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‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ – a brilliant book by Colin Harmon

I have just finished this brilliant book by Colin Harmon called ‘What I Know About Running Coffee Shops‘. It is fantastic. A hardback book, of 220 pages it is very readable and engaging. This blog post will outline some of what I gleaned from the author’s continuing experience and insight into running several coffee shops (3fe) over many years in Dublin, Ireland.

Screenshot of website 'What I know about Running Coffee Shops'
Also in Kindle

Not just for aspiring coffee shop owners

The introduction to the book says that the author set out to write a book for everyone setting up a business as he has a genuine interest in all sorts of businesses. I think he hit the nail on the head with this book as it is totally relevant to a wider business audience whilst being very specific to coffee shops. I think every business, particularly those in the service industry, will take loads from this book. I am currently helping someone set up a gym in Dublin so she will be getting my copy of this book the next time I meet her!

A full Agenda – Book Contents

The book is laid out into 6 sections or chapters (contents reproduced in image below). The top-level topics are The Building, The Café, Coffee, Staff, Culture, and Numbers. The agenda is wide-ranging but I found the author’s thoughts on customer psychology (building your trade), the analysis of how to (or not to) make money (loyalty cards) and positive staff management to be most insightful.

Contents of book What i know about Running Coffee shops by Colin Harmon
The Contents of ‘What I Know About Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

Building Trade

The book discusses the difference between building a morning coffee trade versus growing a lunchtime trade.

An empty cafe in the morning is not how anyone imagines their coffee business but for a long time this could be your reality. It is important to step back and take a long-term view on it.

p59 Building Trade ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

The long term view is based on an understanding of your customer and their situation i.e. that morning commuters are not in the practice of taking risks.

The real issue here is that nobody goes for a wander on their way to work and few people are in the mood to take a risk. Most people that are on the way to work are two or three minutes late already and if they’re not, they’re either rushing or on a tight schedule that never changes. Ask yourself how often you decided that the way to work was the time to try out a new place? I certainly didn’t make a habit of it. …

Lunchtime however is a different game, because that is when people have time to play with and they’re more open to going somewhere new.

p60 Building Trade ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

The author continues to discuss the morning trade, and how it needs to be approached carefully.

On a weekday morning, it’s important not just to work fast in the morning, but also to appear to be working fast. People are kind of cranky in the morning and if they’re looking at you they probably need coffee too, which doesn’t help the situation. If you’re working till and you’ve taken an order, that doesn’t absolve you of all responsbility for that order, leaving it up to the barista to complete the job. The morning trade demands that everyone is trying to get the order out as soon as humanly possible, regardless of how quiet the shop may be, because you need to assume that your customer is late and dying for caffeine. ….

That customer coming back every day is what ultimately will drive your business, so in the early days of your cafe opening try not to worry about how many people are coming in but focus instead on who is coming back. If poeple are coming back, you’re on the right road.

p61 Building Trade ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

The point is well made that while morning customers are much harder to earn, once you have their trust they’ll more than likely come every single day. Lunch customers will do their own thing – so getting someone twice a week out of 5 days is doing very well. Customer motivation must also be understood in developing weekday versus weekend trade. My favourite three pages of the book (pages 74 to 76) also reveal great customer understanding.

The Bleeding Bunny Rule: Workflow, Efficiency & Perception

This book does a great job of explaining what ‘efficiency and workflow’ mean in practice.

A small cafe or espresso bar requires two people to work it at a very minimum because otherwise staff won’t feel safe at work, be able to take a lunch break or visit the bathroom, and yet you’ll be surprised how many businesses exist with only one staff member. When you open a small cafe, build it so you start with two people and if you can’t do that, don’t open it.

The question for most cafes is at what point does two people become three? And how can you know when that point is approaching.

p67 The Bleeding Bunny Rule: Workflow, Efficiency & Perception ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

The answer is definitively discussed in the book – the number of tasks you do at once rather than how long it takes to do any particular task is the key to understanding your staff to turnover ratio – faster service, lower staff costs, better and more pleasant working environment. The point is made that an organised bar not only works faster but also gives you a huge advantage in terms of customer service. Which brings us to the ‘Bleeding Bunny’

People often overlook something very important about calm, controlled and efficient workflow and that’s the perception that your customers develop of your business.

There’s a rule that I like to call the ‘Bleeding Bunny Rule’, which is based on the logic that the more distressed your appear, the more likely you ae to be criticised by your customers. Bleeding bunnies will always be preyed upon before their more able-bodied comrades. ….

One simple thing that can greatly affect the perceived waiting time that a customer experiences is the sound of your voice. We encourage staff to confirm a customer’s order with them when they’re waiting for their coffee after ordering. At busy times there’s often five or six customers waiting, so when you have a docket list that reads: two cappuccionos, one filter coffee, one espresso, you should look to the first in line and ask, ‘Yours is two cappuccinos, right?”
Now, we’re 100% certain your order is two cappuccionos. The reason we ask is because it breaks the silence and makes your wait seem much shorter. It also alleviates the fear that there’s been a mistake, a constant fear at rush hour.

Another thing to do is to give customers strangely specific wait times. In a busy queue, I’d often go down the line with the first three customers telling them:
1st Customer: “I have yours here.”

2nd Customer: “Yours is a cappuccino?”

3rd Customer: “Yours is going to be about 70 seconds.”

Telling the third person in line that their drink will be 70 seconds seems random but it serves a specific purpose. Firstly, those in front of them know their drink is due before that and those after that know theirs can’t be far long behind. Secondly, it sounds like more of a promise than “a minute” or “two minutes”. both of which are euphemisms for anything from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. Thirdly, it’s a bit of fun for customers.

p74 The Bleeding Bunny Rule: Workflow, Efficiency & Perception ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

Serving your favourite customer – two different types of coffee customer

I don’t drink coffee. But I can appreciate the point that there are two types (or a continuum) of coffee drinkers. The author refers to the first as Ms. A. She comes in at the same time, on the same days and orders the same drink.

She pays for her coffee, sits on the bench while she waits then as soon as her order is called she’s up and gone with no amount of fuss. She’s one of our favourite customers.

Another one of our customer comes once every two weeks, and has been doing so for almost five years now. He has a particular propensity towards washed Ethiopian coffeees, particularly Yirgacheffes, and so over the years he’s earned the name Yirgacheffe Man. He has no idea we call him that. .. He’s quite reserved, but he always makes time to ask questions about the coffee he’s drinking and will usually ask how they compared to his beloved Yirgacheffee in terms of sweetness, body and acidity. He is another of our favourite customers.

p75 Be Two-Faced, ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

The author explains that the key for them has always been to distinguish between these two customers and figure out what they want in terms of service when they come to the cafe. There is no point waxing lyrical about the coffee to someone who just wants a drink, and equally a lack of engagement by staff with a coffee enthusiast is a lost opportunity.

It can be hard to guage which type of customer you’re dealing with. Some people are shy and might be afraid to ask whereas others might appear interested but are just being polite. A handy tool that we implemented at our shop was to have two menues: a drinking menu and a tasting menu.

p78 Be Two-Faced, ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

Loyalty Cards = Big Discount

I came across the book in 2019 as I was looking for some information on coffee margins as I was undertaking a feasibility study for a client on setting up a Cafe at a particular location in County Tipperary. I found a great article in the Irish Times about the impact of the VAT change in Ireland on the price of a cuppa, which featured a quote from Colin Harmon with a reference to his book. The article included this superb graphic – I find the finances of coffee very interesting.

Sourced Irish Times and Colin Harmon - Cost of a Cup of Coffee broken down by category

The finances behind loyalty cards are also very interesting as explained in the book. 3fe have never had loyalty cards – where you get a stamp for every coffee you buy and when you get ten stamps you get a free coffee. The book breaks down how a Cafe serving 300 cups of coffee at €3.50 including VAT would need to sell 16% more cups, increasing to 347 per day, in order to stand still on gross profit, if a loyalty card was introduced with an effective 10% discount per cup of coffee. The author’s key point, p.93, is that while loyalty cards do encourage people to return to your shop, you need to have a fuller understanding of the cost of the scheme.

Positive Staff Management

The author states it is very difficult to be successful in the hospitality industry – and doing it without any experience is next to impossible

“If you open your own place, you’ll more than likely not be earning money from the business for a period whilst facing the learning curve of running a business. You can hire people that know the industry but if you have a small budget to work with, it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. Finding people who will be as passionate about your business as you are will be incredibly difficult. If you have the experience and skill set yourself, it’s easier to train, motivate and work with your prospective staff.

p.21 ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

The book is written in the first person with great honesty, self-awareness and reflection. The author devotes a lot of attention to the topic of building a team to include discussion of how to get the hiring process right, creating a culture and ensuring low staff turnover. There is a very interesting section entitled, ‘Aggressive vs. Assertive’ where he writes…

I hired my first staff member after about three months and I lay awake at night wondering how I was going to be somebody’s boss. It took me that long to hire someone not because i wasn’t busy enough but because I was so petrified of the idea of it. ……

We’ve all had experience with aggressive people in the workplace or even just in our everyday lives, and, in all honesty, their aggression may result in some short-term gains for them. What happens over time, however, is that you start to take little notice when they lose the rag because they’re always doing it and it stops having any affect on you. More importantly, you start to lose motivation to work for that person, and in the cafe business this is one of the biggest causes of staff turnover. People have better things to do than to be roared at every day and so they move on. What I learned over the years is that being assertive is a much better way to make people react and you can be serious without losing their respect…….

The most important part of assertiveness is not just remaining calm however, but also saying what you think. Exactly what you think. It’s amazing how many people will skirt around an issue without realising that they’re only hindering their own chances of resolving the problem.

p166 Asssertive vs. Aggressive ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops’ by Colin Harmon

About Colin Harmon

I don’t know and have never met Mr Harmon but he seems like a really nice person – this is a great interview when he launched the book in which he also talks about the process of writing the book.

To buy the Book

I got it from Santa who I am sure got it direct from the website devoted to the book, ‘What I know about Running Coffee Shops‘. It includes a preview of 12 different pages of the book to give a nice sense of the style. It is also available for the Kindle. Hope you like this article, as always, comments and social shares welcomed and appreciated.

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