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What I Know About Running Coffee Shops by Colin Harmon Review

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What I Know About Running Coffee Shops book on a white table next to a cup of coffee

Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.

Running a coffee shop has been something of a dream of mine for a long while, although I’ve never gone past the stage of “it would be nice to own a coffee shop.” I knew there was more to running a coffee shop than just making coffees and I was curious as to what work is involved in running a shop. Let me be clear: I do not want to own a coffee shop at the moment, I just want to know about the business behind the coffee served at shops. I turned to What I Know About Running Coffee Shops, written by the owner of the well-known 3fe coffee company based in Dublin, Ireland, to satisfy my crave for knowledge.

What I Know About Running Coffee Shops is a look at the behind-the-scenes work involved in running a shop. This book explores six facets of running a shop – the building, the cafe, coffee, staff, culture, and the numbers – in detail, relating to Harmon’s own experiences about running shops. Harmon started from a humble beginning, running a coffee cart in the lobby of a building. This does not sound like the most lucrative trade – and Harmon knew that expansion would help him build a more sustainable business – but it helped him get started. He did not dive straight into owning a shop: he started small.

In the first chapter, Harmon talks about the building of a coffee shop. It seems like choosing a building is about much more than just what the room looks like. Are there any structural issues? Is the water system adequate? Harmon has experienced what it is like to have a drain system that does not work. Is the space in an area that has the right footfall? Then there are what Harmon refers to as the “little things.” Does the building have good parking? Is it positioned in a place where people are likely to look at the building, such as near a pedestrian crossing?

Then there is the matter of securing a location. From the start, Harmon is clear that running a coffee shop is more than a one person job. While you do not need to hire an entire team of experts to run a shop, you’ll almost certainly find yourself depending on a few contractors or advisers. Harmon advises that you get help when you negotiate a lease to make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into. You may need to hire contractors to fix issues in the building; another type of lease may stipulate the landlord should fix building issues.

Harmon moves on to talk about the cafe itself, which is a good look at the day-to-day business. This chapter was sort of a peek behind the curtains that I don’t get even when I ask baristas questions because I never think to ask questions about the cafe itself. Harmon discusses building trade. There are different types of trade. The morning trade is harder to build because people are usually in more of a rush and are thus less likely to want to change shops. A good morning trade is built from a good lunch trade; people are more relaxed at lunch.

The workflows a business uses is an essential part of building good service and managing costs. Before a business hires another member of staff, they should ask whether they are getting the most of what they have now. Do you really need another member of staff or could your baristas work more efficiently? Could a barista steam milk for the drink while an espresso is being poured? Many tasks can overlap leading to a faster service. Baristas need to know how to work when it gets busier; how people work during light hours is different to peak times during the day.

Throughout the book, Harmon refers to his own experience. He talks about how he had to pull a delivery driver aside because they had been rude to staff members in the past. He quietly addressed the issue and since then the delivery driver had been polite. He talks about how he built confidence and morale after a robbery. Harmon offered all police officers 50 cent coffee which meant there was a police car parked outside the shop quite often; a great deterrent for crime.

I was particularly interested in the section on retail coffee. I had no idea how much work goes into a retail section. A retail section needs to be positioned so that people waiting in line can peruse; there is no use in having a retail section where you go to pick up a coffee after an order because most people will not want to wait in line again. The section needs to be constantly stocked; beans need to be rotated to minimise waste and ensure customers always see fresh beans. A thoughtfully-planned retail section can increase the amount of business a cafe does through selling bags of coffee and merchandise; a retail section not given adequate thought is often the cause of coffee shops not offering one because customers would not buy anything.

This book is not about making coffee, but Harmon does share some advice on the business of making coffee in a coffee shop. He talks about how no massive investment in equipment is equal to what you can get by training a barista well and giving them good raw materials. He shares how important it is to think about water. I’ve recently learned that Reverse Osmosis (RO) systems are a good way to produce coffee but Harmon talks about the downsides too, something I’d never thought about until picking up this book.

A big part of running a coffee shop is the culture. Culture is both inward and outward-facing. For instance, Harmon says that he gives baristas the authority to make a drink again if they were not happy with the original drink. This both improves the quality of a product and boosts morale; staff know that the quality of their product is important to management. Harmon talks about how much being nice can make a difference in a cafe; doing the small things like saying goodbye to a customer makes them feel valued. Listening to customer complaints and being open to make changes in response to feedback leaves customers with the impression that they have been heard, instead of leaving them with an angry feeling that may deter them from coming back to the shop.

Toward the end of the book, Harmon talks about the financials of running a coffee shop, although not in too much depth to make me feel like I was reading a finance book. Harmon focuses on the main metrics he tracks: staff costs and margins. I learned about the difference between margins and markups – margins are part of the cost whereas markups are added on to the final cost – and I learned the impact of staff cost on compensation.

I do not run a coffee shop so I cannot talk about the applicability of the advice in this book. I did get a feeling that this would be a good handbook for opening a cafe. The little tips like coming up with a way to track who cleans the toilets and adding tables at a window and asking staff to sit there on breaks to make the place look busy are all well-reasoned and based on experience. I now feel I know a bit more about what goes into running a coffee shop. Harmon does issue a clear reminder to have fun toward the end of the book, important because it is very clear that owning a coffee shop is not a walk in the park. Harmon had an issue where someone would steal one bottle of milk which continued over a period of months. How can any cafe owner plan for that?

I’d recommend this book whether or not you run a coffee shop. It’s interesting to read the inner workings of a cafe and Harmon clearly knows what it takes to avoid common mistakes and deliver a good customer experience.

I found Harmon’s approach of sharing what works for him better than just reading about how to run a cafe. Harmon does things differently, and I think that’s what every cafe owner needs to do. He has charged celebrities for coffee and left them alone instead of asking for photos; he does not plan the business’ social media account. Every cafe is unique but there are a number of considerations, from researching planning permission to choosing chairs, that are common to all. This book is filled to the brim with knowledge and is a delightfully insightful but easy-to-read publication.

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