Want to open a cafe? Then learn how to espress yourself

It’s not as easy as it might look, to open a cafe that attracts customers and keeps them coming back, and it’s about more than just the coffee, says Avoca’s Simon Pratt

Simon Pratt, managing director of Avoca, at one of the company’s 12 cafes in Rathcoole, Co Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Simon Pratt, managing director of Avoca, at one of the company’s 12 cafes in Rathcoole, Co Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 01:00

Want to know the makings of a great cafe? Avoca has 12 and has been included in the 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland every year since 1996. To find out the secrets of cafe success, we asked managing director Simon Pratt to spill the coffee beans.

The coffee is important, very important
Having very good coffee is essential. Every petrol station and corner shop now has an automatic machine producing mediocre coffee, so it’s vital that a cafe serves great coffee as a point of difference. More and more people are becoming discerning about their coffee, so this is growing in importance.

A lot of us limit ourselves to just one or two cups a day, so we want to make sure we don’t waste that precious allowance on watery coffee or over-heated milk. Great coffee will keep customers coming back. Well-trained baristas are vital so keep anyone who isn’t able to make great coffee away from the espresso machine.

Feed their eyes first
We eat with our eyes first, so an abundant and tempting display is your opportunity to make that all-important first impression. How varied your offering is depends on the scale of your operation, but remember no cafe can be all things to all people. So, consider who it is that makes up your target market. Know who passes your door. Try to anticipate what it is that those people want, cater for their needs. Then, because we are all time poor, make sure that the customer experience is as hassle-free as possible. This will encourage return visits.

Mind your margins
Margin and, ultimately, making rather than losing money, is the key piece when it comes to running a cafe. People think that it looks like an easy business and it may do, from the outside, but in fact it is anything but. It is quite an easy business to get into. The barriers to entry are low, but it is also terrifyingly easy to lose money. In a recession, people are looking for new ideas and the thoughts of running a cafe can appear attractive. After all, what’s not to like? Nice coffee, nice food, in a beautiful room you get to design yourself, somewhere your friends can drop in to? It sounds perfect.

The reality is that unless you are doing a lot of things just right, all the time, and the wind is behind you, it will come as a huge shock when your accountant tells you at the end of the year that you lost 5 per cent on everything you sold during the year. The key items on which to keep a sharp focus are these: staff cost as a percentage of sales, gross margin, waste and shrinkage and overheads.

Differentiate yourself
Constantly strive to do things better. Innovate and keep things fresh to keep customers coming back. There are new cafes springing up all the time and, although many won’t last, each of them will nibble at the pie. New places get a honeymoon period when everyone wants to try them out. The real test comes 18 months later, when you are no longer the new kid on the block and, indeed, a newer, cooler competitor has arrived in the area.

You need a takeaway market too
Good “ready to go” meals that are prepared by hand, to the same standard that you are serving in your cafe, are a great way to increase sales and encourage business. Cafes with their trained chefs can produce ready meals of better quality than most home cooks, for not much more than the retail price of the ingredients. In straitened times, a lot of people have naturally cut back on going out. When you factor in the cost of a taxi and perhaps a babysitter, on top of the price of dinner for two, you can see why. But, even while staying at home more often, we still want a treat where no one has to cook after a busy day.

So a really good ready meal and bottle of wine is a great solution for the customer and a good business opportunity for your cafe.

Seek out excellent suppliers
There are more and more great Irish artisan suppliers out there that need to be supported if our food industry is to thrive. Do your research and spend time going to markets to see what is out there.

Know what brings people in the door
Great staff is a vital component to creating a successful cafe. A good location is important and engaging in social media is becoming increasingly important. To ensure a good customer experience, though, you need great staff operating in a relaxed and welcoming room with, of course, great food and coffee.

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