The Grass is Always Greener, Part I

The grass is always greener. He has this. She has that. I want it instead of what I currently have.

I own a small business, and the grass is always greener. This is not about how owning a small business, a food business in particular, is always great, because it is not. I wrote previously about the stress that I have experienced as a small business owner, and in my next post I plan to revisit the challenges I face from a broader perspective. But this post is about the positive aspects of running my own business.

My intent on writing is not to make the reader desire what I have–I merely wish to depict, as honestly as I can, what my profession is like.

A customer of mine, and a business owner himself, asked me what I do, to which I responded by asking for clarification. He wanted to know what I did for work, knowing fully that I ran a cafe. But he understood that there was more to it.

“I realize my creative vision”, I said, which made him chuckle. But I was dead serious. I have a vision for my cafe. The vision changes, and I adapt, pursuing or forgoing certain aspects of the vision as it changes, but for the most part I am constantly working towards realizing my dream.

Sometimes the vision is centered on product, like serving the best cup of coffee. This requires dedication, research, networking, and an increased understanding of coffee. It also requires an understanding of my customers, because people rarely agree on what constitutes the best cup of coffee.

Sometimes the vision is centered on service, like providing customers a happy environment with friendly staff and delicious product. This requires constant effort. I have to assure that staff share this passion for service, and with the help of my manager, address discrepancies as quickly as possible. Small tweaks to service are common. We try to constantly listen to customer feedback and to be open to change when something is not working.

Sometimes the vision is the cafe itself–how it looks and feels. I purchased the cafe and it looked totally different at the time. But I still have not finished creating the space that I envision. The changes require long days, extra money, or some simple creativity. Regardless, the realization of the vision falls on me.

I have enormous freedom (in certain regards) in my work and I do not have a boss, meaning that when I have an idea I can act on it without considering administrative approval. Indeed, I could make a decision that turns away customers, violates laws or codes, or makes employees unhappy. My actions are not without consequences, but I still have the final say on them.

I love owning my own business. I love serving customers and providing them an atmosphere that adds value and joy to their day. I love that much of my staff shares this vision, and I love what I do.

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I think I died two Aprils ago

I think I died two Aprils ago.

I stepped on a plane headed for California as if nothing would change, and when I woke up, everything was new, and everything old was suddenly gone.

I left my friends and colleagues without saying goodbye. My home of five years, Silver Spring, Maryland, had been clouded by chemo. My job was gone. My apartment and worn furniture—it was all gone, without one goodbye.

I’m still afraid to say goodbye, and maybe I don’t have to. I’m afraid to step on a plane, because the last time I did I feel like it killed me. I had everything. My daughter had just been born. My career was finally evolving. And then I plunged into an emergency room and months of darkness on an IV. I’m afraid of where the next plane will lead.

I’ve traveled the world but I don’t want to leave home again. I feel safe here. And I’m comfortable, in my home, in my new life, with my business, family, and acquaintances.

I know I didn’t die that day I finished chemo. I’m still alive—I know. But my plane went down that day I settled in California and sometimes I feel like I’m living an unsettled debt. I wonder how I got away with this new life. I feel blessed.

I didn’t even have time to breathe. Cancer, and the path it sent me on, took everything away. And when I awoke it took months for me feel normal again. But I never paused. And I never looked back. As quickly as I transitioned from healthy to the chemo ward, I was back in the job hunt, then working 100 hour weeks running my own business. I never took pause. And I still feel like I died.

This is a new life, whether I died or not. And one day, when I’m up to it, I’ll get back on a plane. But right now I’m still too busy trying to figure out what happened.

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Stress Level, Small Business Owner

Late last week I received a photo via text message of the bathroom in my cafe. The bathroom had been vandalized, and the caption on the text read, “this just happened”. Someone was either eerily tall, or standing on the toilet, had written an illegible and unsightly tag with permanent marker on the bathroom wall. This text message was the start to my day.

Two days later I woke up expecting to enjoy my second Saturday off in more than fourteen months. Within the hour, I receive a text from my manager asking that I call her. She wanted me to approve a last minute schedule change. I would have been fine with the change regardless, but the notion of a work-free day was instantly tainted by this work-related discussion. Work was on my mind.

The following day, Sunday, while summing the weekend deposits, I encountered a suspect hundred dollar bill. It was a 1988, the last year before the Benjamins started getting fancy with security features.

Monday at the bank the teller pulls the hundred. It’s fake. It’s confiscated. It’s lost. Bye $100. Bye money.

I continue to the cafe. Having not yet eaten, I throw a ham and cheese croissant in the convection oven and reach for the timer–broken, for the umpteenth time.

Coffee, I need coffee. With my thoughts on the hundred, the broken timer, the vandalized bathroom, I select a coffee to brew and start pouring whole coffee beans on the scale.

The scale fails to register the coffee beans. Typically when this happens the scale initiates at around one tenth of a pound, but I keep pouring. I hit the tare button and the problem is temporarily fixed, but I wonder how much coffee we have given away. Our previous scale worked perfectly, but it suddenly stopped working a couple months prior.

I take a look at our cold case and realize that the stock of one our key products is dwindling. It has been since the previous Friday. The vendor has an issue and might need to close his business, which will affect my business. The issue has been festering for months and seems to have finally reached its precipice. Bye bye product.

At some point during the day I went to use the bathroom, the same one with the vandalized walls, and noticed that the door handles were loose. This seemed to be happening weekly.

Either that day or the day before, my “check engine light” had turned on, only one week after fixing my tire gauge warning light, which for months had been turning on and off repeatedly.

At home I try to distract myself on the computer with a mix of work and escape, and my laptop dies. It’s the battery, which hadn’t held a charge for months but the laptop could still function if plugged in. No longer. No computer. Bye bye.

Tuesday is a new day, but only if Monday’s were my only problems.

Sales are down from the previous year. It’s not just my shop–several business owners in the neighborhood have shared similar or worse sales comparisons. We all work in food, in retail, and we have each had a competing store in our respective niches open near us in the previous twelve months. But as objectively as I can say, all of our businesses have since improved. Something is amiss. People are broke, they are being pushed out of the area by high rents and revolving six-month leases. More people are buying Keurig capsules than they are coffee beans. I have no idea what’s caused the decline, but it’s stressful. Either I did something or I didn’t. I have control or I don’t. Perhaps I just need to focus on my business.

So I focus, or I try, but I’m constantly facing personnel challenges. Constantly. Amidst the broken equipment, the non-customers who steal from me, vandalize me, insult me, and unmet sales goals, I constantly face personnel challenges, but I won’t get into details (I won’t get into details, but personnel issues might be the biggest, most stressful, most psychologically draining challenge I discuss).

Then there is family…I have a wife and a two-year old…

and my health…I’m nearly two years out from cancer treatment and the thought of recurrence is constantly brought to my attention by quarterly oncology check-ups and scans.

I own a cafe, and in the last fifteen months I’ve encountered more than I can imagine. An attempted break-in, during which the frame to our aluminium bronze encased glass doors was destroyed. I’ve been locked out of the cash register for hours at a time. Our Internet has gone out, as has our electricity. The espresso grinder has stopped grinding. The espresso machine has shut down. Breakers have tripped. The ice machine has momentarily gone to sleep (this shouldn’t happen) and the door on it completely fallen off. The milk fridge has repeatedly leaked. The display refrigerator that showcases our cakes has flooded. The main fridge has stopped cooling. The scale has died. The hand sink has leaked and needed plumbing. As has the three compartment sink, and the bathroom sink, and the espresso drain. The timer has broken more times than I can count. The oven gasket is currently torn. The neon open sign has  never stopped working but its switch has. The toilet seat lid has come off, as has the entire toilet seat. The modem has broken, as has the router, and the office telephone. Our coffee servers have leaked in various places.

Tills have been short. Milk has been rotten. Customers have been enraged. Staff have broken down. Ants have tormented us. And Starbucks has opened across the street.

This isn’t a positive bit of information, but I’m a positive soul. All I can say is that I’ve remedied all of the above on my own and I feel good about it. But I continue to encounter new problems while repeating the old. I do my best to maintain our equipment, but we have so much, and it’s difficult for me to maintain when I know so little, have limited time, and have no clue what will break next. Sometimes I take bets by myself. I wonder, what else could go amiss and if I’ll be prepared.

For months I received late night false alarm calls from our security provider. The alarm was accidentally being tripped by one of our vendors. Eventually a pattern arose, I lost too many nights sleep and complained enough that the vendor finally learned the alarm system. In hindsight, I helped to resolve the problem, even though it took months.

Eventually I will learn to treat my stress as one of these problems. I’ll start to exercise more, to take better care of myself, and to find balance. It might take me years, but I’ll figure it out.

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Cancer isn’t mine

At age 18 I suffered a mental breakdown and spent brief amounts of time in both juvenile and adult psychiatric wards. Eighteen months later I was a stronger person. I felt years beyond my age and I compared nearly all of my subsequent life experiences to that difficult time.

Six years later as a Peace Corps volunteer, I experienced life without running water or electricity, waking up to the sound of my tin roof expanding like an oven in 6:00 am, 97 degree and rising temperature. This was the most physically challenging period of my life, and once complete, became the new comparative ground for nearly all my life experiences.

Five years later I was diagnosed with cancer. Prozac and the Peace Corps had nothing on cancer. Nothing. In a sense, cancer was one more difficult segment for me to overcome, but there was a key difference.

The cancer wasn’t mine, which made the cancer so beautiful. In it I saw my wife, living on without me. My daughter was grown and had little recollection of me. My parents had suffered a tragedy. My brother continued to weep and my best friends continued to think of me when they were together.

Cancer became a comparative point for life—not my life, but the life of those around me and not. As sad as it was to imagine life without me, it was sweeter than the alternative—my death.

To me, Relay for Life epitomizes the concept of “us”. The cancer is not mine. Nor is the fight, the struggle, the suffering, and the conquest associated with it. As cancer continues to invade our lives, we continue to relay against it in celebration and support of life.

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For the Love of Coffee

I’ve put everything I have into this business. Financially, I put nearly everything in, but I’m referring to my actual self. When people visit Bay Coffee they are essentially experiencing a piece of me. I’ve put all I have to give, personally and professionally. I’m nearly six months in and my efforts finally got the best of me. From day one I worked 120-hour weeks, and every two weeks or so I was able to shave off 20 hours–100-hour weeks, 80-hour, 60, and finally 40 or even less. But the 40 or 50-hour weeks were no better, as I was still working 16-hour days and recovering in between.

The toll was also emotional, as I continuously gave myself to the business. I gave to customers, to staff, to vendors. I tried to give to my family. I gave little to myself. And it caught up with me, so I’m taking it easy for a couple weeks, shutting down my to-do list by building but not acting upon it.

There is a motto in the Peace Corps–”the toughest job you’ll ever love”. The Peace Corps was tough, I loved it, and certainly contemplated quitting on several occasions. But in the Peace Corps I was mentally at ease. As a small business owner I am routinely stressed. Customers, vendors, and employees, as groups and individually, have unique needs and stories and must all be cared for uniquely. Or perhaps I just feel the need to provide such individual care.

My expectations are also very high, as I’m trying to recreate the cafe to match my vision. But with this comes endless responsibilities, some of which have very little to do with my “dream”.

Are all my permits up to date? Is the store clean? Are we serving consistent product with quality service? Are staff happy and trained and am I communicating to them properly? Do they have sufficient hours that fit the other scheduling needs of their lives? Are the shelves stocked?  Are customers satisfied? Are their complaints being resolved and solutions found to prevent repeat errors? Are all vendors paid? Are they giving us decent market prices? Are our prices fair? Too high? Too low? Why doesn’t the coffee taste right? Why is the grinder making that noise? And why did the towel vendor fail to deliver fresh towels?

I am also very giving, perhaps a little too much. When I listen to customers and staff, I really try to listen. And while they share the good in their lives, they often share problems. As I take this respite before getting back to my to-do list, I’m focused most on separating myself from the emotional aspects (the people) of the business. I don’t mean to sound cold–I just sincerely think that if I am to work sustainably, I have to respect certain barriers in order to prevent myself from disappearing into those around me.

So as my to-do list grows, I shut down my urges to act upon it. I step back from customers, staff, and vendors. I step back and focus on myself so that in the long run I can better my business.

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Living my Dream as a Small Business Owner

I never knew how much work owning a café entailed until I owned a café. I had never managed people and inventory, the two components of the business that continue to be the most difficult. I had worked in food but never in my own place. In past jobs I tried to please customers but didn’t care if they returned. Now everything falls on me.

Buried below all the challenges, old, new, and recurring, lies the constant reward of witnessing my efforts appreciated by customers. I will have worked a seventy-hour week through nearly constant distractions, but by the end find that my efforts were worthwhile. Either sales will increase or customers will make a remark, and then I know the long days were not just long but purposeful.

Such purpose is often buried in a mix of ongoing projects that seem to be forever shuffled with no end in sight. I sleep poorly thinking of the business–there are stretches when I’m constantly at work, regardless of where I am or who I’m with. I try to focus on my wife and daughter but it takes time to relax and decompress.

I have developed a true fondness for coffee that I wish I had more time to explore. I use my free time to learn about coffee and espresso and then realize how blurred my distinction between work and life has become. I don’t know if it’s healthy, and as my back aches from filling in shifts for employees I love the thought of developing an expertise in the coffee business. I never before had such focus and it feels good.

I know it was the best decision to pursue my dream, but it’s not what I envisioned. I rarely get to relax with a cup of coffee, to serve that idyllic cappuccino, or to spend quality time with my family. In the future I’ll be able to enjoy these pleasures more frequently, but not yet.

I love to learn about my customers and engage them in the café. I love to tweak products, operations, and the store’s design. I love the freedom to set my own schedule and the control over my own professional destiny (though perhaps such control is merely perception). But I forego a lot. I see family and friends less often. My sleep is irregular and poor and I hardly ever feel rested. My back hurts much of the time and I feel like I’m constantly fixing something. Still, I’m content.

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Born Again

I often feel like the chemo killed me, like I’ve awoken into a second life of dreams and second chances. Prior to my cancer I wanted to change jobs and move to California, and for nearly three years I longed. Then I fell ill, or rather discovered that I was sick, only to be made sicker by chemo. Day after day, nurses administered oncologist-prescribed poison. As it trickled through my veins I felt life leaving me, by the minute. My face flushed white, my energy seeped, and the vividness of life crept drip by drip from my blood.

I felt like I had traveled through a wormhole out of my past life, to another place. I didn’t yet know if the chemo had killed the cancer, so I didn’t yet know where I was, but in a foggy place. I was nauseous and fatigued with weak bones, but seeking life.

My job was gone. My apartment was gone. Maryland and my East Coast friends were 3,000 miles away. All my useless belongings lay in boxes in my parents’ garage.

Even the cancer was gone. Chemo had carried me from gainful employment through disability and unemployment, and it was time to move on.

I almost landed a position with a pension—security lay within reach—but after three interviews I was passed up. So I stopped emailing resumes and began researching businesses for sale. I decided to pursue my dream and run a cafe, purchasing an existing shop with a steady flow of regulars.

I’m not sure how I arrived here, in California, running a cafe. I often feel like I died, perhaps because of how intimately I confronted death. Following one of my final chemotherapy sessions I cried. There was nothing but support in my life. I was supporting my family and my family me. But I could barely support the chemotherapy. It was killing me, and sometimes I feel like it did.

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