Watershed was just wrapping up a 14 month touring commitment and my son Owen was getting ready to start pre-school. I was looking forward to getting back on a regular schedule of working mornings at Brewster’s Coffee and evenings at Vino Vino/ Figlio. In between shifts, I would be taking care of the little man as my wife would drop him at school and go to her job as a clinical counselor at the Columbus AIDS task force. Everything was fitting back into place except when I stopped by the coffee shop to check my schedule, the owner, Nate, told me the shop was closing in two days.
I cannot say I was totally surprised, I knew Brewster's had been struggling and with Starbucks spreading like a mutant virus all over the city, it was a tough environment for a small shop to survive. In fact, it was so tough that Nate couldn’t even find one buyer who wanted to take on the shop. Not Starbucks, not Caribou, everyone who looked at the numbers said, “This will never work”. He himself was moving onto some new opportunities and just couldn’t wait any longer so he just decided to cut bait, sell the equipment for scrap and walk away.
Hmm.. A job where I don’t have to wear a tie, work all kind of outrageous hours and no guaranteed paycheck? Sounds like my entire life as a musician. Sign me up. Nate and I worked out a deal where he walked away and I took on the mess.
In less then 48 hours I was now the proud owner of a failing small business.
Typically, when you open a business it is considered a rule of thumb to have plenty of cash on hand to deal with any unexpected trouble. Well, I had no dough, even less credit a shop bleeding Benjamins, and oh, rent was due in 30 days.
“I don’t consider myself running a small business. It’s more like I own a 30 day crisis management center”
The bad thing about running a business with no money is that you never sleep with worry of how to pay the bills and fear of bankruptcy. The good thing is that it doesn’t allow you to do anything stupid like rent a blimp for promotion or buy snazzy “Colin’s Coffee” satin tour jackets.
Business Strategy, “Tresselball!”
The bleeding had to stop yesterday x ASAP x 10 so I slashed our hours and got rid of all non essential items (Ice Cream, Fresh Juice, and Electricity). We would focus on what we did best and what we could provide for free.(good service,conversation) I wasn’t looking to make money; I was looking to stop losing money. I was playing “not to lose”. I was punting and playing defense. Surviving. It was business Tresselball. I didn’t try new things. I ran off tackle. Over and over and over. The playbook was vanilla even though we literally eliminated vanilla ice cream.
So here we are five years later. Has business Tresselball worked?
The jury is out. The shop still loses money, but much less that it used to. I’ve learned many things under fire that have helped me to cut expenses, such eliminating "esitmated" CAM charges in my lease, joining a workers comp group and that I can’t afford to pay myself until everybody else gets paid. I still have sleepless nights wondering if we will survive, though they seem to come less frequently.
“Why do you work so hard for so little money? Why don’t you just get a job where you don’t have to worry about this stuff?”
That is a good question. I imagine all business owners wrestle with this to some degree. The crazy thing is, I don't even find business interesting.I don't think I've ever asked somebody, "so..how is business". All my years in music, I always leave the "business" to people I trust. When asked about this deal or that I usually reply, "who knows, that is for the beancounters". Basically I’m a songwriter who has enough sense to keep the women's bathroom clean and stocked. A real conversation:
"You are THE Colin? How's Business".... me -eyes glazing over- making delicious latte.. "uh, you know...it's a small business, I love it, but it's not for the faint of heart if you know what I mean" “Well, How many cups do you have to sell each month to pay the nut?”
“I really have no idea”
“How can you run a business and not know that?”
“I know have to sell as many as possible so who cares what the number is”
So back to "why do I do it?" Well, for starters, it's just rightly fun to own or work at a coffee shop. Still, the biggest reason is the flexibility allows me to spend most my time with Owen.(and night time with music I might add)) He has never been in day care and for the first 4 years of the shop I would pick him up every day from school at 11am. That is time you cannot get back and in my book,worth giving up a steady paycheck.
Another reason is all the amazing people I have met and get to talk to on a daily basis. The backbone of my life are the people I have met at the coffee shop. Too many to mention but let’s just say I met my lovely wife Erin there.
And…though it gets frustrating, I relish being the underdog. I stare out our windows at cars backed up in the McDonald’s drive thru and know one day,some of those people will realize there is a better way than sitting in a car all alone, burning plenty of gas but few calories, waiting to fill up on cheap junk. I’m not just talking about the food; it’s about stepping out and meeting your neighbors. Nobody ever met somebody interesting in the drive thru.
Colin’s Coffee has survived for sixty months! Celebrate! Thanks to all our wonderful customers, staff and personalities who make it something truly unique!And though i may be in debt, I am forever in your debt.Colin Gawel is in Watershed, The Lonely Bones, sings songs, pours coffee, fights the Man and writes about many things at colingawel.com