Sunday, February 16, 2014

Days of Our Work Lives: An unvarnished look at work today: Part II: Susan's Saga. Episode 14: Owning a Cafe

Part II: Susan's Saga  

Episode 14
Owning a Cafe
In the previous episode, Susan and Ben decided to open the Town Hall Meeting Cafe.

And they did. Six months later, it was neither as successful and fun as they had hoped nor as cataclysmic as they had feared.

On the upside, business was decent from Day One and had grown steadily--they were on track to netting $90,000 the first year. 

Not only was the concept of hourly discussions during the day and low-key entertainment at night popular, the weekly guest baker making their signature pastry each week kept things fresh. In fact, the state's leading artisan bakers were lobbying for the opportunity. We all like to be selected. 

And Susan and Ben were glad they had held out for the dream location--where there was lots of foot-traffic and easy parking day and night, just steps from the only supermarket and only movie theater in town. 

And of course they felt good about having built something: They created the cafe, are making hundreds of people happy every week, they created jobs, decent jobs, enabling four other people to make a reasonable living, while being treated as human beings.

But there were downsides. Before opening, they benchmarked against three successful cafes and three that were closing down. A key difference: a beautiful room: lots of expensive wood, wall coverings, lighting, etc., all understated but all costly. So even though they saved a fortune by buying a failing coffee shop and they used friends to help with the build-out, after all the upgrades the city, county, and state required, it cost them $150,000 to open the cafe. Maxing new credit cards was far from enough. They did have to borrow from Susan's parents.

That bothered them far less than the fact that they already had to fire three workers. Although Susan and Ben felt they treated their workers like family, two of them were unreliable. They often called in sick, almost assuredly because of their substance abuse problem. Often, Susan and Ben couldn't find a sub and had to cover for them--nights, weekends. They were working 70 hours most weeks.

Most painful to them was that one worker was stealing from the till---on a regular basis--starting at the very beginning, when everyone knew how scared and struggling Susan and Ben were. It made it hard to still believe what they were taught in the Small Business Administration course: "Treat your workers well and they'll treat you well."

Personally, Ben and Susan were also a mixed bag. Despite the pressures of their business, they nearly always got along, laughing far more than fighting. They both were low-maintenance, rarely in bad moods. And as they had felt from their first meeting, they were simply compatible: everything from their energy level to their intelligence to their quick pace of walking. 

Ben had become great buds with Adam, often going on long hikes with Casanova the dog, searching for "treasure" in the forest. Even more, Adam liked when Ben let him, now 8, help in the cafe. The customers loved it when little Adam would take the tongs that were bigger than him to reach a pastry, put it on the plate, hand it to the customer and say, "That'll be $1.95."  One customer asked Susan, "Aren't you violating child labor laws?" She said, "If there's a law against making my son this happy, I'll break it."

On the downside, Ben's ex-wife Vanessa had now gone to court to get an increase in her alimony, arguing that Ben now was making more money. It weighed on Ben. Another part of the marriage's legacy was that, every Saturday, Ben went to Spokane to see his two-year-old child. If he was really being honest with himself, he did it out of obligation, not love. He and Vanessa broke up while she was pregnant, and it wasn't even Ben's biologically. His sperm wasn't up to the task so Vanessa had gotten pregnant by artificial insemination. In short, Ben had little connection to the two-year-old, biological or environmental. But society says he's the father with all the obligations appertaining thereto, so he trekked every week to Spokane to comply with the court order even though he'd much rather be with Susan, with Adam, and their business.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that while Susan and Ben's sex life was good, it already was declining, and they didn't think it was the pressure of the business and from Vanessa. They felt it just was what happens to most couples after a few months. One night, by the fire, Ben lamented, "I guess the old saw is true. If you put a penny into a jar every time you have sex the first year, and take one out every time you have sex after that, the jar will never empty." 

Susan needed to change the topic. "I'm scared about my talk at Rotary. I know it's only a 2-minute report from the entertainment committee but..."

Ben understood. He used to be afraid to speak up at meetings but having joined Toastmasters and reading articles on public speaking, he was much better. He was tempted to launch into a long lecture but knew that Susan, like most people, get overwhelmed with too much input, so he just said,

"For someone who's scared of speaking, it makes sense to write it all out, read it three times, then reduce it to a few bullet points on one index card. If you try to memorize it, it will unavoidably sound stilted and if you mess up, which almost everyone does when trying to give a talk memorized, you could get thrown off. Second, when you get up there, focus your eyes mainly on one or two people you know like you. You'll feel the love."

"Ben, would you come?"

"Of course, and I'll sit where most right-handed speakers focus their eyes: a few rows back and just to the right of center."

"Thank you."

"Susan, and the most important thing? You needn't be perfect; you need be authentic. So just pretend you're talking to me after we've had a glass of wine. Conversational, relaxed, informal."

"I'll try." Susan said. 

The next and final episode is HERE.

Then I'll start on Part III of Days of our Work Lives:  Adam's Saga.

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