Lessons on opening a café

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From those who’d done it

Thinking of starting your own cosy café? Done right, it can be a very fulfilling experience.

Thinking of starting your own cosy café? Done right, it can be a very fulfilling experience.

Compiled by Sean Yoong

New cafés have opened at a dizzying pace throughout the Klang Valley in recent months, but not all of them thrive. Thinking of starting your own cosy café? Seven owners of well-respected outlets share the essential lessons they’ve picked up.

Lim Cheng Cheng; Swich Café in PublikaSwich Cafe, Publika

Operating a café is a highly competitive business. The most valuable lesson I’ve learnt is to pay attention to the 5 inter-related Ps, which are – be Passionate about selling the right Products in the right Place, at the right Price, with the right Promotion.

The first rule that everyone tells you about is location, location, location! What sells in one place may not sell in another. Our cakes in our first outlet located around office buildings didn’t sell as well as at our outlet in a shopping complex. Once we moved to a shopping complex and focused on cakes, which is what we do best, we tripled our revenue within months.

We need to understand our target market, and create or modify our products according to their demands and sell at the price they’re willing to pay. For food, make sure the cost of ingredients is not more than 30-35% of the selling price, or you won’t be able to cover rent, salaries and other bills. A caveat on cost – pay attention to the wastage level. If you’re throwing too much food away, it’s time to revisit the product and price.

If you’re not passionate about this and don’t love what you do, every problem (and there will be many!) is magnified and will become overwhelming! Also have one or two products that set you apart from the others; that’s your unique selling point. In the age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, that’s the stuff that will generate free advertising for you and create buzz and awareness for your café.

I have found that by paying attention to the 5Ps, the sixth P, Profit, will come!

Lim Yi Perng; Standing Theory in SS2, Petaling Jaya

Standing Theory, SS2

Perhaps the most important aspect of running a café is a fool-proof detailed set of SOPs which cover even minute details. While this is tedious and laborious at the beginning, it will prove indispensable when things get hectic and/or when you have to train new staff. Turning a profit on any F&B outlet is largely dependent on efficiency, and having your team scramble around to figure out how to deal with issues during service is highly inefficient.

Syafiq Zane; FIQ’s Gastronomy in Subang Jaya

We are heading into an era where people increasingly care about their food. We want them to realise that we’re capable of going the distance by creating dishes with different characteristics, so that people will not be bored by ordinary food. Every single ingredient in our meals must carry a unique flavour profile for each dish that we put on the table.

Lee Yew Kheong, The Red Beanbag in Solaris Dutamas

Opening a café is not a one-man show. You need your employees to understand the goals you want to achieve and they will walk alongside you during the journey. Humility is very important because we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the employees. How does it feel like working for 10 hours straight? Are they getting a fair market wage? How’re they being rewarded for their hard work? Working with them and thinking for them will earn their trust and loyalty, something money cannot buy.

Beh Chew Yeng; Thirdwave in Bangsar South

Thirdwave, Bangsar South

Decide on a concept and stick to it. We wanted a café that serves top-flight coffee, so we went to several countries to learn and source the beans to present to our customers. The first batch of beans we served was roasted by Has Bean Roaster UK, which we thought was of brilliant quality. However, the initial feedback was not very motivating. I remember being shouted at by a gentleman in his mid-sixties for serving him a cup of ‘acidic’ coffee.

Nonetheless we decided to stick with our concept. My brothers spent months behind the bar brewing and doing a lot of talking to customers. The results were fruitful and satisfying. Speaking from my experience, I’d suggest never ever underestimate the customer’s acceptance. If you have a great idea/product, think of a way to sell it.

M. Pooi Ling; HotShots Coffee & Tea in Solaris Dutamas

The ONE valuable lesson I’ve learnt about opening/operating a café is – having a team, or rather building a team before venturing into this in the first place.

Jaclyn Ting; Jac’s On The 8th in Ara Damansara

The one lesson that I learnt is there’ll always be something to worry about. There’ll always be an unsolved problem (most of the time, problemS). Focus on what we need to do to solve it. If there’s nothing we can do, leave it to fate to work it out. Be it human resources, suppliers, customers or the landlord, it should not take up so much of our time or mind that we forget to serve our customers to the best of our ability. If I were to focus too much on a problem, I wouldn’t be able to pull a proper shot, froth my milk right or bake my cakes to perfection.

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