaced by a Diedrich roaster at our main roasting plant. My skills as a roaster were surpassed by Amirah and Joey, whom I’d taught because they were constantly experimenting and testing. Our operation in the UK was boosted by the addition of John Thompson, who purchases and works out the profiles for new coffees, and by Piotr, who happily makes up his own profiles.
If I did it all again, I wouldn’t change the haphazard way we started. I wouldn’t have had enough money to do it any other way and it wouldn’t have become the business that it has. The business thrives on lots of maintenance and constant experimentation. There are shortcuts that I see some people take like employing coffee consultants to set up the whole operation. That’s fine for people with enough money to do so, but if you’re just paying someone else to do it, you’re not really doing it yourself. And it’s certainly not how to do it the cheap way. Sometimes it might be cheaper to pay someone who’s done it before to show you how to do it, but make sure that they have actually done it. Learning is best done spending time with a few professionals whose work you appreciate and through reading plenty of blogs and books followed up by trying it out; testing the advice.
Here are a few things I recommend when building cafes:
View from the street
Make it obvious that you’re selling coffee. I got this advice from Jon Sharp who ran five great cafes in Edinburgh: when a coffee lover is on the street looking in and deciding whether to come in or not, they want to see a coffee machine and some comfy seating. I’d add to this that if you do good food, you should also show the food off. When I was designing the Taman Tun cafe this was why I placed the cake chiller at the front and curved the counter around to show the espresso machine.
Decide what you are
The first incarnation of Artisan Roast on Broughton Street was an ugly, confusing chimera of coffee, honey and chocolate. It was never going to work. Decide what you are and make it obvious. We still use fancy chocolate for our drinking chocolate at the cafe, but we’re a coffee place. It smells, looks and sounds like a coffee place that also sells drinking chocolate.
Keep the espresso machine out of the way
I know you’re going to have a super fancy espresso bar and you’ve just spent the equivalent of a downpayment on a small house to buy the machine, but don’t let it get in the way of the customer flow or food service. I like the set up at League of Honest Coffee where the POS (Point of Sale = till) and food items are on one counter and the coffee setup (two Slayers) is on a separate counter. If you’re going to get really busy, you’ll also need space on the other side of the espresso counter for staff to pour the milk.
Design different areas for different people
Not everyone wants to sit in rattan chairs or in comfy sofas or hard wooden benches. I’m a big fan of designing different areas for different people.
In this design for the Taman Tun cafe, the outside area to the right has low wicker chairs and normal sized coffee tables where people like to chill out and smoke. Inside the door is the food display chiller followed by a food display bench and the POS. Opposite this is a bench with narrow tables that groups of up to four can get around for an intimate chat and observe the action. Further inside and tucked away, there’s area with cushioned seats around tables where groups of families gather. Interestingly, different areas fill up at different times of the day.
Design for customers and staff
It’s tempting to design for one or the other, but both are essential for the profitable running of the operation. Make sure that the staff have enough space to move around efficiently while also designing a place that customers would like to inhabit.
If you’ve got a setup where customers pay at the counter, you need space for a queue inside. It’s great if you’ve got queues running out the door, around the block and right past Starbucks, but it’s no good having people out the door in the pissing rain because your POS is right beside the door. Push the POS far enough inside so that a good queue can form.
You also need to have space for general traffic around the queue. This could be just having enough space between the queue and nearby tables or having an alternative route through the cafe.
Have goodies leading up to the POS
To help speed up the ordering and increase sales, have menus and tempting food on display on the way up to the till. Ideally, everyone, except for the sales rep who was on his phone the whole time, will know exactly what they want to order as soon as they step up to the till.
This could include retail items. If customers can pick up retail items, it really helps sales.
Make it somewhere special
Reconfigurable tables that can be easily moved about and joined are obviously the best choice for ensuring that your cafe can cater to a group of any size. It’s a good idea to have a few tables where customers can arrange the layout, but they’re also the same as every other cafe on the planet. I’m a fan of interesting built-in furniture; seats that make people feel special. Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs in London have a great couple of seats that are hidden away through a tiny slit. There’s Cafe Szafé in Krakow that has seats made out of wardrobes making the occupants feel like the royalty of Cafeland (there’s also a bar called Alchemia, also in Krakow, that has a wardrobe that is a passage to the smoking room). I built a seat in our Glasgow cafe out of a raised church pew made out of yellow yew, backed by a large framed mirror, with a bannister made of redwood acting as a footrest. It took me over a week, but I love the effect and am sure that many customers appreciate the effort.
Staff need somewhere to dump their bags, jackets, motorcycle helmets and guitar amps and it shouldn’t be the cleaning cupboard. If you’ve got the space, a set of lockers and coat hooks are great.
You need lots of power points. Think about all the electrical appliances that you’ll be needing: kettle, fridges, router, modem, phone, POS, POS printer, bar printer, coffee printer, kitchen printer, office computer, office printer, cash register, speakers, espresso machine, grinders, display fridge, nitro fridge, juicer, feline defibrillator, staff phones, oven, mixers. Now add two more power points for each location.
You also need lots of rings or radials (different countries have different regulations on which to use). Some electrical appliances need their own dedicated line such as espresso machines and roasters and are more efficient if they run on 3 phase supply. I’d put any equipment over 3000 W on its own line to the distribution box.
Each radial or ring will have a maximum power draw depending on the fusing and the wiring that you’ve used. Most homes will have a ring per floor, but you’re not building a bungalow for Aunt Betty here. I like to have at least a couple of rings in the front and a couple in the kitchen. It’s overkill, but I’d prefer to have coffee beans cracking than fuses.
An item that will often knock out a ring is the humble kettle. Many kettles suck 3 kW and will trip out a circuit if there are too many other items drawing from the same ring. Most of the electrical items will be used intermittently and so wouldn’t normally overload a circuit, but it’s best to make sure that your circuit can handle the full load (including surge load from fridges and freezers) for that moment during busy service when everybody slaps the grind/heat/blend/on button at the same time.
Got a three phase espresso machine and only single-phase supply? So long as the supply has enough amps (usually around 30 A) you can still use it; it’ll just be less efficient. Just twist two of the phase wires together and connect them to the live, and twist the last phase wire with the neutral together and connect them to the neutral (you could also combine all three lives together, but this is usually physically difficult), and connect the earth to the earth. You can do this with espresso machines because the pumps use single-phase and it’s the heating element that’s three-phase.
Got a three-phase roaster and only single-phase supply? It is possible to run, but it’s complicated and, really, if you’ve gone to the expense of buying a coffee roaster, don’t be daft, get the three-phase supply in to your location.
If you’re drawing more power than your supply then you’re going to have expensive problems and possibly fires. Commercial and domestic supply norms differ in different countries. Some cafes would run off 60 A, but 200 A is probably a better bet for a cafe that doesn’t want surprise candle lit dinners.
Cat 5e cable
Ever lost connectivity to your wifi? It’s no fun during busy service. That’s why I prefer to use cat 5e (or 6) cable to connect my POS to the POS printers. This is best done before the floor is laid. Your fancy iPad-based POS can be connected to ethernet if you buy a few spare parts.
Don’t be afraid to be a bit different
Sure, it’s a good idea to see what everyone else is up to, but it’s often good to be a bit different. We didn’t have enough space for a counter at the Broughton Street location with staff on one side and customers on the other. So, I did away with the separation altogether. This still flummoxes the occasional customer to this day: “Where do I stand?” they’ll ask, screaming internal confusion. However, removing the barrier between staff and customer was one of the things that journalists first picked up on (Hi Gavin!) and customers came to love.
That said, being too different will likely just confuse people to the point that they’ll stop coming (this ties in with the earlier point of deciding what you are).
Spend where it matters
People who go to independent cafes go for the atmosphere of an independent cafe. If you’ve built the table that the customer sits at “With these two hands”, it means much more than if you’ve bought everything at IKEA. One mistake that I see time again is cafe owners spending too much money on the fit out and then scrimping on the core ingredients of a good cafe:
- good food and coffee
- great service
If you’ve got a limited amount of cash to start with, spend your money on giving your customers the best experience, not on business cards and a fancy website.
Be in it for the long haul
Starting a speciality cafe is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s often not even a get rich scheme. It’s notoriously difficult to make the business work beyond a couple of years. I don’t recommend starting with as little money as we did. It’s always a good idea to have money in reserve for the unseen costs – a good amount is double what you reckon.
To make money you either build a place up to a point where it’s making decent money and sell it or you hold on to it. Selling a place well is a lot of work. You need all the systems in place, the contracts signed, the training set out in manuals and good prospects for the future. So far, I’ve preferred to hold on to the cafes.
The wee cafe on Broughton Street is still running and it’s coming up to ten years. In 2012, it was named the best cafe in the UK by the now defunct Qype. For directions you can find it on the website at artisanroast.co.uk.
Gus is still there directing the business that’s won a few awards under his stewardship, including the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland award. He loves the cafe, the business and he now even drinks, and appreciates, good coffee.