Help for cafe owners
I am not selling anything here. I am giving away stuff, because I know what its like to run a cafe, and I hope that someone can benefit from my experience. So, feel free to download the materials I have made available. Best of luck to you.
Below is our story. You can just skip that and go directly to the various downloads here.
I am a Gestalt therapist and trainer. And in 2007 I had been running a Gestalt therapy institute in Lismore, Australia, for 13 years. It was a labour of love; I made little to no money from it. I funded it with a seasonal business I ran. It consumed a 60 hour week generally. That was ok - it was very fulfilling work
Why a cafe?
I was always on the lookout for something a bit different - a side business that could make decent money. I travelled widely, and my wife and I would often come across interesting business ideas that we considered bringing back to Australia.
One of these was a gelato bar. On one of our visits to LA we toured a large range of Gelato establishments, and thought, why not do one ourselves. Lismore is subtropical location, without an icecream establishment. It made perfect sense.
So, with no experience at all, we started considering it. My idea was that my eldest daughter, who did have hospitality experience, would manage it. We would do Gelato, cakes, and coffee.
So I started looking around the town (Lismore is 40,000 population), and found a cafe for sale, half price, because the owner's husband had cancer, and she needed out.
It seemed perfect. Good location, full commercial kitchen.
So I used our line of credit on the house to buy the place. And then another bunch of money to purchase Gelato equipment, and fix the place up.
It was beautiful. My wife has great taste. The kids had pitched in. Everyone was excited.
The day we opened, with great fanfare, the afternoon saw a storm gathering. It broke, and Lismore had its biggest ever hailstorm. 50% of the rooves got damaged. Cars everywhere got damaged. And the cafe was inundated with water. What a difficult start!
We gathered ourselves together, cleaned up, made food again, and reopened 4 days later.
A steep learning curve. How to run a cafe - fast track.
My wife is meticulous, I am creative, and I had some understanding of how to run an operation. We were all enthusiastic.
And, we learned rapidly learned many things. How to fire staff quickly, rather than drag it out when someone was clearly unsuitable. How to make everything we expected spelled out through written protocols. How to manage all the details. So many things to learn!
My eldest daughter came to me 3 months later and announced her intention to go to University. I would never discourage that. So, my wife stepped into the gap. Not completely willingly - we had envisioned ourselves as overseers and support, not hands on managers. I already had a full time business to put my energy into, and my wife is not ultimately a highly social people person.
Too bad. We had to take it over, and make it work.
One by one we fired all our children.
Slowly, over time, we rehired some of them, for specific roles which they were good at.
The cafe was powering. We had a fantastic menu. We made all the food from scratch. It was vegetarian, and super healthy, and super delicious. We had 24 flavours of fresh Gelato, made every day. We had local organic coffee. We had a space for mothers with children. We had wifi (we were the first in the town to offer it), and three computers people could use for free. People loved us, they loved our food, they loved the cafe.
But, Lismore had (has) too many cafes. A lot of competition. A limited population. Not everyone wants vegetarian food. Gelato sold well. Coffee sold well. Food sold. But we had a big staff to keep the production going - 15 part time people including cleaners, and a few full time cooks in the kitchen.
And, we kept losing money. Wages in Australia are high. Lots of hidden costs that kept appearing. A huge electrictity bill for all the fridges and freezers. Various problems, such as the occasional flood (Lismore floods regularly, and at times the entire CBD is inundated with water), the council deciding to beautiful the street, which took 4 months, and killed business during that time. Etcetc.
We kept pouring money in to keep it going. We had all the right ingredients . We were creating healthy food. People loved us.
And, it just never happened financially. I tried all sorts of marketing. That helped a little. But there just were not enough people coming in the doors.
Long story short. After some time, I realised we just were not pulling through. Things were not improving enough. We were sinking into debt. I tried to sell it, but no buyers, for a very long time. Finally we found a buyer, a juice bar around the corner. They prevaricated, mucked us around, drew up a contract, then renegged at the last minute, demanding we sell for half of the price which we had all agreed to.
In the end, we sold it to them for a song.
We lost a ton of money. And, in the end, our houses. And we ended up with a big debt.
We were left with a bad taste. It was painful.
Thats life. Nothing to do but keep moving forward!
So many things we learned.
If we had done the same thing in say Sydney, we would have made it a roaring success. There was just not enough foot traffic, although we were in the best position in the town. The population wasn't big enough.
Our original idea was cakes, coffee and gelato. We probably would have turned a profit if we had stuck with the simple formula. By producing our own food we created a much bigger project, too big, too many wages.
And we aimed for quality, but people are not necessarily willing to pay the extra for this. Perhaps if we had slowly introduced some other healthy foods, but we launched in at the deep end.
We engaged an accountant, but he was useless. All he could tell us was - got to increase your income. Duh. It would have made a big difference to get an accountant who worked with us say on a weekly basis - really a kind of partner.
We did engage a marketing person, got lots of great ideas, and tried them. They did help a little. But it really needs someone who just spends most of their time focusing on marketing. It was also on my job list, but it was too much on top of everything else.
We didnt have a clear enough STOP point. You have to know how much money you are willing to lose, and then just give up at that point. We kept going, on the hope and faith things would improve. They didnt. It was stupid in the end to keep going. Starting with an exit strategy is essential.
We underestimated the number of staff needed. We underestimated the complexity of all the rosters etc. I wrote some software for this purpose...fortunately I could do that. Otherwise it would have taken many hours to come up with the rosters each week. Casual staff require a lot more work because of this.
We found we had to write many protocols, spelling out every single detail - work expectations, cleaning etc. Then we had to police those expectations, as otherwise people would just ignore them.
We found the very best workers were the Chinese students we employed. They were polite, reliable, responsible, hard working, and learned quickly.
We found it essential to have reliable tradesman who we had relationships with - especially refridgerator repairmen, and coffee machine repairman. Because when those things went down, they needed immediate attention.
Well.. could keep going...but lets get to the resources.
Anyway...here's some free resources for you - you are welcome to use them, and I hope they help. We developed them through lots of experience, so perhaps they may assist you as well.
Click the following links to download documents:
Cafe server daily duties
Gelati staff duties
General staff policy
Servery calendar of duties