It has been almost 3 years since I began Robin’s Cafe, as a service to the attendees of the conference I was running onsite. I knew I wanted coffee and sandwiches for our conference attendees, saw an opportunity to serve the neighborhood, and on 3 weeks notice opened a cafe.
Nearly 3 years later I’ve learned a ton, and I’m ready to turn my attention to new adventures. I’ll be leaving Robin’s Cafe in the very capable hands of my team and new owners.
The new owners have owned a cafe previously and been looking for just the right cafe to operate in San Francisco for several years. Even more, though, my team are the heartbeat of the organization, and they are excited - as am I - for the continued tweaks and improvements to come.
Silicon Valley celebrates “exits.” We shouldn’t.The number of times I’ve heard people bragging about their successful “exists” on the streets of San Francisco exceed my ability to count. I was a bit skeptical, but like many in the Bay Area also excited by the prospect of selling a company or being acquired. It sounds like fun!
It isn’t! First of all, the number of hoops that have to be jumped through are outrageous. Legal, bureaucratic, logistic, financial, and - finally - people.
Really, though, we shouldn’t celebrate exits because it puts the focus in just the wrong place - building unsustainable companies. Even though I’ll be selling Robin’s Cafe at a profit, doing so is a mark that I am no longer the right person to run my cafe. For me, operating a cafe longterm is unrealistic, unsustainable. I am not a good long term fit for the role of “coffee shop owner,” in no small part because we don’t have a back office to call and I consistently have other projects that keep me from solving the day-to-day minutiae that come up when running a restaurant.
Law is a Required Skill
When I opened Robin’s Cafe, I, my then manager Aidan, and the then-executive director of our landlord ODC wrote and signed a 12 page lease that has served as our operating and guiding document ever since. It didn’t occur to any of us to have an attorney proof the lease beforehand, nor - as I found out 2 years later - did ODC’s board approve the lease.
Even though we have served more than 25,000 avocado toasts, the terms of our lease will make or break the business. It isn’t enough to provide great service, or be constantly busy. If the terms of a lease aren’t service-able, a business is going to fail.
I’ve signed a lot of documents in my life without reading the fine print. I can’t keep track of the number of times Facebook or Gmail have changed their terms of service. But what am I going to do? Stop using my email?
But the importance of a legally binding document, that will impact the livelihood of your business for years, and maybe decades to come, is fundamental. And is often negotiated in a matter of weeks, as was my case.
While it is a legally binding document, it has been amazing to me the long term impact of such a document.
People Matter More Than Anything
Of our current staff of 15, 5 have been with us more than 12 months, and 7 with us at least 6. Over 3 years, I’ve seen over 50 employees come and go through Robin’s Cafe. About ⅕ of those 50+ total hires, quit within a week of starting. We’ve also had 3 of our best ever employees move out of state, 7 no-call no-shows, and 1 die (RIP Frank).
All through this process and learning experience, it has been amazing to find that the people behind the counter - our staff - are the heartbeat of our organization.
There’s the obvious stuff: we can’t serve customers without someone behind the counter to serve them. But the culture of our customers has come to reflect the culture of our staff.
Conway’s Law states that the shape of an organization dictates the shape of the products that company creates. In our case - though we sell coffee and avocado toast - our real product is community. The community we have behind the counter - that’s the real asset of Robin’s Cafe, and it is reflected in the quality of our patrons. Many companies say “We <3 our customers.” Walking into Robin’s Cafe, any day of the week, and it is clear that we really do.
But when I say “People Matter More Than Anything” I’m not talking about customers. Yes, we can’t run a cafe without customers. But that’s just the gravy. Making food and serving coffee - that’s job. Forming community for our customers? That the bonus, for when everything else is going well. And things only go well when the employees - those people doing the day-to-day work of the restaurant - are happy and satisfied themselves. There are lots of little ways to do this, but the single biggest is spending time with each individual person within the organization, knowing them, knowing what matters for them, and following up - day after day.
Certainly, I’ve failed at this at times. There have been months, or even quarters, when I don’t spend enough time with my staff. But that process - the regular, day-to-day attention - is what makes a cafe successful.
Have You Always Wanted to Own a Cafe? Don’t!
To all of those people who have approached me over the last few years and said: “I’ve always dreamed of owning a cafe” - and there have been hundreds - my response is this:
"Don't! Or, at least: know thyself."
Here are some questions that I wish someone had asked me before I opened up Robin’s Cafe. I would still have begun the coffeeshop, but I would perhaps have done so with eyes just a bit more wide open.
Some questions to consider:
If so, then by all means! But these aren’t things most people who want to run a cafe, are eager to do. And this is the job.
The folks I’ve met are excited by the idea of running a cafe want different things. They want the philosophical elements - the beautiful space, building a community, the moments of delight for a customer. These things are the upside of a successful cafe, but not the reason to run one.
I remember the first time I learned - the hard way - that our espresso machine drain pipe is too small. One afternoon I got a frantic call from my then-manager, saying that the espresso machine was backed up, resulting in a very difficult time serving lattes, cappuccinos, and other espresso drinks. I quickly realized that the situation wasn’t going to be easily resolved, and would take several hours of sorting and deconstruction before we could adequately address the issue.
That evening, equipped with an air compressor that my friend and investor Krista had acquired for the purpose, we proceeded to attempt to blow out the clogged pipe. The first two attempts failed, because we had failed to adequately secure the pipes we were attempting to clean, but the 3rd time we succeeded. 50 lbs of air pressure was more than sufficient to clean the ¼ inch diameter pipe of years of built up espresso grounds and spoilt milk. Unfortunately, I’d had my head down near the drain pipe, to report on the success of our cleaning endeavors. The resulting expulsion from the stuck pipe, sprayed espresso and milk goop all over the wall 10 feet away, ceiling 15 feet above, and my entire head and torso.
Small Business Doesn’t Mean Good BusinessWe talk a lot about entrepreneurship, or about being CEO of a company. Businessman is celebrated in the current climate and ecosystem.
There’s going to come a time in the next few years when that isn’t true, and we don’t put starting a business on a pedestal, but meanwhile…
Though we celebrate entrepreneurship at the moment, we aren’t talking about what it actually takes to maintain a successful company. Especially where a “successful” company means one that has a profit, doesn’t take on outsized debt, and remains in business!
What they don’t tell you - and I wish I’d known in starting Robin’s Cafe - is the bureaucratic hoops that have to be jumped every step of the way. To successfully operate Robin’s Cafe, I have:
Now imagine all of the logistics necessary to maintain just the permitting! It is the furthest thing from glamorous work.
When I look back at Robin's Cafe, and especially now that a month has gone by, I'm mostly just grateful. To the 50+ employees I've had the pleasure of working with, the 200+ customers we've served each day, for the recognition of just how much work is required, and for all that I have learned along the way.
Look out for more from me over the coming months. More lessons learned; more stories.
Thanks for listening!