The entrepreneurial spirit of the indy coffee shop barista

From the Northern Quarter to Ancoats to Spinningfields, there are many, great coffee shops in Manchester. I am sitting in one now, on a damp afternoon – the usual horizontal Manchester rain is with us. Inside, it’s different, there is a vibrancy of warm engagement, chatter, laughter and camaraderie, the people of Manchester bonding as the windows steam up.

A good cup of coffee is more than just a functional pick-me-up. It’s silky, it’s aesthetic and it’s a nice thing to have while you catch up with a pal. And you can look no further than Manchester’s swathe of artisanal coffee houses to give you all of that and more. Whether you’re after an oat latte, an almond macchiato or just a good old-fashioned americano with cow’s milk, everyone’s perfect cup can be found somewhere in this city with its caffeinated offerings.

The choice is endless! Ezra and Gil became my second home when I worked close to the Northern Quarter, whilst Takk is a Scandi coffee house where I became addicted to Finca Miravalle from El Salvador. Siop Shop has stacks of homemade doughnuts and a stonking coffee selection to explore, whilst Idle Hands is also loopy about cream pies besides coffee, Nordic-style beans your best shout here.

So many features of this airy cafe I’m in are familiar – the stripped back facades and basic décor, the all-consuming noise of hissing steam, the tattooed barista, who has Death before decaf etched into his arm. The place is cramped, tiny stools at tiny tables piled into a tiny space, the artistry on the menu boards on the wall is eye catching.

What makes a good coffeehouse? What is the caffeinated equivalent of George Orwell’s imagined ideal pub, The Moon Under Water? The café is a haven of free and open discourse, true to the ideal of the public sphere. Offer its patrons a pleasant atmosphere, neither dull nor cacophonous, but convivial.

The first coffeehouse was established in St Mark’s Square in Venice in 1647. Five years later Pasqua Rosée, a Greek, set up London’s first venue in St Michael’s Alley in the City of London. In the 1960s, new Italian espresso machines arrived triggering availability to meet the new consumer culture, and the rise of universities combined to revive the institution from Soho to the Sorbonne and San Francisco. The café is a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook said 1960s cultural commentator PJ O’Rourke.

Coffeehouses became hotbeds of innovation and revolution: the London Stock Exchange began as a coffeehouse where stocks and shares were traded; the American and French revolutions had roots in coffeehouses: the former at the Merchants’ Coffee House in New York, where resentment at British rule swirled in the years running up to 1775; at the Café de Foy in Paris, the revolutionary lawyer Camille Desmoulins fired up the patrons to march on the Bastille in 1789.

Isaac Newton and his contemporaries frequented the coffee houses near the Royal Society. What drove the rapid growth of such places were exactly the same forces we see in the creation of cafés today. It is the creation of a community of people who can come together in a shared experience. Having good coffee fuels that experience. My current cafe’s vibe is warm and welcoming, with staff working at a pace with more arms than an octopus serving a melee of customers coming and going with amazing frequency.

What I see in independent coffee shops is the playground of barista entrepreneurs, no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea into a startup reality. They need to understand their market, learn their craft, secure funding, create an environment to attract customers, create and test their product and then launch it.  The barista serving your flat white is often a founder, having to juggle everything from serving the coffee to mastering social media to managing suppliers. They are operating in a highly competitive and saturated market, against other independents and the global chains.

I watched baristas operate as true go-getters, from beans to roast to brew, offering signature blends of coffee with smooth taste, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy. The independents have a feel of craftsmanship and artisan care.

The extent of personalisation provided by the baristas surprises me, earning accolades from customers in their sincere greetings and genuine thanks. There is recognition and rapport between barista and customer, so much so, that in most cafes I visit, the baristas recognise the customer as they step in through the door, and what coffee they’ll want before they’re asked – despite them having thousands of customers each day.

So let’s look further at the lessons to be shared between successful entrepreneurs and baristas, what are their common attributes, behaviours and qualities?

Consistency to scale Both have discipline, entrepreneurs to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, to focus and not deviate. For a barista, the game plan is simply consistency at scale, prepare a great cup of coffee time and time again for every customer on every visit.  All entrepreneurs have a North Star, a barista is no different. Indeed, scaling a business means being consistent and delivering to every customer, time and again.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the noise of the frantic queues, baristas have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus. Entrepreneurs have to be mentally alert, agile and ‘always on’, it’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Resilience The difference between a good founder and a great founder is the ability to get back up, they have to be able to dig deep, look within themselves, and have the confidence, courage and heart to keep getting back up, no matter how many times they get knocked backed.For Baristas, resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the coffee.

Patience As an entrepreneur, patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and go fast, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the opportunity. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, and attack it with great precision.

For the artful barista, it’s the combination of the quality of the product and the experience, they don’t cut corners despite the customer perhaps being in a hurry, creating the product takes time, care and attention, whilst finding a few moments engaging with the customer personally is a vital ingredient too.

Enjoy the oxygen I see the busy barista draw breath when they have a quiet moment after the rush. During those brief seconds, they enjoy the oxygen.  So many founders are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection, or to appreciate, understand and evaluate what they’ve accomplished. Pausing to collect your thoughts, regain composure and adjust your physiology helps entrepreneurs persevere over the long-term, especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions.

Be different The best planned new product or service will fail if it doesn’t solve a customer want or need, all the smart marketing muscle won’t matter. This is how the independent coffee shops win against the global chains, they do lots of little things differently, they don’t try to compete on the same basis, they make a difference by being different, and focus on that.

Keep moving forward People’s desire for that perfect cup of coffee or shot of espresso creates a queue of folks in a hurry, but where baristas showcase their art form of artisan beverage making, everyone is happy to wait, watching the barista perform with purpose.  I see tonnes of guile, grit, flair, personality and determination – and smiling faces – from the hard-working baristas in Manchester who put a shift in every day. They knew that today was a step forward to success, even if it may not feel like it in the moment, but a focus on their horizon and holding their vision is vital to success.

As TS Eliot said, I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. Like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I start my day with coffee and reading the obituaries. Why did the hipster burn his tongue? Because he drank his coffee before it was cool…

Yes, we are now a nation addicted to coffee, and we love the barista’s style and craftsmanship, but’s it tough out there and the pace is fast. Like any entrepreneur they have discipline, clarity and focus to guide their thinking and making it happen. We could do worse than to follow their entrepreneurial spirit.

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