Setting up a cafe

I felt the need to write this post after seeing many start ups fail and, from my point of view, for obvious reasons.

From the outset I would like to state that in no way do I think that what we have done is complete. As a matter of fact, I am often humbled when I visit other cafes, and frequently embarrassed when other café owners/staff visit our teahouse. This post is purely from my perspective. Comments are welcome for any readers to add or disagree. I hope that potential café owners will be able to use this post as a resource.


a)      Would you open a restaurant without knowing how to cook?

Many people enter the café world without learning how to make their products. It is often a career that people venture into as they feel that they can ‘do things better’. A lot of focus seems to be spent on the feel of a place, marketing, fit out and securing a good location. However, when it comes to making the products, it is an afterthought. Having recently started consultancy work for new start ups this phenomenon has become apparent. Owners get in touch and when I ask at what stage they are at in the open, the most terrifying answer is ‘we are opening in a couple of weeks’. I also speak to many ‘soon to be operators’ during our barista evenings, and some have never made a coffee before. Yet they have had their counters built, and bought their machinery. Training on product creation is the one vital ingredient to success. One of the most amazing places I visited recently was white washed and used pallets as furniture. Their coffee was amazing. I would return. Gone are the days when all you had to do was open the doors. The public expect a lot more, and we should give a lot more. Learn how to make food, how to make drinks. Learn how to make them well. Make people remember your creations, as well as your colour schemes.

b)      Trade Shows

Before we opened we visited a number of trade shows. I felt that they provided a great insight into the products that are available in the café sector, and you also get some great nuggets of information. However, not many  speciality products will be found at these trade shows. No great roaster will exhibit there, in general. What must be remembered is that everyone manning the stalls is a salesman. I often speak to people who have returned from such a show and they feel as if they know everything they need to know to set up. My opinion is that instead of these shows, people should visit places of excellence. Take notes. It is as important to note things you like, as well as things you would do differently. See what machinery these places use. Find out about product ranges.  Communication of menus. I am not saying that you should copy these places. Your stamp should definitely be put on the final outcome.

c)       Living the dream

Coming from a professional background myself, I was as guilty of this as anybody else. Having a café would be like having a bar, only not having to deal with drunks. What could be better? Now, when customers come in and say to me ‘you’re living the dream’, I think ‘you work 9-5, five days a week, 6 weeks paid holiday, sick days paid, perks’. We open seven days a week, 8-6. I remember the first year we opened, on my birthday, I was scrubbing the oven at 9pm. It is hard. The perks are amazing, don’t get me wrong. The people you meet, the sense of satisfaction that you are delivering great products, to the best of your ability, and the spin offs. But is it living the dream? I’m not sure.

d)      Exit Strategy

This is the reason why I write this post now. A couple of weeks ago I met with a friend who advises directors on company structures. The first question he asked me was ‘What is your exit strategy?’ I replied that I had only been going for three and a half years. He then asked, ‘What if I had asked you after ten years?’, my reply was ‘I don’t know’.  It is the first question he puts to any of his clients. I think it is worth thinking about. Do you want to be working in a café for 20 years? If not, how will you realistically benefit from your experience?  An important thing to consider is ownership of the café. If you can manage to buy freehold, then do it. If you take just one thing away from this post, it is this. Renting is sometimes the only way, but as most of our parents will say, it is not ideal. If you buy freehold, after 10-15 years you will have a lump sum which you can retire off. If you rent, it is unlikely that you will ever get that lump sum, unless your goodwill value is astonishingly high. Think of where you want to be in 5, 10, 15 years time. A good café business can certainly afford you a good lifestyle. However, the guy who cleans the windows in our area – he cleans virtually every house in each of the streets on his patch. He must have at least 500 houses that he does every week, at £4 each. If making money is your thing, then if you work hard you can make it in any trade.

e)      Staff

This should be the subject of another post, but I will outline my thoughts here. Employ good people, obviously. There is no better time than now to get your hands on amazing staff. Employ people with degrees in marketing, catering, IT, accounting etc. allow them to use their skills. They will love you for it. They of course have to be passionate about your project too. If they feel part of your plans, they will not be clock watchers. They may not all be amazing, but as long as they work hard. You may find staff who don’t care, who put in 80% effort, but shine bright on occasion. I prefer someone who gives 100%, but may not be able to shine as bright. I feel I can call them members of my team, and I treat them accordingly. You should try and harness who you have, but the work ethic is something I find is part of someones make up. I am sure many of you management people will disagree. This is my perspective.


So in summary, learn how to make delicious food and drink. Have a look at how other places do it, as opposed to getting info from salesmen. Accept its going to be hard. Have an exit strategy, or a vision. Surround yourself with good workers.

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