staff

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.

 

Leaders not Managers; Staff not Employees

After a recent termination, a former member of our staff at Maeva’s Coffee took to a public facebook group to voice her displeasure. One comment in particular caught my attention because it so acutely illustrated the fundamental differences between my role as an entrepreneur who happens to own a small service business versus that of a typical business owner or corporate franchise manager.  


A member of the Facebook group had asked how to contact the manager of the shop and the following comment was made:

 

I’m sure the comment was meant to be derogatory in some way, but the truth is when I saw it I couldn’t help but feel very pleased. In those few words, the entire essence of my role in the owning and operating Maeva’s Coffee couldn’t have been better defined.

 

It’s true: we don’t have a manager. I am not a manager. I will never be one.

 

I don’t have any desire to manage people. I’ve never felt a rush of power or greatness in directing people to do menial tasks. A manager tells you to empty the trash. Writes little notes to remind you to make sure the restroom is clean at the end of the night. Scolds you for forgetting to clock in. Walks in and tells you to restock the bakery display case; put stock away; get this soup order to table 4.

It’s good to be clear and honest with direction and structure, especially at the very beginning of employment. I’ve no problems giving direction in the shop when it is needed. However, if a staff member is still in need of basic direction after a few weeks of employment, they are not the people I want on my team.  

Part of this comes from a fundamental difference between the way I view my staff relative to myself. When I sign paychecks, I don’t think of the money going out as payment to an inferior. Tax and technical aspects aside, the expectations I have for my staff are equivalent to any subcontractor we might hire for the shop. Much like the electrician agrees to fix an outlet, each one of my staff has made an agreement to perform certain tasks in exchange for a cut of the gross revenue of Maeva’s Coffee. Some of these are skilled tasks; such as pulling beautiful shots of espresso, akin to an electrician who has cultivated trade skills to replace fixtures and safely managing wiring. Some tasks are unskilled; like taking out the trash, keeping tables clean, and mopping the floor. All expectations are made clear on the onset of hiring.

When a staff member fails to meet these requirements, it is much like an electrician who leaves wires live and uncapped inside of your drywall. Would you be expected to be happy with a professional service performed in such a manner? Absolutely not.

There are places for people who need mothering and managing- but it was never my ambition to spend my own time and funds to create such a place.

I don’t want employees who mindlessly do the least amount of work in exchange for small hourly wage. That relationship is not one on which to build a thriving and successful independent local business. A lackluster attitude is a slow poison; nothing will sap your personal energy, cause inertia in the passion of your business’ culture, and harm your connection with clients more quickly.

I want staff who attend to the trivial tasks necessary for our shop’s well being because they want to be genuinely involved in its growth and evolution. I want collaboration; I want an ebb and flow of passion, commitment, and creation. Pride and a sense of direct contribution to our success is displayed in work ethic; the motivation behind an action is as important as the action itself. A staff member who restocks product for the following shift out a kindness and responsibility to their coworkers rather than because ‘someone told them to’ means hunting down and hiring people who have an natural sense of solidarity. Don’t be afraid to terminate a new hire who shows up to just ‘do a job’.

 

We all define our own roles in the minds of others by our actions, words, and by how we react to the behavior of those around us. We teach others how they are able to treat us.

 

I refuse to be a manager. As someone who has the privilege of choosing with whom I work, I refuse to have staff that need constant managing.

I am an entrepreneur; a leader with many irons in the fire and no time to babysit. If you are exasperated with the amount of time you spend managing your staff, here are some suggestions on how you can stop managing and start leading your team in your small business:

 

Be Clear in Your Expectations;

Get the basics settled. Clearly outline what your expectations are in your staff handbook and stand firmly by the disciplinary actions outlined when responsibilities are neglected. Stop giving second, third, and fourth chances. If you need to start over by hiring new staff to create a culture of respect, get to it.

 

Grow Experts:

Give staff a personal reason to be invested in your business. Be hyper aware of their interests and talents. Create ways for each person’s unique abilities to enrich your business. You can do this by sponsoring continuing education in your industry and creating ways to reward the pursuit of knowledge. Hire staff to use their talents for your business or create time in your schedule for them to use them. For example, if you have an amateur videographer on staff, allow them to create interesting staff profiles to use in your social media campaigns or product stills for your website.

 

Hand Over Essential Tasks:

You’ve hired people you can trust to do the basics, now allow them to help you run your business better. I’ve put certain staff in charge of choosing upcoming guest espresso features, training new employees, or keeping the dry storage inventory in order. Because they aren’t paying attention to a million things like me, and, in many ways have more expertise than I do, they do a better job at it than I could. I appreciate their investment and they appreciate having input on the business they work in every day.

 

Expect Professionalism:

Expect the best from your staff. Allow them to represent your business in trade shows, industry gatherings, competitions, etc. and they’ll bring the pride back to your day-to-day operation.

 

Listen As An Equal:

Creating open dialogue with your staff is essential. Recognize and move beyond your own insecurities when they trust you enough to bring an issue to you. Don’t be offended at anything; listen to them as equals.

 

Model Your Expectations:

Never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t or don’t do. When I’m working on shift, if a staff member asks me to grab something from the stock room or clean up a mess that’s just happened while their own hands are full, I model the same positive, quick, and helpful response that I expect when I ask them to do similar things. Again, even though many decisions are ultimately left to me, I hire people I respect and treat as equals. No one would ever be able to say I don’t clean the restrooms or do as many dishes as anyone else on shift.

 

 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know your business needs an overhaul but aren’t sure how to stop managing and start leading, you don’t have to do it alone. I’ll be posting more in-depth ways to specifically craft your business culture soon. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, let’s meet for a cup of coffee and talk! 

 

 

Strength through Staff Collaboration

Maeva’s culture of collaboration began out of necessity. My business partner, Joel, and myself decided to launch a coffee house knowing absolutely nothing about the coffee industry. Neither of us had experience in working in, much less running, a coffee shop.

Coffee is much like beer or wine; it’s dynamic. The more I know about the industry the more I’m convinced the knowledge to be had is infinite. Most coffee shop owners have worked as baristas for years, perhaps moved into operations management, or branched into roasting and opened a shop to showcase their product. Our start-up process included much external collaboration and guidance, but this article is going to focus on how the necessity of internal collaboration at our start has grown into an integral part of our continuing success at Maeva’s.

Maeva’s Coffee needed someone who knew first hand what made a successful coffee shop. I was fortunate to find this knowledge in my sister, Hannah. She had worked in a variety of shop styles in the coffee industry and agreed that, if we were to build a shop, she would transfer her studies to a SIUE and be full time staff through our launch. I wouldn’t have even considered investing in this business without someone like Hannah on board for our launch.

Hannah joined the team full time just a few weeks prior to its launch. The shop was in its final stages of construction and it was time to choose the essential product offerings of our business. Hannah navigated us in the selection of the exclusive Maeva’s blend now used for our beverages, brand of flavored syrups, what types of flavored syrups, placement of appliances, and workflow of the counter. She guided me in what choices were worth the expense (an in-counter pitcher rinser, homemade whip canisters, and sanitizer tablets over sanitizer fluid) and kept me from spending money on things we didn’t need or that wouldn’t have been appropriate for our specific type of shop.

I didn’t see it at the time, but this process was making regular collaboration a standard habit for me as the operator/leader of the shop. Harvard Business Review may tout internal collaboration as the vital element of success for tech and corporate cultures, but cultivating this practice in your small business will have an equally profound affect on your personal level of stress and ability to create amazing work relationships between you and your staff. Making collaboration a foundational part of your business culture will exponentially create growth and secure the longevity of the investment you have made in building your business.   

 

Creating Communication

Your staff may be unaccustomed to having an input on the choices being made for your business. You won’t be able to trust their feedback is honest and unbiased if an open flow of communication hasn’t already been created.

You should already be practicing individual reviews with your staff on a thirty day, ninety day, and quarterly basis. Start structuring these reviews to solicit feedback from your employees. When it is time to conduct a review, put it on the schedule a week or two in advance. Mention to your staff that there are changes you’re considering about the business- menu changes or operation hours- and you’d like them to give you their observations. This will frame the review as a dialogue beyond the individual performance of a staff member and prepares them for a discussion. During the review, first discuss all of the updates in overall practices or improvements/accolades on their performance. When you are done giving them information, change the direction of the conversation to them giving you information and don’t go back. Ask questions, listen carefully, don’t interject, and thank them for their ideas. They are, after all, giving you ground level suggestions on how to improve your business. Be thankful for the feedback!

Creating work relationships with freely flowing communication will take daily cultivation. Asking small questions (“What do you think of those new filters?”) and listening/responding to the answer will reinforce to your staff how much you value their opinion and give them the confidence to independently make decisions when you collaborate on bigger tasks. If you are starting from nothing, start small and be sincere. Your staff will feel manipulated and resentful if you pretend you desire input but never act on the information they give you.

 

Creating a Place Safe for Conflict

If communication is open and working well between staff and yourself, you are going to experience conflict. Feedback isn’t always positive. However, navigating negative feedback well will reinforce the openness of your relationship and allow for greater trust during collaboration.

You may get negative feedback on staff to staff relationships (link) that frustrate you with their pettiness or pile more work on your plate. You may get negative feedback on a product you try that just isn’t selling or a new process that isn’t working. Or, you may get negative feedback on yourself.

If you are doing well at creating communication, steel yourself. At times, my staff have offered up difficult criticism or use the openness of our relationship to vent. We’ve disagreed over disciplinary actions; I’ve been confronted with accusations of favoritism and the bled over of my personal problems into our work environment.  Handling these moments with compassion, grace, and humility….not becoming defensive or angry...sounds like common sense advice but is not easy in the heat of the moment. If you are a good leader, they already respect you and are coming from a place of frustration, not attack. By having the courage to talk to you, they are seeking resolution in a relationship they see as  worth the effort to improve.

Being open and creating an environment safe for criticism will keep your reputation intact. When staff know they are able to respectfully bring problems to you and you have a track record of responding by creating solutions, they are less inclined to vent their frustrations to other staff. Staff who do try to create dissonance through gossip will find themselves unable to easily sway others when your openness to receiving feedback and finding resolutions is known.

 

Growing Collaboration

With a solid foundation for communication, collaboration can now begin. Take time to ask yourself these questions:

What is something you do you not enjoy doing in your business? What tasks are you not good at in your business? What talents or industry interests do each of your staff have? What would you like to start doing or add to your business that you don’t have time for?

Using your answers, look for ways to use them directly for collaboration. Last summer, my answers would’ve looked something like this:  

I do not enjoy straightening and keeping track of the dry storage area. I’m terrible at remembering to order non-weekly materials, like paper cups, in time for them to arrive before we’re out. I have one staff member who loves learning about coffee and has a thoughtful tasting palate and two staff members who are excellent at photography/videography. I’d like to make progress in our drink menu and find more ways to introduce new brewing methods and more traditional beverages to our community.

In the last six months, I’ve delegated the organization of the stock room to a staff member who enjoys organizing things. I’ve been working with other staff to make a plan for creating dynamic material for our Instagram and website. We’ve invested in a new grinder with a second hopper and I’ve put our lead barista in charge of finding and ordering coffees to feature to our customer base. He also works independently with our kitchen manager to create specialty garnishes to pair with these beautiful coffees. The french press, clever dripper, gibraltar, and traditional macchiato are being ordered with more enthusiasm than I ever expected in a community that is new to the craft coffee scene. All of these things have been accomplished with minimal direction and time from myself.

 

 

 

At Maeva’s, I am part of a powerful team of people who are all genuinely invested in the goal of bringing quality coffee and a welcoming atmosphere to our community in the best way possible. Our staff have been solely responsible for countless ideas that have become standard practices in our shop. Our staff have discovered how to cut cheesecakes without messing up the toppings using a knife warmed in hot water, a super efficient way of stacking bar chairs for nightly cleaning, and a shorthand numbering system for tables that we all use to keep track of drinks and quiche during rushes. If they have an idea of where to put stock for more efficient workflow, they don’t ask me- they know they’re welcome to just try it and see how it goes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked in on shift and said to myself, “Holy shit. I never thought of doing this like that.” Because we have a culture of collaboration, we are able to respond faster to our community’s feedback- designing seasonal specials around the interests and palates of our customers. The events we host are unusual and original- a reflection of our staff’s own diverse interests. Even operation decisions, such as not switching to winter operation hours this year and the election of a non-profit to support through our events, have been determined solely by our staff.

This process is essential to the vitality and longevity of our business, and a prevention against the cancer of staleness. As long as I continue to hire enthusiastic and diverse staff whose talents and interests are different than my own, and I continually work to collaborate with them, Maeva’s will continue to be a fresh and dynamic presence in our community.