05 August 2009

Dreams of Beans and Steam

"The psychological gap between working in a cafe because it's fun and romantic and doing the exact same thing because you have to is enormous."

These are wise words from Michael Idov, whose new book, Ground Up, has just been published. Several years ago, Idov and his wife decided to open a cool little independent coffee shop on New York's Lower East Side. They wanted to serve great coffee but--more importantly--they wanted to make a living. Unfortunately, when you're dealing with NYC rent prices and competing with Starrghbucks and co., it's actually pretty difficult to bring in enough money even to break even. Even if you and your wife work there full time to save on paying wages to others and even if you switch from yummy, expensive croissants to bigger, cheaper doughier versions on which the margins are a lot greater. In fact, even if you put your heart and soul and an awful lot of money into your coffee shop, making it work as a business certainly isn't as easy as movies and TV shows make it out to be.

For a long time, I had romanticised the idea of opening an independent bookshop-cum-coffee shop of my own and as I have managed a sandwich/coffee shop, known as the Sandwich Shop of Dreams, it's not as though I didn't know that it involves long, tiring days, irritating customers, hours spent wilting over the grills when it's 40 degrees C outside, hours spent cleaning the grills and, also, long periods of boredom (particularly if you are working in a city where the population fluctuates by about 20,000 depending on whether it's term time). It would be different, I thought, if I actually owned the place because I wouldn't constantly have to worry about the owner's random spot checks on cappuccino weights (there is a reason why I am so anal about coffee) and because I would be able to work on The Novel on my laptop in the downtime rather than having to pretend to clean or to create lists of the following day's stock orders I needed to place.

Naturally, although I can bluff my way in business acumen thanks to a range of pop-business and pop-economics books and The Apprentice, I don't know a lot about creating business plans and proposals and, you know, actually working out how to make some money--or even how much money I need to make. I am very organised and I love to work on complex plans but I suspect this would not be enough. The SSoD left me with a whole load of sandwich and coffee contacts, some of whom would probably give me a good rate on their cakes and coffee beans but how would I know what a good rate was?

You can see why the coffee shop has remained firmly in the realms of "pipe dream" and this fact was rammed home to me when a good friend of mine opened his own tea shop. He had been selling posh tea wholesale over the intertubes and while revising for finals at Nero a few years ago, he realised that Nowheresville lacked a nice cafe that made good tea. The shop was great--it was exquisitely furnished and although I'm not a tea-drinker by nature, there really was a huge selection of teas from which to choose, many of which the Tea Baron had personally sourced from various exotic locations. I didn't go as often as I should have--to support the Tea Baron, for one reason, but also because there would always be a huge crowd of current and former students from my college hanging out downstairs and so it was a great place for socialising. But I didn't and it's probably people like me who caused the Tea Baron to shut down the shop. Luckily, the business is still thriving over the internet, so it's not an entirely sad story.

Michael Idov's coffee shop closed down too. Customers would sit nursing a single coffee and surfing the net for too long and not enough people were opting for a quick takeaway coffee. Luckily for him, it wasn't a complete failure because he's now published a book about the experience. It sounds like my ideal scenario--run your own independent coffee shop in NYC for a year and then make enough money to cover your losses by publishing a book about it. I'll definitely have to read the "fictionalised" account; ironically, of course, even though it isn't exactly what you'd call a ringing success story for starting your own coffee shop, I can imagine that the novel will romanticise the experience, simply because the author went through it, landed on his feet and is now enjoying success because of it. Still, as a former coffee-and-sandwich-maker myself, I'm sure there will be plenty of in-jokes and other familiarities for me to enjoy.

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