As a follow-up article to our “Simple guide to opening a coffee shop”, Hawkker went to some of our successful, independent coffee shop owners for some expert advice which we thought would be useful for aspiring coffee shop owners. The people behind Amala Chai, Kin Café, and Press Coffee kindly explain the highs and lows of the industry, what they wish they had known before starting their business, and what they’ve learned over this last, incredibly tumultuous year.
What have the hardest parts of being a coffee shop owner been? And what are the most rewarding moments?
Amala Chai: We sell authentic masala chai across markets in London and, although different from your traditional coffee shop, the premise is very similar. Since we don’t have a permanent location, the hardest part has been the logistics of the whole operation. Everything from managing our orders from India, grinding our masala (spice mix) to making our chai syrup (for iced chai) fresh every weekend and having enough reliable staff to make the whole operation tick, all that can be very tricky to manage. However, overcoming these difficulties and running a smooth operation across our 3-weekend markets has been highly rewarding. Seeing our staff become more confident and take on more responsibility is a great feeling but most of all, it’s seeing the smiles on our customer’s faces and being able to build relationships with like-minded chai lovers at all our lovely markets!
Kin Café: The hardest part of being an independent coffee shop owner has been establishing our offer in a highly competitive field. But all the hard work is so worth it when our coffee and food puts a smile on someone’s face and makes their day. You just can’t beat that feeling.
Press Coffee: The hardest parts are often trying to make the right decisions knowing future accountability for these choices falls squarely on your shoulders. And I guess I’m rewarded by the most tangible things in our business: Great looking, busy sites; happy staff; reviews of our coffee quality and peer recognition; and obviously profitability, as it ensures a future for my staff, as well as myself and my family.
What do you wish someone had told you before starting your business?
Amala Chai: Take things slowly, plan out your next move with precision, and don’t get disheartened by small setbacks!
Kin Café: The one key thing I wish I had been warned about was just how many new challenges you face everyday. Once you get the hang of one part of the business, you are facing challenges in another area, and this is a perpetual cycle. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, otherwise, it’s easy to lose the motivation required to tackle all the challenges.
Press Coffee: Pay your taxes on time!
How has the past year been for you? How have you coped? What have you learned?
Amala Chai: Covid-19 made life very tricky for us. There were the inevitable lockdowns that saw us shut our very first pop-up café in Victoria, alongside all of our market locations. But most of all, it was the uncertainty; are we shutting down? Are we staying open? This made it very difficult to put in place the framework for our operations as staff were furloughed, and there was no telling whether we were going to be open or closed! We coped by pivoting towards selling our masala chai kits online, and were lucky to be able to stay open at one of our sites in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow in the most recent lockdown.
Everyone across the country was in the same position so we learned to be patient and wait for some form of normality to return, whilst pursuing the avenues that were currently within our grasps. Fingers crossed that there are no more speed bumps on the road to full recovery!
Kin Café: The past year has been really tough for everyone in the industry, particularly for small independent establishments such as KIN. It’s taken a lot of determination and optimism to keep my team motivated during the toughest moments. We’ve had to pull together as a team and support each other as much as possible. The encouragement and spirit from our regular customers has really been inspirational.
There have been so many lessons learned from all of the challenges the past year has thrown at us, but the main lesson has been that not compromising on the quality of food and service. Because no matter how difficult the situation gets, it’s this level of quality that keeps people coming back!
Press Coffee: The past year has obviously been a rollercoaster for us all, We’ve been fortunate to get through it, mainly because we were big enough to qualify for help, but not too big as to carry larger liabilities into the pandemic.
I remember last March, transferring stock daily as each of our 5 sites shut down day by day until the first lockdown happened. It was the hardest moment for me as I knew we were in for a long ride.
After that, It was a daily fight to contact anyone such as banks and councils to try and ensure the short term survival of our business and staff. We tried as hard as we could to keep our staff, most had furlough for at least 4-6 months, but with only 2 sites out of 5 reopening, inevitably staff numbers dropped by two thirds.
Having only 2 sites that were city-based has been a struggle because whilst the suburbs boomed with home workers, the city was eerily quiet. We have stuck out and been smart with reopening schedules and times, trimmed down product ranges and labour costs. However, we have seen the opportunities to change our business: with a smaller workforce, we took the great decision to become a certified London living wage employer and are in the process of making all of our packaging products more sustainable.
We were also lucky enough to have our roastery site, which we have diversified into offering more wholesale products and slot/contract roasting services for other coffee businesses to use and make massive savings.
I think the key learnings have been to hustle for everything and remain dogged in trying to survive. We had had solid financials before which led us to receive all available grants and government-backed loan schemes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all rosy – we have quadrupled our debt over the past year – but it has led to a massive and successful reshape of our business.
You can also find more free resources on how to optimise your independent business on our Hawkker Vendor Blog.