Monday, December 6, 2010

one year in...and surely thankful

Firstly: it's been a helluva long time (again) since I've posted anything here. I'd like to say that I've meant to, but that's not even true. I've been so busy that posting to the blog hasn't even made the list.

But, it's just about our one year anniversary - we opened our doors on December 14th of 2009! That's a milestone that I think deserves a bit of reflection. It's a couple weeks after thanksgiving, but I've been thinking about what I'm grateful for in relation to this business, and also not-so-grateful. As with any project, things rarely look like their plans, and this seems like a good time to take stock of our first year, pass on some thanks, and talk about this neighborhood, this business, and my life over the past year. So, here goes...

Things I'm grateful for:

1) our customers

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - we have the best customers I could have ever hoped for. A combination of neighborhood folks, bicycle enthusiasts, and those who go out of their way because they think we're doing something interesting here. When new employees start, they almost invariably mention that customers are friendly, patient, interesting, and good tippers. Most of these employees have worked in many other similar places, and are used to a different experience when dealing with the public.

Actual Cafe would not be in business today, and won't be in business in another year, without you all. Thank you for your support, your tolerance of our rough edges, your friendly attitudes, and your smiling faces. You're why we're here.

2) our staff
In a business like this one, it's difficult to pay folks much money. Our margin is small, and what we do is very labor-intensive. Payroll cost is our highest non-goods expense, by far. It's about four times as much as our rent, utilities and insurance combined. Our employees make much of their income from tips, and this will always be the case (so be generous when you can and when they deserve it).

So, there need to be other things to motivate employees to do a good job. Here, it's our customers (see #1), the neighborhood mission (most of our folks could walk from home to work, and many ride their bikes here every day), the character of the place, and the others they work with. On our windows, it says 'friendly folks' - these are them.

We've got a strong staff, that cares about supporting each other and at making the best food and drinks they can, smiling as they go. This is not trivial, especially keeping in mind that things have evolved quickly here, and we're still figuring things out. Job responsibilities and hours change, and it's a rare group of people who can thrive in an environment like this one, and not wear out. Especially with a nut like me as a boss.

Even so, we've lost many employees along the way, and not everyone has worked out well here. Over the course of the year, we've lost 13 people. The chaos of the early months wore some folks out. Others left for other things - moving out of the area, having babies, new jobs. A few I let go. We started the year with 6 employees. We're ending the year with 16 (maybe 17)! This means I've hired a total of 29 people along the way, which averages about 2.5 per month. If you figure that the average stay of a cafe worker is in the neighborhood of six months, I figure we'll average about the same for every month going forward - 2.5 employees leaving, 2.5 new ones to interview and train.

(Maybe we can improve on that 6 month average stay...whew! :) )

I've been working on growing some management out of the existing staff, to give them the opportunity to get more experience and get credit for their hard work. Anyone who stays here for more than a couple months leaves a bit of themselves behind in the character of this place - I want the people who have done so much to build what we've got to reap the benefits, rather than bringing in new folks to boss them around in some new way.

In any case, our staff is only getting stronger as we go. We'd be nowhere without all the quirky and wonderful individuals who have sweated their little butts off for you, and you'd love us a whole lot less without them. Where customers are the 'why,' they're the 'how.'

3) our impact on the neighborhood
In so many ways, the cafe has already fulfilled it's mission. If I were hit by a truck tomorrow, I'd go to the afterlife knowing I had accomplished something important here; I hope that it endures and grows even more over time.

I wanted to provide a place in my own neighborhood that would serve as a community hub. I wanted this area, which felt disjointed and under-serviced, to feel like a real neighborhood. I wanted to live somewhere where I could walk to places that I liked. We're becoming that place, even though there's still a lot more to do.

Before we opened, our intersection was a full-time hangout for neighborhood pimps and prostitutes. There were fights on the street. There was trash. San Pablo here was a stretch of road that people avoided. That's changed, and really quickly.

In the first few months we were open, we had our share of pimps and girls coming in. There were a pair who would sit at our front counter and text the girls on the sidewalk outside for hours. I had to ask them to leave multiple times. Every once in a while, one of them shows up and I have to chase him away again. But in general, that activity just doesn't happen much here anymore. (To be sure, it hasn't gone away, it's just moved somewhere else...but I'll take a selfish victory point anyway.)

We've had some trouble with thieves - I caught a guy inside my office once, going through my things. We had a couple customers who had their laptops snatched. We probably lost some counter tips a couple times. Someone stole some of our chairs, and someone else vandalized one of our awnings. I'm not happy about any of these things, but on the whole, it hasn't been too bad - no one has been hurt (or even come close to it), and I'd expect similar sorts of disruption in any neighborhood around here.

What's really exciting to me is that now other businesses are considering moving into this neighborhood, and they're the kind of businesses that can really make even more difference. There were already several art spaces around before we opened, and we've had a few more join the ranks during the year. Our new friends at A Verb For Keeping Warm moved into the space next door to us just a couple weeks ago, and they've added a splash of light and color to the block, as well as lots of new smiling folks. One of our customers has been working on a project for a sustainable technologies compound really nearby - I hope it works out for him and that project happens (last I heard, he was waiting on some grant applications and otherwise trying to raise money for the project).

I always knew that this area was full of all kinds of interesting people - young folks and old, artists and professionals, students and families, black, white and otherwise, rich, poor and everything in between. But until I started working on this project, we had nowhere to gather and meet each other. That's changing, and I'm proud to have been a part of the change. I'm happy to have met so many of you. My favorite part of this job is meeting someone new who's enthusiastic about what we're doing, or meeting someone from my neighborhood with a story to tell. It's the thing that can get me through the hard times and remind me how far we've come.

4) the support of my wonderful girlfriend
I am clearly insane.

I know this because I got involved with a woman while I was preparing to launch the cafe, and (even crazier), she was preparing to launch her own new business. Her name is Gail, and she's awesome. She owns the Liba Falafel Truck (, which makes the best falafel I've ever had (for real), and we've been together for a year and a half (give or take a month). It's been the best year and a half I've ever spent with anyone.

I've lost a lot of sleep this year, but I would have lost a whole lot more if I hadn't had Gail around to talk to, to encourage me, to make me delicious and nourishing meals when I was so exhausted I would have eaten anything (or nothing). She's been an invaluable voice of reason, and a problem solver when I've been in a bind. She's been a source of comfort when I needed it, and a good swift kick in the ass once in a while as well.

I hope that I've been half as much to her.

things i'm less grateful for:
1) the laptop policy kerfuffle
In February, we launched our laptop-free weekend experiment. It stirred up a whole lot of controversy, and was one of the harder things for me personally to manage over the course of the year. The policy has been, by and large, a great success, but I've been weathering the slings and arrows of outraged technophiles all year, and that's made the entire experience feel a bit tainted.

It was so important to me (and it remains so), that this place be different from most other cafes in the area. I wanted to imbue it with a personal touch, and encourage our customers to relate to it in a way that they had forgotten they could. I have no affection for chain stores. It's impossible for me to form a real relationship with a place where the owners don't make their presence felt. Impersonal places that feel like every other place remind me of airports and strip malls - the least charming parts of the American landscape.

So, we did it - we asked people to leave their laptops at home on the weekend.

And we got a lot of publicity. Maybe too much. The fact of our being in everyone's faces for a couple weeks meant that anyone who didn't love what we were doing had their opinion galvanized. It set folks against each other. It brought out the worst in some. I was sworn at, glared at, personally insulted, and generally harangued. And, of course, it's my own damn fault - I said and wrote all the things that I said and wrote. No one put words in my mouth. I might have said or written some different things with the benefit of a bit of time to reflect. Oops.

In any case, the criticism stung. For a period of a several months, I couldn't read our yelp reviews (which, by the way, caused me to miss some cues and not fix other issues that I could have addressed more quickly) - they anger I saw got me really twisted up inside. Even now, it's difficult for me to read the stuff that got posted back then.

On the other hand, the policy has had the desired effect in many ways. We have what I consider to be a much better balance than a lot of local cafes.

Weekend days are now our most financially lucrative days of the week, and folks regularly go out of their way to mention to me or the staff that they're grateful about the lack of laptops on the weekend. On the weekends before we implemented the policy, we were usually crowded (and often full to capacity), but we spent our days slinging two-dollar coffees and teas, and not making all that much money. We saw so many people come in, look around, see nowhere to sit, and leave. Now, the place is busy, but usually not full, and our weekend brunch menu has been encouraging folks to come for a meal and linger for a bit of conversation or reflection, instead of burying themselves in a project (or in their facebook) for the entire day for the price of a cup of tea. We make more money, the staff and I are happier doing it, and the folks who come here on the weekends love it. So, that's good, right?

And on weekdays, we've achieved a better balance as well. Although we still have laptop users, and free wifi during the week, we don't have the same concentration as many other places. Generally, it feels more lively inside to me, and that's what I wanted to achieve. We continue to offer a limited number of outlets, and ask people not to string power cords all over the place or climb our walls to get to the ones that aren't intended to have laptops plugged into them.

The policy has become self-selecting. Generally, folks know what we're up to, and they come here if they like it, and go elsewhere if they don't. This is perfectly reasonable and respectable behavior. Ask any economist.

But, here's the real thing that gets me going when I think about it: What is it about cafes that makes people feel entitled to demand a certain experience? And I don't mean asking politely, or making suggestions, but becoming outraged when we're not exactly like the guy down the street? Why, instead, do we not support and encourage heterogeneity in our local business experience?

To those people: Would you demand that a sushi place serve a hamburger? Would you demand that a fancy restaurant let you in in your cut-offs and flip-flops? Do you smoke inside public buildings? Do you yell at the folks at Fairyland because they won't let you in without a child accompanying? What about parks that don't allow dogs? We tolerate electronic strip-searches and pat-downs in the name of security, but can't tolerate being asked to leave our laptops at home in the corner cafe on the weekends? It all seems a bit skewed to me. Get over it.

What it really boils down to is that some folks get it and love it, some folks don't get it and don't care, and a few folks don't get it and get angry. C'est la vie. If I had to do the whole thing over again, I'd probably end up with the same policy, but I'd handle the communication a bit differently. Maybe.

2) yelp
Until I opened here, I mostly thought of Yelp as a good thing. I used it (and still do) to find businesses, and to get some idea of what they're about. I posted a handful of reviews over the years. I had read about Yelp sales trying to strong-arm small businesses, and other questionable tactics, but I didn't pay them that much attention.

Once we opened, I started to see Yelp differently. Especially since we were trying to be a different kind of place, and really wanted to focus on our neighborhood and neighbors. When I look at our Yelp profile, I see a different picture from what I see and feel inside the cafe. To be fair, we've gotten criticism for poor food (which helped me to tune recipes), poor service (which helped me identify and fix some personnel problems), and other faux pas that customers would have never brought to my attention otherwise. On the other hand, there's a bias toward technology folks on any online system, and folks who are (or were) angry about our laptop policy make up a good chunk of our negative reviews.

In February, I changed our Yelp profile - under wifi, it used to say 'free'. Now it says, 'don't know'. (There isn't a better option for us - 'free', 'paid' and 'don't know' are all that Yelp offers). February was our biggest month in terms of Yelp profile hits - over 1,000 for the month. Immediately after changing that configuration, Yelp hits dropped by half. I figure this is because of folks doing a Yelp search for 'free wifi'/'open now'/close to me, and seeing/not seeing us in the search results.

Today, we have a total of 8 one-star reviews, 4 of which are related to our wifi policy; we have 13 two-star reviews, of which 4 are negative about the same thing. At least one of those reviews looks like it was a person who never even set foot in the cafe. If you took those 8 reviews away, our Yelp rating would be 4.5 (or maybe even 5) stars, rather than the 4 that it is today.

Que sera, sera, I guess. I'm glad that we have loyal customers who say nice things about us, and that there's still real value in word-of-mouth. I'm glad we've gotten positive press attention, and have allies in the community, and that these things will continue to serve us for a long time. But yelp...meh.

3) my poor life balance
I went into this project with eyes open, and I'm not surprised that it's been a difficult year for me from a time-management perspective.

I started out the year working over 100 hours a week. Every hour that the cafe was open, I was here. I spent countless hours behind the counter, from morning to night. I worked and slept, and not much else. Today, I'm working more like 60 hours a week, but still don't have days off. In fact, I've had a total of less than a dozen days off all year long. This has been a strain on me, but even more so a strain on my relationship. I need to fix it.

Before we opened, I rode my bicycle over 100 miles a week, and did yoga three times a week. I was in excellent physical and mental shape. I could reliably form full and complex sentences without struggling to remember the word for 'shelf,' or 'table,' or 'door' - I said 'thing' and 'stuff' a whole lot less often. I was calm, and slept well, and had a bit of a tan, year round.

Now, I ride my bike sporadically (sometimes I can get in 100 miles in a week, but often I go a whole week without a single ride). I haven't been to yoga since the spring. I stutter a lot. I forget things. I'm pale, flabby, and 25 pounds heavier. Crap.

In the next year, I intend to get my life back into balance. Two days off every week would be awesome. Riding my bike regularly would be even better. Yoga, too. And, of course, a weekend off here and there to go out of town with my excellent girlfriend, who's been so patient with me so far. Of course, it will be hard to achieve this, but I've done harder things already, so I'm optimistic about my chances for success.

things that surprised me
1) people love us for our food
I thought we'd be primarily a coffee shop. I didn't expect for us to sell so much food. I didn't design the place to accommodate lots of cooking, and we don't have a ton of storage, so it's been a challenge for us to make the menu delicious, diverse, fresh, and a good value. We've adapted well, I think. There's still more for us to do.

Special thanks to those who helped out with menu development in the early days - Gail & Donna especially, but also everyone else who contributed little bits of advice, and employees who put together things in new ways.

It's hard to have really interesting and high-quality food in an establishment like ours. We don't have chefs, or even line cooks. Our counter staff need to be able to do everything, and the physical space makes what seems like simple things even more challenging. I'm committed to continuing to evolve based on customer needs and wants, but we'll just never be able to do all the things that even I want to.

2) so much press...
A double-edged sword, to be sure, but one that's been mostly in our favor. At the beginning, it was a lot of coverage about our bike-friendliness that got our business off the ground. Soon afterward, it was the laptop policy that got everyone writing about us. They say any publicity is good publicity, and by that yardstick, we've been wildly successful.

This is an indicator that, right or wrong, we're doing something different, and many people find it interesting. For my own part, I think the most interesting thing is what this says about the state of businesses like doing a just a couple things (putting some bike hooks on the walls and expressing opinions about laptops), we stand out. I understand that standing out is challenging, but I'm surprised that more businesses aren't more diverse, especially in a city like ours, which is full of folks who might find that interesting. I hope our example encourages others, here or elsewhere, to challenge conventional wisdom and be creative.

things i want to do better
1) attract a better cross-section of the neighborhood
Our customers are certainly local, and they're diverse, but they're not exactly entirely representative of the area. We have a couple hundred units of senior housing within a few blocks, and it's rare that we see the residents here. There are families who have lived in the area for decades, and many of them just don't come in. We primarily attract young folks, creative folks, students, teachers, young families. Most are white. I'd like to see more of my neighbors inside.

2) more interesting evenings
We've tried a lot of things this year - games nights, craft nights, happy hours, movie night, music, readings, etc. Some have been really successful - our Saturday music shows usually draw at least a few dozen people, during a time when we would otherwise be really sleepy. Our Friday Decompression Sessions just started a couple months ago, but they've already turned into a really fun, family-friendly, laid-back little gathering every week. On the other hand, games didn't work. Crafts petered out. Movies have been inconsistent.

People periodically approach me and ask whether we'd be willing to host some sort of public event. The answer is almost always, 'yes, please.' It's hard to be a neighborhood gathering spot and not be open at night, and without sustained business, we can't be. We just reduced some of our nighttime hours for the winter, but I'd rather kick off some new nighttime activities. I'm open to ideas if anyone's got them.

and finally...the party!
It's time to celebrate all we've done. I hope to see so many of the people who have made this business survive and thrive come out to celebrate with us this Friday night. If not, you have my sincere thanks. The list is too long to thank you individually, but so many of you have made contributions, large and small. This cafe is not about me, or any individual. It's about this place, this neighborhood, this city, and the people in it.

Thank you.