8 Things I Wish Somebody Told Me When I Opened My First Cafe

“I’m gonna open my own place.” How many times had I said those words in the last year? It was quite a lot. My friends were so comfortable with me giving them a casual smile before returning to their glasses, that they became my default answer. The truth is that I Was going to open my own place.

I’d become tired of seeing things done in what I perceived as the “wrong way.” I was tired of working myself to the bone for hourly pay and a boss who could fire me on the spot with little to no consequence. But most of all, I was tired of seeing all of my efforts feed into somebody else’s glory. I was always the first to interact with customers. Everybody knew me because I was their face.

It would look different in my cafe. My cafe would be more successful.

It was there, I could clearly see it. I was already planning my retirement at age 32, confident that I’d have my cafe running so smoothly that I could step away and see out my days reclining on a waterfront balcony with a cocktail in hand.

It was the right time.

With that in mind, I’m going to highlight eight key points in my first year of cafe ownership that, if I had known then, would have helped ease my worries (or at the very least keep some of my hair) and get me closer to a life of hedonism.

  1. Plan
  2. Activate my network
  3. Managing my new workload
  4. Parting the load
  5. Reduce costs
  6. Optimizing my menu
  7. Invest in the right people
  8. Applying my modifications

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1. Plan

This was both the most fun, and the most head-against-the-wall frustrating time of my life. However, it was an enjoyable experience.

It was clear to me that I wanted to create a relaxing environment. So I made a decision to get a couch.

The branding had to be minimalistic, I was aware. There’s nothing tackier than a million signs blocking a footpath or a good view through a window. This goes double if said signs are product-branded (I’m looking at you, Almond Breeze).

There were many roadblocks along the way. I was forced to choose a location that is within the brewery. This combination of heaven and death seemed like a perfect choice.

It was located in a large residential area, so it took a lot of time to lock it down. I’m talking new ceilings, floors, plumbing, wiring. Everything. It would have been so much easier going into a boring square box on some main street, but where’s the romance in that?

ThisThis location offered old bones that were perfect for my homely and mid-century inspired build.

I wasn’t prepared for how long all of this would take to fix. Because I assumed everyone had the same drive, I was impatient to see the job finished. I even quit my job before any plumbing had been completed and set a date for opening the shop a week later.

I didn’t open that day.

2. Activating my network

You might be asking what your budget is. My budget was very small but I wanted to make the most of it. I shamelessly made every connection that I could.

Due to my industry experience, a coffee supplier wasn’t going to be a problem. I also got my bread from the cafe where I worked (the produce guy was my friend). A friend rate is a wonderful benefit for an aspiring cafe owner.

Our branding was handled by a friend for free coffees, a weekly breakfast, and Broadsheet was written for us by a customer.

Although the majority of the furnishings were taken directly from my house, an interior designer was consulted to assist us in arranging them.

The point I’m making is, I used every connection I could, and I’d have done it more had I known how much of an impact it had on my first month.


3. Managing my new workload

Let’s just say that I was a little too strict with my staffing at the beginning.

Although morning trade was good, it dropped after lunch. It definitely didn’t need more than one person to close. The pattern was starting to emerge.

As expected, weekends were very busy. A lot of this was due to the media coverage my cafe received. The funny thing about the press is that once one publication has written about you, all others follow.

That sweet, sweet weekend income was what kept us alive. However, I was exhausted.

Nobody told me that I’d be working, in some capacity, long after the cafe had closed for the day. Perhaps they were right, but I wasn’t awake enough to understand them. Or maybe they did, but I still needed to take a day off.

I’d decided to close on Mondays long before we opened our doors for the first time, a way of forcing myself to take a break. However, Mondays soon became filled with admin tasks.

Payment of invoices and balancing the books. Paying staff. And counting. It was time to make some changes.

Smart would be to step back, now and then, and allow others to do my work.


4. Parting the load

I didn’t delegate.

Not at all. But, it would have been better.

I had a barista who was an actual, gets-paid-to-take-really-good-photos photographer. Why didn’t I give him the logins to our social media?


5. Reduce costs

Additionally, I was still hiring him open til closing, six days a weeks. Although I was a firm believer in giving my employees a decent wage, his 50 hour work week was killing my bottom line.

Talking of hours: I could have cut mine. I didn’t need to stay open past 1:30. I’d already made my money by then, but I insisted on closing at 3, meaning more money leaving my pocket in running costs, with not much more coming in in revenue.


6. Optimizing my menu

My menu should also have been reduced. I decided to bite the bullet, and get rid of any dishes that became too much or that didn’t sell.

I did end up doing this, choosing to go vegetarian, but I always wished I’d done it sooner, even from the very beginning. Not only would it have saved on the cost of ingredients (vegetables are cheaper than meat, and at their lowest price when they’re in season), but it would have given my menu more of an identity. Not to mention guaranteeing an ever-changing offering to reflect fresh produce’s seasonality. My menu was always new, different and fresh. Ahh! The beauty of hindsight.


7. Investing in people who are right for you

To have done more, I would have given my bookkeepers an extra payment. There’s so much more. At first, I was only using them to lodge my quarterly BAS (sidenote – I HATE you BAS), but I was handling everything else. Mondays were used to enter invoices in a bookkeeping software that I don’t know how to properly use.

Looking back, I can’t believe how naive I’d been. I’m no bookkeeper, I can barely count to ten.

Accountant crunching the numbers for a new cafe owner


8. Applying my modifications

These things I was able to do eventually.

The barista I was working with left so I decided to find a substitute for her.

My staff was only rostered for weekends by the end. It did get a bit touch and go during the weekday lunch rush, but I’m still breathing, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

The bookkeepers at my company got a raise. Now, I can relax. My phone was put away, and I just…lived. Although it was an odd experience, I grew to accept the situation.

I was able to change my menu enough to get some additional press. This kept my cafe in the news and in the public’s eye.

To make it easier for myself to be the type of owner/operator to look up to, I set a goal to do this. As a pillar in the community, who encourages and supports others. Every time it got difficult, I’d remember that that was why I was doing this.


Was there anything I learned?

Now, I’m wondering what the lessons have been.

I’ve learned that I should have had a clearer picture of what I wanted the place to be before I opened and that it’s a lot of work (and patience) before you even open your doors.

I would have used my existing network to help me even further. Nearly every key player within the local hospitality industry was in my network. While a post on their Facebook page is not a big deal, it might have helped my cafe reach more people than I could. I was a friend of these people and they were more than willing to assist me.

It would have helped me to use my team more at the beginning, and give them responsibility for some of my tasks. This would not only have made me less tired, but it would also have allowed them to invest in making the cafe a success.

I’ve learned that rostering on a friend for 50 hours per week was probably more to do with hanging out than running a cafe smartly. If you’re reading this, Jos, I miss you.

It’s better to have one definite focus for your menu, rather than try to cater to everybody. You will save money.

It would have been better to budget from the beginning. Hiring professionals to manage your finances can be a wise investment.

And finally, it’s never too late to change. I’d been operating for almost 2 years before I implemented major changes. Although it was difficult for some clients to accept my new changes, I felt a lot more successful.

Hopefully, you’ve taken my advice on board, and you can open your first cafe with some knowledge that I never had, but I wish that I did.


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Cyndy Lane

Cyndy is business journalist with a focus on entrepreneurship and small business. With over a decade of experience covering the startup and small business landscape, Cyndy has a reputation for being a knowledgeable, insightful and approachable journalist. She has a keen understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing small business owners and is able to explain them in a way that is relatable and actionable for her readers.