The Challenges of Running a Cafe


Now, not to start off on a gloomy note, but every day is an uphill battle. I mean, leaving your comfortable bed for another busy day is never easy. Whether we’re hassling the kids about brushing their teeth while trying to find two socks that match, or scoffing down a couple of pieces of vegemite toast as we desperately look for the car keys, how many of us can say we have an easy start to the day? If you do indeed know the secret to a relaxing morning, I tip my hat to you, good sir, and implore you to get in touch and teach me your magical ways. My point is, every morning is full of challenges, and baristas and cafe owners aren’t immune.

People calling in sick, caffeine reliance, demanding customers, bosses who don’t listen – y’know all those things that fit right in under #hospolife. I was recently involved in the setup of the Seven Miles coffee window space. We walked headlong into a few big challenges and I want to use this blog as a chance to address some recurring cafe conundrums from the perspective of the cafe owner and the consumer too.

Is (cup) size really everything?

The first big challenge we came across was the cup size debacle. If you haven’t read Paul’s blog on this issue, I’d recommend you do as it goes into much more depth. But here’s the problem in a nutshell; dine in and takeaway cups are never the same sizes. This is an issue for flavour and strength consistency, as well as stocktake. At Seven Miles, we wanted two sizes that allowed for consistent strength and flavour. The way to do this is to have one shot in a single espresso and a double in the double espresso. This means a 6oz cup for an espresso and as 12oz cup for a double espresso. The issue here is that 6oz cups are slightly smaller than what most people are used to. And people don’t like being confronted with change. Especially first thing in the morning.

“It’s not the same”, “I don’t want it”, “I prefer the old size”. What I find with customers is that they are initially surprised that our cups are different to what they get from everyone else. And I totally understand that. Why change it if everyone likes it, right?

But customers are reasonable people too (most of the time), and once we explain the reasoning behind the change, they’re much more accepting. Two shot sizes, two cup sizes; simples.

A fair price to pay for a double strength coffee?

Everyone in the hospitality world battles with this one. What is the cost price? Once you add labour per unit, what profit margin do you want to see? When someone orders a double shot, do you charge them 50cents extra, even though it is essentially double the product? Multinational companies can afford to charge only 50cents for a double shot, but for most small cafes, this doesn’t make business sense. The only reason this has been the standard in Australia for so long is because of cheap labour where the coffee is grown and harvested. So really, charging $5 for a double shot coffee isn’t a business being stingy, it’s a more ethical way to price (assuming the money finds its way back to the coffee growers).

The coffee industry is capable of having a huge positive impact on developing countries. It is our responsibility to pay a fair price for green coffee. Doing so will improve the quality of life for people living in coffee-producing regions. Children will have schools to go to, families will be able to afford a roof over their head and clean food and water.

I really challenge every coffee drinker to think about how much they pay for a cup of coffee, and what it is really worth to them. Sure, when you add up the price of one coffee a day over a whole year it can seem like a pretty big sum, but when you consider the impact it has on those involved at origin, it seems like a worthwhile way to spend your money.

Where on earth are the experienced baristas?

I remember when I first learnt the basics of making coffee and how impatient I was, wanting to jump behind a machine and sling some silky latte art for all my customers. I was dismayed to find that every barista job around was asking for a minimum of two years experience. Though time has passed, not much has changed. This makes it incredibly daunting and difficult for young baristas to even get their foot in the door in the industry.

I’ve run cafes myself, so I understand why the experience is necessary. But I also know how difficult it is to find baristas in the first place. “Desperately seeking a barista but will only consider someone with 2+ years experience” – good luck! The only way around this one is to upskill everyone in the business. This means employing young baristas to work in other areas of the cafe (running coffee, waiting tables etc), then when there’s down time they can fine-tune their barista skills with more experienced members of your team. When someone calls in sick or there’s a particularly busy breakfast rush, your young gun can step up to the plate and prove him or herself as the coffee rockstar you always hoped they would be.

Cafe owners need to be brave, take a gamble, and then invest time in developing every member of the team. When hiring, trust your instincts and look for a good attitude and capacity to learn. When I first joined this company I was only 6 months into making coffee. Thankfully, my boss at the time had the foresight to take a chance on me. He worked me hard, trained me well and I’ve been disappointing him ever since! Maybe one day I’ll improve!

Method to my madness

So what is the take-away from this ramble? Every morning presents the consumer, the barista and the cafe owner with different challenges. But there’s method in everyone’s madness. You might not always see eye-to-eye with the person opposite you, but they usually have a good reason for changing something, resisting something or asking a question. Try not to get upset at the 16-year-old barista trying to keep up, and likewise, don’t get frustrated at the ¼ strength soy decaf latte drinker who has digestive issues but doesn’t want to miss out on our fantastic cafe culture.

And if your morning is throwing more challenges at you than you know how to handle – keep calm, and order a double shot.

Disclaimer* All humour is intended as satire.

Sam McLoughlin
Sam’s love for coffee snowballed after completing his first Baristas training course when he was just 18. Since that time, Sam has been continually perfecting his skills in extraction, brewing and milk texturing in the fast paced café scene. Mastering precision, consistency and speed is a skill that can only be developed with experience, knowledge and a deep passion for exceptional coffee. Today, as one of our lead Baristas, Sam can be found pumping out sensational coffee in our Espresso Bar in the morning, working with our sourcing & roasting teams during the day and leading our Barista training classes in the evening. Sam’s a strong believer in the role of education in building an appreciation for Speciality Coffee in our community. He uses any opportunity to share his knowledge and experience with others. As a Barista, Sam loves guiding customers on their coffee journey, helping to build their understanding on different types of coffee, origins and brewing methods. Equally, he is a firm believer in sharing his skills and experience with other up and coming Baristas to ensure we are collectively building & sustaining a community of coffee lovers.
Sam McLoughlin

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