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Beyond The Pass | Bye-Bye, Sweet American Pie

Beyond The Pass | Bye-Bye, Sweet American Pie

There comes a time in every cafe owner’s life when they take a beat and take stock of all that they have achieved. Everything is running like clockwork, the staff are happy, the customers are happy, the owner themselves might even grant themselves a smile or two.

And it’s around this time that all of the slog, and hard work, and the endless efforts of setting up a place gets forgotten. 

It’s almost as if as soon as a place finds its feet and starts to become easier to manage, a certain amount of amnesia creeps in, and all of the stress, and the pain of opening fades, giving way to a renewed optimism and confidence in your ability as the next hospo entrepreneur. Suddenly, the idea of opening another place (unthinkable even a few weeks prior) begins to take on a certain sheen.

Indeed, like the boxer who’s just taken a beating hangs their arms over the ropes for a moment of rest, before charging back into the same pounding fists, you start to think you’re ready to do this all over again.

It’s a dream that all of us have had at one point in time, haven’t we?

I can remember it, clear as day, the moment that I began to think about a 2nd location.

I bookmarked the commercial real estate page on my phone, and I’d check it daily for the next ‘fixer-upper’ of a space, similar to the place I’d recently opened, where I could wield a certain magic I believed only I had possession of.

I started to think of a brand new set of locals who would stick their heads in the open door as I was building counters, and fitting out.

“What’s going in here?” they’d ask.

“Cafe,” I’d reply.

“Aren’t you that guy who…”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“Praise the Lord! We’ve been crying out for a cafe around here.”

“I know,” I’d say, with a knowing smile. 

“I can’t wait to tell the local dad-gang!” they’d say as they skipped away, giddy in the knowledge that their property value was about to skyrocket.

Happy dad-gang homeowner

It didn’t matter to me that I’d be snapped out of my daydream by an email alerting me to yet another overdue invoice. I just kept telling myself that next time it’ll be different.

You see, I’d learned through my mistakes the first time around, and I was in no hurry to repeat any of them.

I’d start with my team as small as possible. I’d rent most of my equipment to keep the initial overheads down, and insulate myself should that equipment fail when it was conveniently days outside it’s warranty (shoutout Unox).

My offerings would be concise and air-tight with no need for teething in.

Yeah, now was the time to do this, mere weeks after opening this first place. Look out world! Here I come!

But I wasn’t totally to blame for this confidence.

There’s a funny thing that happens when you start to get some press for your new place. You see, once one publication writes about you, the others tend to follow. And it was around the height of this coverage that my feelings of invincibility were at their peak.

I’d been written about in Broadsheet, Time Out, Concrete Playground, the Sydney Morning Herald, a million cafe-centric Instagram accounts had posted about my place being the place to go for a good cup. 

And when these publications released their ‘best of’ lists, I was honoured to find myself included.

In short, I was flying.

I began to think bigger with my expansion. After all, what’s the point of opening up in the same area? Surely these customers who walk past other cafes just to come to yours would be amongst the same customer base as any new spot to open up down the road?

And everybody else in Sydney is just a car ride away, after all. Opening up in a different suburb wouldn’t realise all of the potential that I felt we had.

And Melbourne is just another Australian metropolitan market, much the same as the one I was already in.

No, I had to think bigger.

Now, don’t laugh at me, but I began to look into opening up in Los Angeles.

BTP laughing

I said don’t laugh!

A couple of other Australian places had just opened up over there, and with my heightened sense of self-worth, and my delusions, I put myself in the same category as them. It didn’t matter that their Australian-based operations were about a hundred times the size of mine, and they had the backing of investors with deep pockets. In my mind, we were the same, and I wanted my piece of that sweet, American pie.

And it wasn’t like the City of Angels was unfamiliar territory either. I’d spent 4 days there a couple of years before, so naturally I was an expert. Although I’d spent a lot more time in New York, the LA lifestyle appealed to me infinitely more. I imagined the warm Californian sun would help to ease my weary bones more than a bitter New York winter.

Their coffee scene seemed primitive compared to ours too. For every La Marzocco-driven operation there were a thousand percolators with amateur drip coffee that’s been sitting there for who knows how long.

And the general speed and service went against everything I’d heard about. It was almost as if they knew they were going to get a tip, so they just didn’t bother with anything beyond what was necessary.

I saw these downfalls as a gap in the market, and I was ready to pounce.

I could see it so clearly. My time split between Sydney and LA, like a short, bald Hemsworth, or a Zac Effron-type (minus the hectic rig and the dance moves). Maybe I’d befriend a couple of movie stars? I mean, why wouldn’t they want to befriend a borderline alcoholic with a bloated opinion of himself? And I’d chronicle my glitzy new life on social media so that everybody could see what this plucky Liverpool lad had made of himself.

All I can say is, thank God I’m as lazy as I am and nothing became of these dreams.

Soon after all of the press coverage had died down, and the cafe started to settle into itself, the reality of running a business began to set in.

The bills didn’t stop, and I had to work to keep things busy. 

Never underestimate the pulling power of press coverage, and never kid yourself that the weekend after an article hits is how busy you’re going to be from then onwards.

And look, I know plenty of people successfully expand; it’s vital for our industry to keep growing. But maybe, if you’re like me and you’re already low on time (and steadily getting low on funds too), just appreciate what you’ve got, at least for a few more months, before you start thinking that the only thing the hospo world is missing is more ‘you’.

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More of this topic: Beyond The Pass