Advice from the front line

advice front line

Kyle Rutten speaks to resilient café owners on why things don’t need to be perfect, just cash flow positive. 

Tough times call for tough people and even tougher, more creative solutions. Even during the best of conditions, owning and operating a profitable café is no easy feat. 

Kyle Rutten is the Victorian Territory Manager at Mocopan Coffee.

There is often a misconception that opening a café equates to automatic cash flow because of the volume of coffee-loving Aussies. While cafés can be successful business models, anyone who has ever owned or managed one will tell you it takes a lot of hard work and passion.

Then throw into the mix this new “COVID normal’ and for those in Victoria, tough trading conditions thanks to government restrictions. While many continue to battle the conditions, what’s been interesting to see is the positive stories of cafés that have not only stayed open and survived, but thrived. 

In this article, I speak to four Victorian-based café owners and operators who have experienced a cash flow positive outcome throughout the pandemic. Despite the hardship of lockdown, trading  takeaway-only and to those only within their five-kilometre radius, it’s their resilience and strength we can all learn from. Here are their survival stories and advice to get through the tough times. 

The Good Food Collective
123 Maling Rd, Canterbury

Chris Henry: Take care of your customers and they’ll take care of you. It’s also important to maintain a quality food and coffee offering. If possible, keep your doors open, and give your customers some sort of option, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner options to take home. If you are making a soup with meat or a casserole perhaps, make one that’s vegetable-based to ensure product diversity. 

We have benefited by our strong clientele base, 95 per cent of which are loyal regular customers, and the fact that we’re located in an affluent suburb easily accessible by walking. 

We were determined not to close. We have kept a positive attitude and immediately implemented directions from the health authorities, which have helped us trade the best and safest we can in the circumstances.

The staff at Purdys Café have experienced record-breaking sales during the pandemic.

Purdy’s Cafe
25-31 Sherbourne Road, Briar Hill (Inside Purdy’s Furniture).

Lauren Hoyle: Hone in on who your customers are and what they want. Isolating with kids is tough. They want something to make them smile and laugh, so we’ve made a big focus on kids, which led us to making homemade The Wiggles cupcakes. They’ve been a huge hit. Some of the mums in the area have sent the dads out just for the cupcakes – then they end up buying a coffee too. We’ve also provided an ever-changing range of unique muffin flavours, such as maple bacon, lollies, and cookies and cream. On the day we made Bluey cupcakes, we sold all 60 of them. 

Record-breaking days during the pandemic have occurred due to minimising our menu and keeping staff light. Having the owner be more hands on and working in the café has also made a difference. 

If nobody is coming into your store in your dedicated hours, be flexible and change. We’ve shifted our hours from 6am to 3pm during weekdays and 7am to 2pm on weekends. 

We also invested in targeted Facebook advertising, which shares our posts with those within our five-kilometre radius. Sometimes we even paid for boosted Facebook ads. For example, we shared a muffin post every morning to create daily interest and give people a fun reason to come out. 

We’ve also held dress-up days and worn wigs and costumes for a bit of fun. Customers then ask: “what’s tomorrow’s plan?” Staying positive is also key. It makes people want to come in for a break from the daily news and reports. 

Dairy Queen has kept its full staff on while operating under COVID-19 restrictions to uphold its quality standards.

Dairy Queen
801 Pascoe Vale Rd, Glenroy

Elie Elzaibak: We’ve approached the lockdown by keeping customers happy and keeping staff on. It was a gamble but it’s paid off as the customers kept coming back. The key has been to not overstaff but adjust based on week-to-week sales and supplier needs. Having our full staff on meant that our customers didn’t have to wait. Keeping our service standards high has been important. There’s been no excuse to drop our standards. 

The café has felt much the same as possible. We’ve kept our full menu to help give customers their usual orders, and we’ve kept the same opening hours – 6am for tradies but started closing earlier at 3pm instead of 5pm because there was nobody in the surrounding offices. 

It’s been important to entice customers in for a coffee but have them leave with something else in their hand, so we’ve still had our muffins, cakes, and healthy grab-and-go meals available – easy up-sells.

If you qualify for JobKeeper, make sure you take advantage of it. Be tight on pricing with suppliers. Watch what you spend and always ask questions around pricing. Do not settle for paying the most. Pay staff and pay suppliers but do not overpay. Pay bills straight away. If you cannot, then you have a serious problem elsewhere in your business. Be the better operator. 

The Wiggles cupcakes have brought fun and added income to Purdys Café.

The Gourmet Girl
21 Salisbury Ave, Blackburn

Julie Xu and Alan Ren: Our plan has been to keep doing what we did before the pandemic hit – serve good coffee. A high standard of coffee quality has been important no matter how busy or slow we are. 

We have stayed open every day, seven days a week. This consistency gives customers confidence. We have also provided a variety of cakes and takeaway food for customers to enjoy. We even started baking Anzac biscuits, which have been well received by people even though it’s not Anzac biscuit season – there’s no rules.

We have friendly staff who continue to smile. We moved some from running floor service to helping behind the machine to speed up coffee delivery times. All orders are done within 10 minutes no matter how busy we are. Most customer are regulars. We know 80 per cent of our customer by name and their order. 

As you can see from these five operator tales, they’ve done everything within their power to trade as normal with the same values and goals pre-COVID-19.

If I had to break down their top five tips to getting through COVID-19 trade, it would be the following: 

Target your locals creatively, such as families with kids or those working from home 

Create a small variety of take-home meals. Make it easy for your customers to make quick decisions on meals for later. Less and less people are eating at cafés, but they are buying food to take home.

Create a positive experience for visitors through attitude and fun atmosphere. Customers want to walk in and experience the café alive and buzzing. People want some feeling of normality. 

Get active online with social media. Target people within one to five kilometres of your café. People are less likely to travel for a coffee now, but they are more likely to visit their local. 

Respond quickly and efficiently to government updates with a can-do attitude. Take time to research what is allowed and what is not, and do the best possible with what is available. I had a customer who was about to shut down for a few weeks because they simply did not realise that cafés could continue serving take away. Their coffee sales have since been up 40 per cent on last year.

You may have to reinvent your café space to resemble a general store of change your offering, but tough times call for radical decisions to ensure your business and staff come through on the other side. 

This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe HERE.

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