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  • Dean Williamson

The Right Stuff: A micro-study in business context

I'm sitting here watching a tale of two cafes.

Two cafes; two similar locations, one afternoon..

Two cafes; one failing, one thriving.

One failing, one thriving... And I'm trying to get to the bottom of the "why".

I'm going to call them Cafe A and Cafe B.

Both cafes occupy a similar frontage onto car parks. Both car parks are approximately the same size, and both have similar visibility.

Print of a funky coffee sign

Cafe A (the thriving cafe) is staffed by young hipsters - dreadlocks, hoodies, a 90's skater lesbian (that’s what she calls herself). It serves the new wave of food - semi-paleo, locally foraged salad, almond milk shakes etc. It plays the Spotify ‘90's punk’ playlist - Weezer, Sublime, Third Eye Blind, Green Day. On this particular afternoon the barista is blasting out Semi-Charmed Life and discussing Jim Carrey movies.

A lot of the design is like, ‘rustic exposed ply’ (not the cool, dark wood look - the cheap pallet look). They have a large bug-zapper - inside.

If you were to describe most of these aspects to a cafe owner, they'd probably label many of them as "exclusive", meaning that they would exclude certain potential customer groups. But every morning, Cafe A  is packed with old fellas, old ladies, kids, and all of the 20's and 30's in-between. It may seem unlikely, but every day, Cafe A is alive, and great.

Hang on, I was writing the next paragraph and someone else has taken over the playlist. They skipped a few punk songs, and now Adele is on...

Cafe B - well, looks like it should work. It's been decked out with matte black and brown wood and spotless glass surrounds and a schmick open cooking area. They have a nice locally-sourced coffee blend. The young chef is the talk of the town, the front concertina doors open up widely with high visibility. It doesn't look cheap.

My point is, if you were to have a tick-list of essential ingredients for a successful cafe, Cafe B has it all. But it's failing. "We'll only be open to the end of the month" the owner told me recently. "It's just not working".

Cafe B has it all. But it's failing. "We'll only be open to the end of the month" the owner told me recently. "It's just not working".

So what’s the difference?

On the surface, Cafe A doesn’t have the right stuff - the fixtures are cheap, the vibe is grungey, it appears to only serve a very specific market. But it’s kicking every goal you could think of for a new business - regular customers, market diversity, efficient turnover.

Cafe B looks like it has everything you need to be a successful business - a media-friendly story (the chef), investment in the fixtures, high street-front visibility - but nobody’s coming to the party.

What can you take out of this case study?

I think there’s 2 main differences at play here:

  1. Have someone, anyone, who LOVES you. Cafe A was invaded from the beginning with young, health-conscious types. They gave it legs first, and they brought along their friends, parents, and kids. The venue made sure its offerings wouldn’t exclude anyone (they do really good coffee, for example), and everyone joined the party. Cafe B should appeal to everyone, but no one really loves it. It’s just nice. It would work in some locations, but that brings me to…

  2. Know your context. Just because something has worked, doesn’t mean it will work again somewhere else. Cafe A lives in a place where the norm is to sit down and meet up for coffee. Cafe B is in a location that more suits convenience and speed, and is less of a sit-down food/coffee location. One size does not fit all. You either have to suit the location, or if you’re going to be counter-cultural, you are going to have to be loved to a stratospheric level, and Cafe B didn’t do that (and back to point 1).

So that’s why, on this particular morning, I’m sitting here in Cafe A, drinking nice coffee in a thriving plywood cafe. Wait, now it's Summer of '69 and dammit, I can't stop singing...

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