For the last year of owning my cafe I was a one-man show (mostly). I’m not saying this in an attempt to toot my own horn, because I did this out of necessity rather than to put my passable talents on display.
The truth is I just couldn’t afford to have another person on with me. If I could, you better believe I would have. But trade was always unreliable and so it was a case of weighing up the risk of being overwhelmed versus the risk of paying unnecessary wages.
It wasn’t all bad though. Actually, it was downright pleasant most of the time.
I guess my aim here is to show you what it’s like to run a cafe solo, and then you can decide whether it might be the right move for you.
With that said, why don’t you keep reading and see if it is.
I’ll start by laying out a few key factors into why I did this.
The main factor was money.
It costs money to employ someone, and I didn’t have much coming through the place. Weekdays are always going to be slower than weekends, and there are reliable busy patches around the morning commute and lunch, but the rest of the time it was always pretty tame so I figured that having an extra set of hands around for (mostly) quiet times was starting to get a bit wasteful.
I didn’t make this decision for myself either.
My weekday guy left for greener pastures and I saw an opportunity to test out a theory. I wouldn’t dream of cutting shifts that people rely on, and you shouldn’t either.
So, what was a typical day like?
It’s well documented in these blogs that I live in the suburbs, pretty far away from the inner city location of my cafe. That meant that I had to wake up at around 4:45am every morning to make it in time for a 7:00am open.
I’d arrive at the cafe around 6:00am, and start to load out the supplies I’d bought the day before. Once that was done, it was onto washing the dirty dishes in the sink (what? how?), setting the grind for the coffee and making myself about a million espressos in an attempt to appear human once the doors opened.
After that, I’d set up my kitchen. This was mostly bringing an enormous pot of heavily vinegared water to boil for poaching eggs, turning on anything that needed time to heat up, and laying out my mise en place which here is just a fancy way of saying I got the butter out of the fridge to soften up and I took the lids off my containers of salt & pepper.
Next I’d bake anything that needed to be baked.
My wife created the most incredible universal batter recipe that could be used to make anything cake-like. I’d whip up a whole heap of the stuff and make a couple of banana breads (with different fruits worked through for variety), muffins (same here, mix in different stuff to keep things different), and maybe a coffee & walnut cake.
After that, I was pretty much ready to open.
We had some regular customers who would turn up at around 6:55am every day. Their mere presence, watching me through the window annoyed me like you wouldn’t believe. To me it was like they were there to make sure I stuck to the opening hours I myself had set. That was until I bought a roller blind for the window, but I could still hear them.Looking back, I’m very happy they were so loyal to me, and if any of them are reading this, I appreciate you (even though I still reckon you’re huge nerds).
As soon as the doors opened, they would pour in and take over the back room. They all drank black coffee which, if you care about making good coffee, means a lot of weighing, timing and cleaning between shots.
On paper they were my target demo, but in reality, this is probably why they annoyed me.
On days where I was particularly under the pump, a few of these early risers would order breakfast, adding to my work load and my stress levels in equal amounts.
There would, of course, be other customers coming and going during this time, meaning that each day started off full of stress and rushing to keep up.
Some days were worse than others, or better depending on how you look at things. I guess I always looked at it being worse for my blood pressure, but better for the business. This made me occasionally snappy with my banter and if I ever ruined you with an undeserved roast, I apologise.
This was my zen place.
There might be a few people milling around, sitting on a coffee and a slice of banana bread, maybe typing on their laptop waiting for someone to ask about what they’re writing (never ask them, it’s not worth the second-hand cringe, trust me), but all was (mostly) right in the world.
The morning rush was over and I could finally take a seat.
And even though the rush was over, the sink would still fill up. To this day I have no idea where the dirty dishes came from during these slower times, but come they did.
Every. Damn. Time.
The lunch rush
Ah, the other money-making period.
This was the major time of day that would make or break a shift and it just so happened to be the least reliable thing to ever exist, past, present or future. And no, I’m not being dramatic.
On a good day, lunch would kick off at about 11:30am. A group of well-meaning punters would roll in, grab a table and then begin to tell me how they’ve always been meaning to check this place out, and occasionally ask if the big thing on the wall behind me with all the food and prices listed on it, underneath a beautifully hand-painted sign that read ‘Menu’ (shoutout Benny Hay) was, in fact, the menu.
I’d take their orders and just about finish making their coffees when more people would come in. Frustrated at not being able to at least start on their food, I’d greet these new customers, and then this pattern would repeat itself for the next couple of hours like a hospitality version of the Prometheus myth.
On these days I’d curse my past self for being such an idiot, such a skinflint as I clocked my weekly cardio in about 20 minutes.
Let me take this opportunity to preach some (more) of my beliefs that are absolute gospel. Poached eggs on toast, or even worse, just toast, granola or any other type of cereal are not lunch-appropriate meals and every time you order them after midday your ancestors regret including you in their will a little bit more.
Right, where was I?
On the quiet days, I’d give myself a massive pat on the back for being the most savvy cafe operator in existence. I’d laugh at the thought of other cafes rostering on a team of staff and then watching money pour out of their account as the customers never came.
Then I’d look at the sink and wonder where the hell all of those dirty dishes came from?
This was when I’d start my staggered close.
I love a staggered close, by the way. They make so much sense that when I see a traditional close, I laugh to myself that somebody could be so foolish, forgetting completely that I used to roster myself on alone for weekday shifts for well over a year, like a massive idiot.But let me explain why staggered closes are so beautiful.
The first thing I’d do is close off the back room. This is the place with all of the couches which I quickly recognised were traps, set up by me to ensure that I’d have to have an awkward conversation with a customer who hasn’t ordered anything in the past 2 hours and is just keeping both of us there long after the doors have closed.
It happened too many times, and I learned my lesson, so the couches were the 1st things to go.
Next, I’d limit the menu to only things that I could prep beforehand, or things that didn’t need to use something that would create more cleaning for me. I opted for cheese toasties and nothing else. That way, I could clean my kitchen and all of my pots & pans, my green chopping board, my mise, and anything that wasn’t the bread knife and the wooden chopping board.
I could move things out of the way into the closed off back room, and if I was feeling in a good mood, prep a couple of things to make my life easier the next morning (this was super rare and past Graeme regularly stitched up future Graeme with his laziness).
Finally, I would close the kitchen completely and offer takeaway coffees only for the last hour. Again, this was in an attempt to not have customers overstaying their welcome (read: hanging around after 3:00pm after sneaking a dine-in order for a pot of tea at 1:55pm).
A quick note: If you choose this staggered path, beware of tea drinkers. They seem innocent enough at first, but mark my words: they’re on a mission to keep you long after you close under the guise of being super into that 2-year-old magazine that someone left in the cafe a couple of months ago.
When everyone was out, I could finally close the doors and pull down my blind so I didn’t have to keep telling people I was closed when they made eye contact with me through the window. Them telling me they only wanted a coffee was never the airtight argument they thought it would be and I fed off their disappointment, but I had stuff to do.
I’d finish putting things away and do a final little clean of the place before cleaning up the dirty dishes in the sink and placing my orders for the next day. If it was a particularly gruelling lunch shift, I might even crack open a beer and have a sad, solo drink on the couch as the worst pep talk that’s ever existed. I’d occasionally count the money too, but towards the end it mostly EFTPOS takings so this didn’t take long.
After I left, it was onto the shops to buy anything I needed before I opened the next day, and then I’d drive back to the suburbs at the beginning of peak hour, listening to murder podcasts and shouting at ladies driving minivans.
News you care about. Tips you can use.
Everything your business needs to grow, delivered straight to your inbox.