A few years ago another coffee shop moved in three blocks from my shop. It pissed me off because I knew the numbers and we were going to be eating each others dinner to the extent that I was pretty sure that they wouldn't make it but that they would hurt my bottom line pretty bad.
It was a nice couple who opened it, they had a background in dance performance and were pretty thin on service industry experience. They had a nut roasting company in back of the shop and decided they would open a retail location for their nuts and open a cafe to help make the whole thing balance out. They had a nice big nut display. Their coffee was decent and they had FOOD! They had stuff like quiche and egg sandwiches and shit like that. Another thing they had that didn't were walls painted in mocha and espresso shades with a natural edged counter all cut from the same tree. I know many people thought I was doomed, it was a very nice counter. Friends said that I should start doing food to stay competitive (I just have bagels and pastry).
I think it wasn't long before they nice couple realized that nuts weren't a destination shopping attraction, the nut display dwindled to a few shelves but they reportedly sell a lot of nuts online and to fancy shops. They double downed on the food and became more ambitious. You could get a motherfucking breakfast there with potatoes eggs and toast on the weekend. Food margins are way shittier than coffee margins and it entails a whole bunch of work and forethought to keep the machine running. The two of them couldn't man the shop and keep the nuts flowing alone so they got employees.
I know my numbers and and could pretty well judge their costs in relation to how busy they were and what their prices were. They were right about FOOD bringing em in. They were a bit busier than I was but all that labor and the worsening margins meant that the return on the work wan't panning out. I knew baristas who worked for them and they said it was a shitty unhappy place to work. I'd go in for a cup of coffee and not see the owners working or see the owners and note their strained smiles and weary eyes.
On a sidebar, why don't I have FOOD! Food has shitty margins when you have to add an employee to give any kind of decent service. If I had food I'd have to work significantly harder to eek out a relatively small amount of extra profit. I also know that the thousandth time I scrapped cheese off a plate I'd go down to the basement and hang myself from the rafters. I suppose it mostly comes down to the fact that there is a value to happiness that a small increase in marginal profit and brow sweat can't make up for.
So, I kept my head down, donated to local causes and kept getting to know the people in my neighborhood better. Most importantly I made better coffee than the other guys, all I cared about was coffee and relationships. The other shop changed their hours about ten times in a year and a half trying to find the magic hours to bring in the most money and keep labor and work to a minimum. In the end they opened later than I did and closed earlier. I loved it.
One day the other shops roaster came in to pitch me on his wares.
He walked in, saw who I carried and said "Oh, you are carrying Courier!."
He had half a dozen bags of coffee in his arms.
"You aren't going to be interested in switching roasters, Joel is the guy that inspired me to go into coffee, he's a great guy and his coffee is amazing." He gave me a few single orgins and told me to look him up if Courier ever went out of business.
I kept my head down for a year and a half and waited for them to go out of business which they finally did. They said they had to quit for personal reasons, which may to some extent be true but when you aren't making any money or having any fun personal reasons are nagging.
They immediately sold the business to another nice couple. This couple also had a background in performance and little food experience. They really went all in at the FOOD! They tried it all and were good at very little of it. I had one of their bland $7 quiches and wondered that anyone would buy such a thing twice. One of my friends got and egg sandwich and tossed it out declaring that it tasted oddly of fish and tossed it in the garbage. This couple slowly worked their own shop less and less relying on expensive employees to cover more and more shifts.
Their employees were mostly unhappy and gave shitty service. I work my shop 6 days a week for about fifty six open hours. I have two ladies who cover the seventh day alternating every other week and pick up an odd shift when I need it. They are both gems who trust to always act in my best interest and to treat people as well as I would. Neither are the all that great as baristas but they are both decent. I never worry about the shop for a second while they are there. I also have a friend who can pick up shifts who is an ace barista and great with people.
My service is consistent if a little wild and weird sometimes. When the group home goes out for coffee they come to my shop, I know their names and talk to them. I've got the vast majority of the minority business because I am happy to get to know and grateful to put coffee in the cup of almost each and every person who walks in the door. One of my black customers who has become over time one of my friends remarked that she didn't like to go in the other place. She said they were all smiles but she could tell that she wasn't welcome there. I let every mail man, UPS driver or construction work crew use my bathroom, they've become customers and the word has spread that a person out working can always get a glass of water and use the john at my place. It's really my joy when I look out on the floor and see every slice of my neighborhood life sitting at my tables. It took a couple years of development to get there but it's probably the thing that has made me the most proud of my spot. I'm sure that there are more than a few people who hate my spot. They hate the color scheme, they hate that I don't have food, they hate that I don't have lilac rose marry infused honey lattes, and they hate that I don't have all natural edged counters cut from the same tree. I'm not kid friendly. I'm not kid unfriendly but if the shop starts to look like a fucking day care with children running around and bouncing off things like bumper cars I'm like to put on NWA until things thin out a bit.
Finally the next nice couple has their dreams shattered by my unwillingness to lay down and die and just make room for the new order of natural edged counters all cut from the same tree. I worked like a dog (I like working, its not all that hard but it's long and I almost never have bad days). I kept love in my heart for all the people who chose to support me. I'm grateful for having had this chapter of my life be at least moderately successful. The second couple were out of business. I went to their equipment sale and purchased a Ditting grinder an almost like new Mazzer for $900, what a fucking deal. The Ditting is a godamn dream.
It's been a few months since they went out of business and I knew sales were up but I hadn't run the numbers and compared them to last year. I figured I was up about 30%. I just ran the January numbers and compared them to sales last year and I found that I was up 66% from last year! It's huge. It's money coming in long after fixed costs have been taken care of. I could probably make more money doing any number of things but it wouldn't be my gig and my customers. It makes me feel pretty great.
They are going to tear my shop down in about two years and I'm ok with that. It'll only be two years of the type of money I had hopped would be coming in all this time but it'll be all the sweeter for having buried a pair of starry eyed dancers dreams by being consistent and friendly and enjoying almost every day of my work life.