Insights / The 3 Critical Lessons I’ve Learned as a Reluctant First-Time Cafe Owner
The 3 Critical Lessons I’ve Learned as a Reluctant First-Time Cafe Owner

My husband and I had no business opening a coffee shop. He’s a residential property manager and I’m a former magazine editor who hangs at home with three small kids and occasionally takes on freelance writing gigs. Chicago is home to hundreds of brilliant, deeply passionate coffee roasters and baristas — people who can probably identify a bean's precise origin with just one sniff. These people should operate cafes. Not Matt, who was content to subsist on McDonald’s joe, or me, who loved to spend money on lattes but never wanted more to do with them.

I’ve spent the bulk of my career writing about Chicago restaurants without once dreaming of owning one. Quite the opposite, in fact: The things I’d heard while interviewing owners and operators — the drama of securing city permits, staffing woes, chaotic customers — made me shudder. Then last year, Matt told me out of the blue that he wanted to convert the recently vacated retail space in one of his buildings to a neighborhood coffee joint. I cringed and wrote it off as one of his far-fetched fantasies.

But soon a crew of handymen started building out a counter. Tables arrived. A $10,000 La Marzocco espresso machine showed up. The walls got a fresh coat of paint. This was indeed happening, and I nervously signed on as co-owner. I was all sorts of skeptical, but I knew I couldn’t let Matt go down this road without me.

Now we’ve been open for three months, and wow, have I learned some stuff. Here are my top takeaways on how you, too, can get from concept to opening to full-on running a new restaurant.

Your imposter syndrome? It’s got to go

My first order priority was to get out of my own head. I could continue counting the ways I was inferior to my peers in this space and projecting those feelings onto a young cafe that from the start was, in fact, well-received. Or I could focus on my strengths and how they factor into the shop’s success.

I have neither the time nor the experience to contribute much to the operational side of things. But my communication skills make me a natural for managing social media accounts, and my connections in the restaurant world regularly come in handy. For all the rest, I'm willing to learn. So perhaps I’m worthy after all. Once I convinced myself of that, I began enjoying my new role (most days).

Your employees are invaluable, so hire with utmost care

But really, this ain’t about me. In a time when hospitality workers are at a premium, we managed to snag two stellar, experienced baristas, both of whom still work for us full-time. Not only do they make a mean macchiato, but for novices like Matt and me, they are teachers. We’ve leaned on them from the get-go, and we’d be in a world of hurt without them. Along the way we also parted ways with two less-awesome part-timers. That’s business. But I can’t help but feel grateful that we hired well.

Your network can put you on the map in a hurry

Those aforementioned restaurant-world connections of mine have given us a fighting chance in a very crowded space. During this inaugural quarter, we became one of a select few resellers of a friend’s cult-followed bagels. We’ve gotten some all-important social media love from restaurateur pals. And we have a special latte collaboration in the works with a well-loved bakery. We may be the new kids on the block, but we arrived with the strength of community supporting us, and we’re giving back in turn.

So there’s some wisdom from the world’s most hesitant cafe owner. Take it with a grain of salt, and don’t forget to support your local indie coffee shop. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a business to (continue to figure out how to) run.

[Photo courtesy of Quinn Myers and Block Club Chicago]

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