Could you open your own cafe?



When it comes to career-change fantasies, opening a chi-chi cafe often teeters at the top of the wish-list. Probably because both office slaves and enda-the-maternity-leave mums spend lots of hours and money seeking inspiration at the end of the coffee cup.

But is opening a cafe all drizzle and no lemon cake? Here’s the story, (and some great advice) from a woman who did. Lulu Gwynne, 30, is the owner of the delicious and ultra stylish, Betty Blythe Cafe which opened on Valentines Day 2008, in leafy West London.

Are you a people person?

After a lifetime spent serving customers in other people cafés and restaurants (and completing a Marketing degree), Lulu already knew the answer to this question, but do you? Are you reasonable, pleasant, calm, and positive? Can you maintain a breezy demeanour in the face of the most insufferable customers? It may seem like easy money but if you cannot smile sweetly (whilst mopping on your hands and knees) when a yummy mummy spills her Darjeeling all over your beech floor, you’re in the wrong profession. Lulu sums up her job in a nutshell, “It’s like being at an a very intense all-day social event. Dealing with your customers is something that you will either love or hate, but you’ll still have to do it, either way”.

Be passionate

Cafés are intensely, time consuming. Breakfast, lunch and tea are the busiest times, which means forfeiting yours - and the hours rarely fit in with your own kid's school run. There’s also all the work behind the scenes, if you open at 8am then you’ll probably be there at least half an hour before, setting everything up, plus there's the germ-killing clean, calling your suppliers, and cashing-up at the end of a very long day.

Do your research

We’ve all walked past a romantic boarded up shop and imagined moving in and creating a chic and delightful overnight success, but there may be a reason why it’s boarded up. Things to look at when you’re searching for your dream location are: What’s the footfall (number of people passing by) and are they going to want the kind of business you are planning. It’s important before you leap to spend a lot of time in your prospective location, hang out at different times of the day to get a feel for what when you might get the most business. Take a good long look at your competition and talk to the locals; in business, you really can never do enough homework.

Be realistic and get planning

Unless you're blessed with personal wealth - raising finance is the obvious first step. To even register on your bank manager/potential investor's radar you'll need a water-tight business plan - and that means doing your homework. Things to think about are: number of customers you'll get through the door each day, their spend per head, seasonal fluctuations (for instance, all your yummy mummies will vanish as soon when school breaks up); what are your opening hours and how many staff can you afford to take on (you won't get very far if you work yourself into the ground in the first four weeks). Finally, don’t forget to pay yourself a real wage, this will bump up your costs but apart from being more realistic, you've got to live on something.

Get advice from the experts

Ideally every start-up has a business angel, to provide some essential mentoring - even if it’s your cousin Albie and his ten years experience serving behind a pub bar. Lulu's saviour was her local Business Link Centre who matched her up with an advisor with similar retail experiences. He guided her through some of the questions that she had not already addressed and best of all, it was free. Some of the legal issues you should consider are: Which licence you will need for your premises and which licence will you need for your business (all businesses require different licences depending on how they are categorised); what is the liklihood that you will be granted the licence (all borough's have quotas for the various types of businesses in their area, so you'll need to check they are happy with your plans). These are all questions you should know the answer to before you spend any money, and the best place to start is talking to your local council.

Learn the legal

Although lengthy experience in the catering or retail trade is highly recommended before you plunge into this line of work - you don’t actually need any qualifications to open your own café. But you must comply with the provisions of the Food Safety Act 1990, the Food Safety (General Food Hygiene) Regulations 1995 and the Food Safety (Temperature Control) Regulations 1995. Details from your local council. Also mandatory is a Health and Safety Certificate, easily obtained after completion of a half-day course.

The right rental

Amazingly, Lulu tried to secure four different premises before she eventually found a home for Betty Blythe, “some places seemed as if they had almost been abandoned and often I would be leaving messages for landlords who just never returned my calls”. So, assuming you’ve found someone who’s interested in your proposition, make sure you negotiate on your terms. Lulu points out, “No landlord is going to be interested in a short-term deal, so show them you mean business! This is one of the most important deals you will ever do because, if your rent is too high, then no matter how hard you try, in the end, the numbers will never really add up”. Lulu managed to negotiate a rent-free period during the fitting out of her shop, which was a great strategy. Remember, it’s in your landlord’s interests for your business to be a success so get him or her to work with you, not against you. The council won't be quite so flexible on your rates but, if you can, haggle whenever possible. A good business, in the right location, will attract loyal customers. And if the chemistry is right, your place will be buzzing all day long.

Expect the unexpected

The above is Lulu's motto which means she’s always ready to deal with one of the many small crises that are part of the job. Whether its a faulty till, a late bread delivery, or a spot check from the Council, Lulu says, you’ve got to be ready for anything, “If a fridge breaks down we need to know how to get it fixed or replaced quickly, and we also need to work out where to store the produce in the meantime to ensure none of the stock gets ruined“.

© Copyright MumsRock Ltd 2009

Betty Blythe sells a mouth-watering range of organic produce, very decent coffee, devilish cakes and exceedingly good pies and pastries. For more info go to: www.bettyblythe.co.uk/

We hope Lulu's story has given you 'food for thought' – but do make sure you do your own research before taking the plunge into any new business. Lulu recommends reading: How To Start and Run Your Own Restaurant by Carol Goldsmark (How To Books Ltd)