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Beyond The Pass | The Time When I Sold My Cafe

Beyond The Pass | The Time When I Sold My Cafe

There was a moment I remember quite vividly when I first opened the doors to my own place. It was after a busy shift and I was enjoying a couple of debrief drinks with my team. All was well, all was at peace; we were happy. And I remember thinking, knowing even, that this was it for me. I’d be the owner of this place until the day I died. 

I’d planned out the future in my mind too.

“What does your dad do?” the kids would ask my son in school.

“He owns a cafe,” he’d reply with a pride in his voice that brought a tear to my eye.

I even imagined him taking over the reins once I’d happily retired to some beachside community on the South Coast. And him dreaming of his own kid beaming with pride in the playground when asked what their dad did for a living.

I thought I’d started a legacy.

How quickly things change

Ironically, my change of heart came not long after my son was born.

Up until that point, most of my energy was being funnelled into the cafe. I was working there six days a week, and doing admin work the one day I wasn’t there. In between shifts (and a lot of the time, on shift), I’d be researching the local and international cafe scene looking for new ideas, and trying to spot trends.

Like I said, I imagined this place would be my legacy; a small part of me given to the world so that my memory could live on long after I’d gone. Like Walt Disney. That’s it, I’d be the Walt Disney of cafes. That’s a thing, right?

I didn’t see the shift in priorities coming. The first few months after my son was born must have been frantic because I seemed to have repressed all memory of it. I can’t remember a thing.

When I came to, I found myself living in the suburbs and completely over the idea of running a business. Everything had to be geared towards his well-being and anything that took away from that was cast aside. This included the cafe.

Gone were the days of scouring the cafe landscape for recipe inspiration. Gone were the days of strategising the next step in growing the business. Now it was all about him.

Inevitably, my standards began to slip. Not in any way that would impact the quality of the product, more in the way things were being run.

Where before I would endeavour to keep my menu changing every couple of weeks, now I just didn’t have the energy. The same goes for non-menu stuff too. Production of our condiments almost ground to a halt, and any ideas I had for merch were scrapped altogether.

I’d become comfortable with just coasting by on the bare minimum effort, something I’d seen in other cafes that had baffled me before, and something I’d been terrified of becoming myself.

It was then that I decided to sell before my lack of enthusiasm for the business made it unsellable.

And here’s the thing about selling due to lack of enthusiasm. That same scarcity of energy that brought you here in the first place makes it that much harder to actually make any serious movements towards a sale.

I did know a couple of people who’d recently sold their places, so I hit them up about where to begin. 

Their help, while appreciated, came from their own (mush better off) positions when they sold.

Do you have any idea how unattainable it sounds to be told to ‘hire a lawyer’, when you’re barely scraping by as it is? Or to try and figure out how much a place is worth when everything about it is measured emotionally rather than financially?

It became glaringly obvious that I needed professional help.

Need help selling my cafe

Now, history dictates that I should have shopped around a little to find the best person to broker a sale. It’s common sense to weigh the pros & cons of the people you put in charge of the biggest financial event in your life so far.

Unfortunately for me, common sense is something I don’t have much of. Paired with my ‘running on fumes’ tank, I went with my bookkeeper who’d recently diversified his bookkeeping business into selling hospo businesses.

This turned out to be an unwise choice.

If I had read the contract properly (or even hired that lawyer I couldn’t afford), I’d have seen that my friend’s fee wasn’t a percentage, but a flat fee. This is important as his fee took up a significant part of the final sale, and if I’m being honest, he didn’t exactly earn it.

Why would I say this? Glad you asked.

My place seemed destined not to sell. It was on the market for a whopping 18 months before finally changing hands and then it was for about half what he said we could get for it. And me, being the idiot that I am, was okay with this because I thought that due to the lower figure we settled on, his fee would lower in turn.

On reflection I now realise that an agent who knows exactly what they’re getting, regardless of the final sale price, doesn’t make much of an effort to get the most for you. 

The other advice I was given was to make sure everything was in order. Was there any debt still attached to the business? Did I own my equipment? And crucially, were my certifications all up to date and valid?

That last point cost me twenty grand and ten months.

I’ve gone into how shady my landlord was with the building certification before, so I’ll skip that part. But I was shocked when, on the eve of a sale, my agent went to check on the DA for the place, and couldn’t find it anywhere.

I’d paid a certifier when we opened to greenlight everything and lodge the paperwork with the local council. It seemed he hadn’t. And when I asked about what had happened with the money, my landlord couldn’t tell me anything more than it being an issue with my kitchen floors and coving, and that the certifier wouldn’t sign off on anything until they were fixed. These were floors I’d had put in at the certifier’s request years before, and they’d survived multiple inspections from the food safety authorities. I was flummoxed.

The buyer (quite rightly) backed away slowly before getting as far away from the place as possible. Clever bloke.

I was back to square one.

Now let me tell you, trying to source coving for a commercial kitchen floor without redoing the entire thing is a nightmare. Everywhere I went they told me the coving is put down BEFORE the floor, and my requests to buy some anyway was like someone asking me for the ‘spro’ on the side of their flatty: it’s just not how things are done. I finally convinced a confused flooring salesman to part with 20 metres of the good stuff and attempted (with the help of my barista, shoutout Dom Rogers) to install it myself with the most mind-bending, hallucinogenic adhesive I’ve ever encountered.

It was a long, interesting afternoon/evening which yielded the shoddiest craftsmanship in human history (not counting every project I completed in GCSE woodwork class), but the coving was (somewhat) installed.

The certifier was unimpressed.

Already low on motivation and even lower on energy, I began to think I was stuck with the place forever. In a final ‘hail mary’, I asked a regular customer, an architect, if he’d know anything about building certifiers and building codes.

And good lord did he.

Within hours he’d found everything the council had in regards to my cafe, and set out a plan to have it certified for a fraction of the money I was swindled out of. Almost immediately I felt a weight lift off my shoulders and I was feeling something that had become very foreign to me: hope.

A week later, the local council were in, and after a quick chat and a glance at my floors (including my hack job coving), they rubber stamped my certification and left me wondering why my landlord didn’t go through them from the very beginning.

With everything in order, I was finally ready to sell…again.

By the time an offer came in, it was for roughly half of what I’d expected to get when I first put the place on the market.

Maybe it was because I’d recently seen some mates either sell their places at a loss, or close them altogether? Maybe it was my rock-bottom energy reserves? Hey, maybe the adhesive fumes still had a hold on me? Who knows? Regardless of the reasons, I figured I’d better take what I could get and perhaps gain some of my life and happiness back. It was still more money than I’d ever seen, after all, so it wasn’t like I was losing out.

Cafe sales money

Still, would have been nice to get more.

My potential buyers seemed nice enough though. One of them had experience in the industry, so my concerns about my customers still being able to have a decent cafe in their neck of the woods were satisfied.

I worked a couple of weeks with them to prove my earnings, although they had access to my books via my bookkeeper (who, let me remind you, was also the selling agent) so I was a little confused about this part. But I agreed to it; anything to help with the sale. I rolled this time into the training period which was to follow, and after the two weeks was up, we agreed the sale and I could begin my cliched hatred of lawyers, a story for another time.

So, the main lessons learned from this are as follows: get your house in order before selling or you could miss out on a lot of money and a whole heap of time. Shop around before committing to an agent, even if you think you’re too tired; your future self will be ever-grateful, trust me. And read a contract before you sign it. A lack of understanding on something so basic as an agent’s commission left me out of pocket and, I suspect, left the agent out of motivation.

And here I thought my legacy would be a cafe. Instead, it appears it would be a series of blogs about it. And do you know what? I couldn’t be happier.

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More of this topic: Beyond The Pass