Creating a Culture from Nothing

“Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.” Oscar Wilde

 

In my “Business Plan Basics” course, I emphasize the importance of building an overarching plan to help you reduce your risk in starting a small business. I firmly stand by that, with enough foresight and honest assessment, you can reduce your start-up’s risk of failure to nearly nothing.

My other two businesses, and most of my clients, have been sole-proprietorship with, at most, a single employee. Opening Maeva’s Coffee, and currently leading 7 full time and 2 part time staff, has given me a LOT of perspective on where I got lucky…and what I would have done differently.

The most unanticipated challenge we faced opening Maeva’s was how to create a business culture out of nothing. “Business culture” in this case is comprised of the overall attributes and standards celebrated by your business and projected to your client base. The owner of a new business with even a handful of staff faces a huge challenge: how to cultivate a culture among your staff that strongly reinforces your brand when your business hasn’t even begun to operate.  

 

 

When Hiring a Fresh Team of Employees

The most uncertain thing about creating a new team of staff is how they will mesh. Finding the right people to help you establish your business’s culture is more complicated than just finding a reliable and competent employee. It’s about hiring an ambassador for your company.

Here's what we did right:

Define who you want to work with: As a small business owner, you’re going to be working many hours with whomever you hire. Before reviewing applicants, set out a basic framework for what matters to you and what doesn’t matter to you. Stick to it! Never hire someone out of pity- your brother-in-law or college roommate might be a nice person who just needs a little help, but if he doesn't fit your exact requirements for your dream staff, don’t open that can of worms! Don’t do it! Run!

This was my thought process in hiring our first round of staff:

Things that didn’t matter:  Race/Religion/Sexual Orientation or Identity/Outward Appearance but variety in these aspects did.  I knew the people I hire would be essential in ultimately creating the client base of the shop. Coffee shops are naturally a congregating grounds for all types of people, and I didn’t want to hire a staff that lacked diversity. As Maeva’s launched herself into an unknown market, I wanted everyone who walked through that door to feel welcome and find someone they could identify with.

Things that did matter: I purposefully pulled applicants that had a wide variety of interests and hobbies. My hope was, again, to hire a diverse staff that would be welcoming and have something in common with everyone who walked through our doors. I looked for people who seemed interesting, quirky, and lively on their applications. More than previous employment in food service or coffee, I looked for dynamic people who would be an integral part of the overall experience our customers would have when they visited the shop. Our first round of applicants listed interests like “Music”, “Table Top Games”, “Raising Bees”, “Permaculture”, “Engineering”, and “Reading Tarot”.

In general, I also looked for people who seemed slightly nervous (which I see as a sign of eagerness), who smiled easily, and who walked/gestured/spoke with humble self-confidence.

 

Time- We left ourselves plenty of time to find the right people, interviewing several weeks prior to the opening of our shop. This helped us honestly review how we thought each person would work behind our bar and with other candidates. We ended up conducting a secondary round of interviews because we didn’t find four candidates we thought would work well together and compliment each other the way we wanted in the first round. 

Time also allowed us to have plenty of training and a mock opening before we opened to the public- essential investments in representing our brand to our clients when we opened the doors.

 

Involvement- Before opening, we had two previously trained and accomplished baristas who we knew would be essential to our start. These two were invited to participate in interviews and have a say in selecting the other hired staff. I appreciated the perspective the two brought with them, having previously worked in similar coffee shops.

 

Being Upfront- All of our employees have been told upfront, “Hey, you have thirty days as a trial in the shop. You might be an awesome employee, but if for some reason you just aren’t meshing with our other staff or customers- we’re going to let you go. No hard feelings.” Has it helped? Very much! Partings are always difficult, but many of our staff who have moved on from our shop still come back to visit.

 

 

What we did wrong:

Organization/Structure- Our shop lacked clear structure in staff hierarchy from the very start- a problem that wasn’t solved until well into our second year of operation. By the time Maeva’s opened, I was exhausted from the final pushes of construction and the seemingly endless behind-the-scenes unknowns of operating my first brick-and-mortar business. My  lack of food service and management experience compounded the issue and, without clear structure, staff began to split into factions over who had the final say on everything from drink recipes to cleaning processes. Vicious fights exploded over whether basic cleaning lists violated the free-spirited nature of our brand. As baristas tried to outperform one another, making drinks by different recipes and creating a situation in which it was impossible to calculate costs, customers began to side with certain baristas over who made drinks better than whom- creating a hurtful environment when they would walk in and express their disappointment that “so-and-so wasn’t working today.” It was chaos.

This was an uncomfortable reality of our start up. From the first time I issued a written reprimand to a staff member for not attending to basic cleaning tasks to our latest tip sharing system, processes have slowly emerged.

As an entrepreneur with an enormous independent streak in my personality, I naturally resist framework and organization. But structures- like standardized drink recipes and cleaning lists- provide clear outlines for basic operating expectations. This has allowed staff to settle into a rhythm of workflow, knowing what is expected of them and what they can expect from their teammates. When the day to day becomes a well-oiled machine, staff aren’t spending time bitching about each other not taking out the trash or stocking cups. They’re spending time learning their craft, creating together, and investing in relationships with our clients.

 

Navigating The Honeymoon Period

The first three months of employment are essential to imprinting your culture on a new employee; but, in Illinois you only have 30 working days until you become responsible for unemployment insurance as an employer. That’s not much time!

This has been my biggest challenge in growing as a leader. Here’s what I’ve been learning in hindsight:


Be direct with staff: New staff need a lot of direction in your processes, which can be a challenge if you’re still trying to put it together. For example, our dress code is just about as minimal you can get and still keep in alignment with the health code. It  vaguely reads

As for clothing, for safety reasons, no shorts or short skirts (above the knee) are allowed. Hand jewelry is not allowed (Madison County Health Department).

Clothing must be:

inoffensive

clean and free of odor

tidy; not ripped, dirty, or damaged

Branded tshirts (printed or embroidered) may not be allowed during special events, holiday hours, or catered events. Open toed shoes are not allowed on shift.

Wear clothing that makes you feel good, is easy to work in, and accentuates the style of the shop.  

Facial hair, tattoos, piercings, etc. are permitted as long as they don’t interfere with the health, safety, or brand of our shop. Hair longer than shoulder length should be tied to prevent contamination of food or beverages.

I purposefully left a lot open to interpretation because I had gone out of my way to hire staff members with their own sense of style. I wanted staff who felt their appearance wasn’t regulated beyond their own self-confidence, who knew their expression was something I appreciated. Our dress code has worked well to create an individualistic, inviting atmosphere in our shop. On occasion though, someone wears something that just doesn’t flow with the shop.

You think it’d be easy as a leader to just say, “Hey, that outfit isn’t up to par with who we are here- please don’t wear it again”. I was so nervous to approach staff, especially if there wasn’t anything technically wrong with an article of clothing...it just didn’t fit our brand. Two years has taught me to take ownership of my brand. When I review the handbook with new hires, I’ve found stating to them- right off the bat- that I have the final say in what is worn at the shop makes it much easier to approach possible brand conflicts later.

If you have something to say, just say it. You are responsible for your brand and your staff will appreciate your directness.

 

Be honest with yourself: In general, I like and I’m able to work well with most people. In a less formal workplace like Maeva’s, you get to know your folks quickly. I know their aspirations, their home situations, their car troubles, their roommates, their romantic interests…and more than once, sympathy and compassion have kept me from not addressing a staff member's poor behavior even though I knew it was hurting our culture.

Be honest with yourself and remember your responsibility to the longevity of your business as well as crafting a good environment for your staff as a whole. Err on the side of being overly critical in the first thirty days of employment and let people go if you have any thoughts of finding someone better for your staff. Ultimately, trust your instincts.

 

 

Take time to cultivate new staff: New staff members are tingling with excitement in the first weeks of employment. They are sensitive to criticism, eager to do well, and on top of day-to-day processes. Evaluate their overall presence, work ethic, and maturity. Do they fill their time with movement? Can they naturally prioritize which tasks are most important?

During our first year of operation, I had my hands so full with keeping the business operating that I did not invest enough time in new hires. Our current lead barista will laughingly admit to making pretty bad drinks for a couple of weeks, having been thrown quickly onto shift with catch-as-catch-can training. Now, people hired as baristas are trained 25+ hours on the espresso machine and drink making, required to pass a base level of standards set out by our tip share system, and need the approval of two trained baristas and either Joel or myself before being put on full shifts. Even at that, they won’t be given the opportunity to work full solo shifts for several months after hiring.

Set aside funds to account for extra payroll when hiring new staff. Pay the extra hours to have them trained by your best staff and take the time to schedule yourself around in the first few weeks to observe them yourself. Invest in new staff upfront before making a long term commitment.

 

 

Allowing Culture to Evolve

Maeva’s Coffee has been operating for just under two years and I still feel like our business culture is rapidly evolving. In any given day, first time visitors can represent up to 20% of our customers. Without direct competition for the goods and atmosphere we provide to our community, our culture is very broad. Our recurring customers continually define our brand.

 

Know When to Say ‘No’: Congratulations- your business is so beloved by its community that now everyone has a suggestion on what they’d like to see it do. A common tragedy of new business owners is their desire to please everyone, which can lead to costly expenditures, over extension, and decrease of quality.

Two things I’ve said ‘no’ to in our operation at Maeva’s: We don't have sandwiches/meals and we don’t host live music.  Every week, I receive several requests for these things that people often expect in a cafe. Could I accommodate these things? Sandwiches would require equipment and kitchen storage, more staff, and would direct our attention away from our true focus: coffee. I’ve decided it isn’t a good option for us. And live music? Well, Maeva’s is a small place. As a musician myself, I know how inherently egotistical cafe musicians are, turning up the music beyond the point of comfortable conversation. I’d rather Maeva’s be a reliable environment for refuge, connection, work, and solitude. Making our shop a place of escape was central to our plan from the beginning.

It certainly isn’t easy to look at customers every day and say, “We don’t have sandwiches, but we *do* have…”. Know who you are and don’t be pressured into being something you aren’t. If your community is clamoring for a service you don’t provide that isn’t a perfect fit for your business model, save it for another start-up.

 

Know When to Say “Yes”: We opened Maeva’s Coffee in a community that hadn’t had a true quality coffee shop in a decade. The first year of operation was a balancing act of offering caramel white mocha frappes with whip cream and sauce- knowing that our end goal was to cultivate a culinary love of quality coffee in our community.

Knowing when and how to evolve your business is vital to your long term success. Find where your current market and your future ambitions intersect and watch for ways to draw those two into alignment.

It is your responsibility to continue your education in your field to anticipate trends and desires of your customer base. Subscriptions to trade magazines or frequent participation in online forums will keep your thoughts fresh. I’m fortunate to employ at least one truly fanatical coffee lover on my staff who actively reads coffee industry literature and participates often on forums, interacting with baristas and experts from around the world. He spends about an hour a week informing me on all things coffee, from scientific discoveries, menu trends, to emerging extraction methods and economics. I’ve taken on the responsibility for continuing my education in food culture via Feast Magazine, Instagram, and field trips to ethnic markets in St. Louis to merge coffee and food trends for menu advancement at Maeva’s. This constant attention to progress has made way for a phenomenal success if our privately developed and handcrafted drink specials. We’ve also seen a blossoming demand for pour overs, unique single origin special roasts, and unflavored beverages in more traditional sizes.

 

 

I’ll be writing more on how to evolve your brand and strengthen your existing culture soon. You might also find this blog on leadership vs. management or our process of collaborating with staff through open communication helpful.