“Are we sure we really want to do this . . .”
This sentence seems to preface every conversation Mark and I have now-a-days.
This week we broke ground on our new biz. Sort of.
Mark met with the mayor to get an official signature on the variance we were verbally granted.
He went to the city planning commission to get a permit. (Thank God for his vast dance experience or I doubt he could jump through all those hoops so gracefully.)
He met with a lawyer to set up a Georgia corp.
He met with an accountant to discuss financial repercussions and risk on this sort of investment.
He met with a banker to discuss the construction loan.
He met with our builder to go over plans for the shop, and they went prowling around town to see other food service businesses and stores to get an overview of various design options.
He met with the man who owns half the town to discuss neighborly things, like where to park construction trucks and our impact on the other nearby business.
He met with the Department of Health to discuss the health codes and building requirements for the food service industry portion of our plan.
“I’m out of practice at this,” Mark said, coming home looking a bit shell shocked. “And I feel out of sorts, it’s all too familiar . . . “
You see, people think we were dance teachers and choreographers at FLEX, but they never understood that dance instruction was a very small portion of our dance empire work load. Mark built the Lakewood Ranch facility in a town with far more red tape than this one, under more financial stress and legal frustration than you’d ever encounter in small town Georgia. Meanwhile, he kept up his regular overbooked duties, such as the bookkeeping, staff training, payroll, and he taught a full schedule. Dance parents and staff members harped on him for “blowing off” classes when business scheduling conflicted with teaching, as if he was out on the gulf course instead of knocking himself out to give the school a future and to hold our position as the most progressive dance education facility in the area. No one could conceive how much non-dance related work it took to keep that school what it was.
Meanwhile, they heaped on guilt and admonishment as if growing our business was a sign of greed. We were just trying to keep up with our school’s ever increasing, business expenses, like escalating insurance, professional fees, providing bigger and better services and equipment, and providing full time work and on-going education to devoted employees. I confess, we still hoped to make a decent living one day too, one that would include a true luxury, like health insurance or maybe a vacation once a year – you know, a total indulgence like taking a week off that wasn’t’t spent choreographing solos or at a competition.
One month after we finished that horrible year of building misery, we got a letter from the local government claiming a “private domain” issue, and they announced they were going to tear the building down. Many people don’t know it, but that was the first time we considered selling FLEX, because, frankly, we knew losing that facility would ruin us – and after 18 years of striving to make it all work, we didn’t have the strength left in us to do it all again. The fact that we’d loose a full season in that location and all those students meant the Sarasota FLEX would suffer too, because we used the equity in that school to support the next. We’d no doubt get paid back for the new building cost if the county tore it down, but what of the opportunity costs? Just so happens we closed two other locations shy of ever making up the original investment to move into that new school – were we to just shrug off losing all that hard earned ground from three year’s work and sacrifice as well?
Now, still drained from the sacrifices the new building demanded of us, we had to pour time and money into lawyers for another struggle. After months of stress and more than a few tears (mine), the city moved the plans for the road and the school was preserved. But by then, the seed of an idea had been set to unload this monster of a business that consumed our life and left us always feeling as if everyone thought we were the enemy. Our inner reserves had been used up. Life is too short. We decided to put the entire kit and caboodle up for sale for someone with a less ravaged soul to deal with. The rest is history.
I recap this tired old story only to point out that beginning this building process again, even though this is a new business in a new place, opens old wounds. So we proceed cautiously, quaking in our cowboy boots wondering if we are welcoming the same problems back into our lives– like a woman who finally divorces an abusive husband only to marry a fellow who likes to hit girls just as much.
Mark often says, “If we become small business owners again, we’ll have to work hard, but at least in this endeavor people won’t attack us constantly the way the dance parents did.”
I hope he’s right. I watch the patrons at the local coffee shop with a keen eye, waiting for them to throw a fit because their coffee, no matter how fine it tastes, doesn’t have enough sparkles on the cup, or to demand the owner come in on their one family day (Sunday) to make them a special solo latte. So far, I can’t imagine this business ever being as personally invasive as the other was. But then, who would imagine a lovely dance school, filled with laughter and music and children, could cause such grief to the people who cared about it most.
The woman at the Dept. of Health slapped a health code manual in front of Mark that was 150 pages thick. She started listing codes, floor and ceiling requirements, waste disposal, water usage (do you know you need seven sinks just to serve coffee – one for washing hands, one for disposing liquid, one for this, one for that….. it is crazy). She explained that we couldn’t begin building until we got another permit from her division, and that required our turning in involved plans that include every appliance we will have in the kitchen and where it will rest. This is also required for the plumbing, the electrical etc…
She also needs a detailed menu now – a full year before I even set foot in this kitchen. Like I know now exactly what I’ll want to whip up later. You’re kidding, right?
“Um… muffins and brownies. Will that suffice?” I said to Mark.
“ Only if you have no intention of ever increasing that menu and you are ready to forever hold your peace, because you can’t later change your mind to include other foodstuffs made on site.”
“Are you #%*$&# with me . . . I’ll work on the menu.”
The health inspector pulled out a few examples of building plans that other food service businesses had turned in. Mark said they looked like plans to build an atomic weapon. He leaned over the desk to gaze at the six feet wide, computerized plans and got one of those instant headaches that make you want to crawl into bed. All this so you can serve a cup of coffee . . . and a muffin, of course.
Good news is the inspector handed Mark a comprehensive article recently printed in the New York Times investment issue about our town and how it’s going to boom as the next big tourist draw. The article let us in on some interesting developments (why are we always the last to know) such as the fact that they are building a four lane highway straight to us from Chattanooga, and the train is going to double the trips next season so instead of 50K people we can expect many, many more, and a few other promising future city plans. Cool beans. But that’s later, We have to worry about now.
He came home, flopped on the sofa and said, “Today, for the first time ever I actually thought maybe we should just open another dance school. At least we have expertise in that business…. I feel a bit like we’re out of our league and I’m tired just thinking of the mistakes we’re going to make.”
“It can’t be that complicated.”
“I’m sure it isn’t . . . for someone with experience in the food service industry. But for a couple of dancers, it’s a lot to absorb.”
I reminded him of how much red tape there was to opening our first preschool, and how we figured things out as we went.
“We’re not being stupid, blindly making decisions and acting like we know everything”. I reminded him.
We’re the first to admit what we don’t know. As such, we’ve listened earnestly to anyone in a like business willing to share information. We’ve read books on this coffee shop management, specialty merchandising, art gallery management, bakery management, smoothie store development – you name it. We’ve taken classes to learn more about what we will be selling, training our eye to understand art. We’ve observed successful enterprises, and those that are less successful so we can define what makes the difference. And now, we’re are venturing to a consulting firm for training.
“We’re quick learners”, I insist.
“We were quick learners,” he reminded me. “Now, we’re . . . tired.” (I think he meant “wounded”, but that is something we try not to talk about.)
I reminded him that he loves to build things, so he’ll have fun once we actually get started.
He stared at me pointedly and said, “It’s no fun building things when every time you do, your project gets sold before you take a moment to savor what you’ve accomplished.”
I hate that he feels that way, but I understand it. We remodeled our home, but left before we ever even put clothes in the new, walk-in closet. He build two schools in rental locations, but we left before ever recouping the investment (to go to a bigger facility, granted, but still, it felt like a lot of work and stress for nothing.) He completely refurbished our dinky dilapidated cabin while we were still living in it, but before it ever became truly livable, we moved into the new house and next thing you know, someone else was enjoying the quaint, beautiful cabin we dreamed of creating. After years of refurbishing that old, grocery store in Sarasota to make a fairly nice dance facility, Mark finally got to start from scratch to build the state of the art dance studio of our dreams in Lakewood Ranch, but we didn’t operated a full season there before we left it to the next guy. And now, Mark’s built our dream house, and thanks to what happened in the wake of our leaving, that will probably be sold too. No wonder he’s loosing heart. I guess if we built these things on speculation, just to make money, it would feel differently. But in every case, we built these things to fulfill a dream that never quite got realized – at least not for us. We are masterful at leaving something great behind for the next guy.
I assured him we wouldn’t be selling this coffee shop/gallery anytime soon. But honestly, who knows. We have learned that things don’t always turn out as planned. No matter how hard you work or how earnest your intentions, things can go bump in the night. If you push forward in life, you’ll find yourself switching courses as obstacles demand. The only way to guaranteed comfort is to avoid taking chances altogether. But who wants a stagnant life or to turn away from their potential? Not us (though some days I really question if the more laid back, settled individuals don’t have the key to happiness.)
Mark gave me homework. I spent a full day on the computer picking out professional kitchen appliances that comply with code.
Holly cow! There are a million choices. They all cost a fortune, and that’s daunting when you don’t know what the heck your doing. The problem is, I think like a residential cook, familiar only with home kitchens, but this is different. So I sloshed through a litany of stoves and ovens, wondering if I need a stackable convection oven, gas or electric, a food finisher or steam. Can I make do with one regular, industrial strength stove and a table top multi layer bake oven? How about Panini presses and microwaves with special air finishers like they have in subway now? Do I even need a stove top– well, yes if I want to make meringues or fudge. But with absolutely no experience as a professional cook, it’s all a bit overwhelming. Too many choices. Can’t I just drag in my Betty Crocker Easy Bake oven? I’m good on it, really.
Meanwhile, I keep thinking, just how many muffins will I need to sell to justify spending twelve grand on ovens. But I remember complaining about how many dance classes we would have to sell to justify our million dollar facility too, and while it seemed an impossible leap, it did turn out to be a very wise decision. I guess it’s all in the big picture, how one element of an enterprise supports another and helps create one wonderful whole. You can’t pick apart the individual elements too stringently or expect each and every element to hold it’s own, because how it contributes to the other facets counts. Otherwise it would be like expecting one gear in a clock to be of service on it’s own, when the truth is, it takes all the clock parts to make the thing tick.
I wonder if I should get a job in a kitchen somewhere, or go to school to learn to cook professionally or something to be more prepared. But the cooking thing is only one area of my world, and not as important in the big scheme as other things, so how involved do I want to get? I love to cook and I’m an early riser, so the plan was simply that I would steal into the Bean Tree at 5am each day to whip up a few gourmet treats for the day. I imagined myself alone in the shop, sipping some organic coffee, music blaring, singing “Peel me a grape” with Blues Diva’s on the stereo, and following my inspiration to make whatever tweaks my fancy from a recipe book. (I hate to cook the same thing twice, experimenting is my passion – customers will have to get used to it.) I figured with no one around, I could dance around with flour on my hands, and maybe even pause to step outside to watch the sun rise to feed my soul, sort of like I did every day when I was an early runner.
But then, I planned to go home and turn over the serving and the coffee pouring to an employee. I can do marketing from home, brainstorming, and other office duties. I’ll put in my time ordering, working the special functions, writing newsletters etc… I understand the concept of work. We’re opening this business and I plan to devote energy and attention to it.
But I don’t loose site of one truth – writing is still my main squeeze.
As I did my research I skipped looking at actual coffee equipment because we will learn all about that next week. I’m busy enough looking at air circulating, dry and cool display cases, refrigerators for under the counter and in the kitchen, freezers, an ice machine, sandwich prep table etc… etc…. I’m supposed to know where these appliances go, too. Do I want smoothies? Well of course. There isn’t a natural smoothie distributor within 30 miles of here and I happen to miss them. So, I’ll need blenders and storage for frozen fruit too. I have to remember you can’t allow veggies to touch meat preparation areas (if you are making sandwiches and soup, which we had planned) etc..
Baked goods, such as muffins, fall under the jurisdiction of the agriculture department. Sandwiches are manned by the health department. That’s two separate departments to deal with. I don’t know where the heck coffee lands. I hyperventilate just thinking about it.
I ended up picking out potential equipment and thrusting it into Marks hands and saying, “Here, pick what fits best and place it on your grid. You’re the design guy.”
He reminded me that I will be the kitchen director (as if a title will make me embrace this new chore more enthusiastically, like I’m gonna fall for that) and as such, I have to go take an eleven hour course in Atlanta on food safety – so I don’t give half the town botulism or something. Oh yea, that. Can’t wait.
It’s only a matter of time until the local restaurateurs are going to start wondering about the chick who keeps sitting next to their kitchens, peering into the swinging doors every time the waitress walks through and asking innocently, “Um.. was this muffin made in a convection oven or a traditional over?”
I’ve had so many cups of coffee in so many bistros my eyes have turned brown. Oh, they were already brown. Well, you know what I mean.
Overwhelmed, I said, “Remember, we’re not opening a coffee shop. We’re opening an art gallery, cabin decor store with a coffee bar in it. Perhaps we should focus more on the wood displays and all the stuff you’ll be making. That’s the nuts and bolts of the business.”
“We can’t build this damn thing until we figure out the kitchen, as per the business plan,” Mark says. ‘Unless you want to the drop the food portion/event planning (which means the open mike poetry readings and other writer’s perks would vanish). And that means going back to the bank with a new plan. Up for writing one? ”
The good news is we are leaving this weekend for intense training at the Barista Academy in Oregon. They will show us everything there is to know about coffee and Panini sandwiches. We will get to play with some of those ten thousand dollar espresso machines (gulp) and discuss cup by cup financial analysis, stock ordering, and cost of sales. Whoopee. I know you’re jealous.
I hate feeling like a newbie. I can tell you exactly what a dance school is making by their enrollment and a short glimpse into their activities. I know what it costs to service a student – insurances, staffing, etc, etc…. I remember sitting with the new owner of FLEX at breakfast a few months after we sold. I was really annoyed at how they were managing things and I looked him in the eye and said, “Listen, Bud, the business can not support your spending. It has to stop.” He waved me off like I was clueless about just how great they were doing, gushing on about enrollment and his price increases, but still I knew they were headed for disaster and there was nothing I could say or do to make them listen. He was so sure he knew better than us about a business we had spent eighteen years living and breathing. I couldn’t conceive of such arrogance when so much was on the line, because I knew that if I were entering a new field, I’d be hanging on the voice of experience.
I turned to Mark and said, “He forgets who the hell he’s talking too – like we don’t know what every student and fee paid represents or what his costs are, or how these decisions will affect the enrollment and budget in the long term….”
Mark kicked me under the table and said, “Shhhhh! It isn’t ours anymore. Everyone has to do things their own way.”
I was banned from any of those business meetings after that day because everyone involved claimed I was too outspoken and too “hot headed” about the school. I confess, it’s true. Mark is far more diplomatic than I, at least in all areas pertaining to FLEX, but I was just so passionately concerned and so frustrated to see what I considered such obvious mistakes being made.
Even the first week when we were training them and they missed multiple appointments (choke), I warned the new owners that they HAD to get serious about learning the business, visit the competition’s recitals, and stop spending so much until they knew more about where to best allocate their capitol. They rolled their eyes at me and said, “It’s just the honeymoon phase for us, we’re having a little fun. Don’t worry. We know what were doing.”
And Mark gave me that “Don’t go crazy here, dear,” look.
And I thought, How so? It took me years to get understand it all, and after a wealth of training, education and experience I STILL stay up nights trying to figure it all out.
The point is, I think about their mistakes a lot with great empathy. When you know a business – really know it’s cycle and unique elements, you’re prepared for all the problems you’re going to get broadsided with. They were clueless, and because they didn’t recognize this, they didn’t do what was necessary to develop a full understanding of just what they were manning. They were bright people with lots of energy and good intentions. And they had lots of capitol to work with. They were nice people too. But arrogance kept them from being open to all those things they needed to focus on. You can say it’s their own fault, but still, that doesn’t make it any less sad.
Because I believe that, our not knowing the coffee shop/gallery business is terrifying.
I have no idea what it costs to pour a cup of coffee or how to estimate how many drinks a location will sell depending on traffic. (though I do know how to determine traffic and a projected customer base because that is basic business stuff.) I don’t know how to determine a customer return analysis or how to avoiding being clobbered by perishable stock. Heck, I can’t even make a latte . . . YET.
We know all about running a small business, true. But really, every business is unique and until we have some hard core, hands-on experience, we are bound to make mistakes. The goal is to keep them from being so costly it threatens success. We’re bending over backwards to see all those elements we will no doubt be blind to, simply because we are novices in the field.
As such, we are the Rudy of enterprise (you know, the Notre Dame football wannabe who accomplished the impossible because he had the attitude, “Is there anything more I can do to be achieve my heart’s desire.” Yea, Rudy’s always been my inspiration.
So, I’ve read all the books I can. I’ve visited about a hundred like businesses to get an overview and talked with anyone who knows anything about coffee or art or natural products or crafting, and we really listened to everything they tell us – the good and the bad. We discuss fall back plans – what we will do when things don’t work out as planned.
Mark is in the workshop, making stock for the gallery, in each case doing a quick analysis on the cost of goods, labor required and what the item could sell for. Takes the fun out of free form creativity, I tell you. And we are suddenly thinking of all those other pesky details of servicing and actually implementing things, for example, it’s all well and good to sell a kick-butt handmade table, but will we have means to deliver it? We slog through all the other distribution sources for similar products to consider where people might chose to purchase this kind of thing rather than from us. Meanwhile, I’m cooking at home, experimenting with recipes, doing the same kind of cost and labor analysis. It’s all trial and error and constant evaluation. And while that’s fun in one way, it’s daunting in another.
I love learning new things, but I must admit, we both have deep seeded concerns as we boldly strive into this new territory. We alternate between feeling excited and on fire, and feeling we don’t have it in us to go the distance. I suppose we’ll land somewhere in between. One thing is sure, we’re not fueled with the same passion for this project that we had for FLEX in the early years. But perhaps that’s our age and a result of practical hard earned wisdom rather than a lack of enthusiasm for the actual dream. It sure is easier to be confident when you know a field backwards and forewords.
“Are we sure we want to do this?” we say time and again, bucking each other up when the other is getting cold feet.
We look at each other and shrug. We’re standing on the edge of the cliff. Might as well jump.
Everyone around here is gushing about how we are in the right place at the right time, how our concept is fantastic and how well we are going to do. We’re told everyone around town is talking about our plan and excited to become customers. People drop by our site and urge us on with nice comments. That all feels good, but honestly, outward support and enthusiasm is just that. We know success never comes easy, and every new business thinks it will be a hit. No one makes an investment thinking there’s a 50/50 chance things will work out. So we curb our inner excitement and stamp out our longing to get all creative and follow inspiration despite practicality, and remind ourselves that there will be time for play later. Now, we must make careful, well researched decisions, control costs, and figure out what might go wrong and avoid it. We must proceed gingerly, dipping out toes in the water with care until we know how to swim.
So, now I’m working on the menu even though it’s hard when the very idea of opening this place makes me loose my appetite.
I suppose a few years from today, I’ll read this post and laugh at just how naive I was in the beginning. By then, we’ll have journeyed long and hard and we’ll be seasoned coffee masters. I’m guessing by then, our business will have evolved into something different than what we think it’s going to be at this stage. We’re bound to lean one way or another as we expand our concepts and/or make compromises while sinking our teeth into the daily grind. We might have opened a dozen stores by then, or dropped the coffee part altogether, or developed a huge on-line store or . . .well, anything can happen. But growth is the easy part. It’s getting the first enterprise to work that is the struggle.
Anyway, we’re leaving town for a week. My laptop is broken, so the only writing I’ll be doing will be private journaling and note taking. I’ll be back later to share what I learn, about coffee and about us.
Meanwhile, you’ll have to use your imagination – you can picture us drowning in lattes, hyped up on caffeine, getting competitive when we practice latte skills as we try to prove each of us has the more artful hand. (You see, I know the dynamic of our relationship too well.)
My husband will be teacher’s pet. I’ll daydream and get nudged a few times and need Mark to remind me of what I just learned later when we are in the hotel (because I have a memory like a sieve.)
You see, you can go someplace new, but dang if you don’t end up taking yourself along.
We will be trained this week, but mostly, we will absorb the flavors and textures of an entirely new world with no pre-conceptions. We will think and think and think…. brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other then punch holes in them to head trouble off at the pass. And we’ll bounce those ideas off people who know the things we have yet to learn. We’ll do all we can to put the pieces of this puzzle together , proceeding gingerly. And then, we can make Rudy proud.
Wish us good luck.